We were swept away by this lovely adventure's depth and characterisation in a plot that skilfully weaves its way along the boundary between illusion and the paranormal.
Point and click adventure games have seen a resurgence over the last couple of years, but we’ve not seen many with serious themes; we blame Guybrush Threepwood. Gray Matter is the long-awaited new game by Jane Jensen, author of Sierra’s legendary Gabriel Knight series. Although the game doesn’t involve as much gruesome death, it has an aura of dark mystery that’s characteristic of Jensen’s writing.
Gray Matter is set among the dreaming spires of Oxford. When American street magician Samantha Everett’s motorbike breaks down in the middle of the night, she stumbles into becoming the research assistant of reclusive neurobiologist Dr. David Styles. As Styles’ research continues, Sam discovers strange phenomena that seem linked to his experiments, and learns about the tragic events that claimed the life of Styles’ wife and left his face permanently scarred. Meanwhile, Samantha must pursue her own goal to become a member of an exclusive society of stage magicians known as The Daedalus Club.
You’ll play as both Sam and David as their stories are expertly woven into a tale of magic, mystery and the supernatural. Both they and their supporting cast of NPCs are brilliantly characterised and competently acted by the game’s British voice talent. Despite being written by an American, the game’s portrayal of the UK is surprisingly detailed, down to the existence of Mivvi ice lollies. The soundtrack is also compelling, with haunting piano refrains and some well-chosen guest tracks from alt-folk band The Scarlet Furies.
Graphically, the game is a little more variable. The 3D environments are lovingly rendered, while character models look human and move realistically. However, the disembodied faces that appear next to the conversation text boxes at the bottom of the screen look rather stiff and ugly. Cut-scenes use an entirely different art style, with slideshows of hand-painted images. While we liked the effect, the quality of the artwork was inconsistent.
Gray Matter is beautifully paced. Its puzzles dove-tail seamlessly into the unfolding plot, as every solution brings new insight into the events surrounding the game. We particularly liked a series of puzzles that called on Sam to use her conjuring skills. A sleight-of-hand interface lets her use magic to get useful items, rig events in her favour, or simply impress her marks. Meanwhile, Styles’ research has him searching for objects and places to help him recall memories of his dead wife, as well as setting up scientific apparatus and analysing results. The game kept us busy for around thirteen hours, and at no point did it seem frustrating. Even when we were stumped by a puzzle, there were other threads to pursue.
Gray Matter isn’t entirely without humour, but its style is very different to the broad slapstick of Monkey Island or Sam and Max games. We were entranced by the game’s depth and complexity; it’s obvious that a great deal of research was involved, but it’s the quality of the writing that really stands out. This is easily one of the best adventure games we’ve played in the last couple of years.