Released late 2010 or early 2011, depending on your location, Gray Matter is Jane Jensen‘s story about an amateur magician who bluffs her way into Dread Hill manor house. Jensen is infamous as the creator of the well-loved series Gabriel Knight, a writer on Police Quest III, the co-designer and co-writer of King‘ s Quest VI, and more recently story consultant on Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, as well as all-round creator of Moebius: Empire Rising. Her legacy and ability shines throughout in the excellent story. When the game was launched, Carla LeGall of GameBoomers was invited to the press presentation of Gray Matter at Weston Manor in the Oxfordshire village, Weston-on-the-Green. Funnily enough, a previous owner of the manor, Sir Henry Norris, is a key character in the prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, which I began reading last week (Wolf Hall was televised early this year). It must have escaped Carla LeGall’s attention that Weston Manor may well have been the archetype for Dread Hill.
The game commences with Samantha Everett being flung off her motorbike. To avoid bedding in the undergrowth in the teeming rain she makes for Dread Hill, then watches as someone else arrives at the manor house for the first time. After knocking at the door, the girl then flees for no clearly discernible reason. Having nowhere else to sleep, Samantha decides to impersonate her. Cementing her identity as the new employee the house requested, and with nothing else better to do, Sam slowly but surely recruits a few guinea pigs for the owner, Dr. Style’s experiment, gaining a sort-of social circle into the bargain. Sam’s lying and bluffing can verge on the immoral, though it is all for a better cause… Although of course, at this stage of the game, she does not know what the better cause is, and just appears adamant on discovering more about the mysterious Dr. Styles.
After leaving the house, you soon experience sites from real Oxford, such as Carfax Tower. In fact the telephone box adjacent to the tower exists in real life, and is a grade II-listed building! The famous Bodleian Library, St.Edmund’s Hall, and even the Horspath athletics track all really exist. One highlight for Harry Potter fans is the Christ Church dining hall, which was the Hogwarts dining hall, though this wasn’t actually filmed, but only recreated in the film studios. Double-clicking to run about seems a staple of gaming nowadays, and you’ll find yourself making more and more use of this feature as the game goes on, as you assist Dr. Styles in his experiments, while making handy use of the in-game map (shortcut ´M´ key).
Story and dialogue is beautiful, and as Hardcore Gaming 101 wisely point out in their review of the game, it trumps the one-liner gags of comedic adventures such as Monkey Island, and feels much more like real humour. The character and voice acting is nicely done. Phillipa Alexander as Samantha Everett has just a tinge of sarcasm and humour, in contrast to games like Broken Sword where it sometimes goes too far. You might have also encountered Phillipa in Mirror’s Edge; she is rumoured to be replaying the role of Kate Connors in the sequel, to be released in 2016. Steven Pacey, as the unpleasant but misunderstood Dr. Styles, is also a neat foil for Sam, with his cutting ripostes to Sam’s perky optimism. For those sci-fi buffs who can remember that far back, Pacey was one of the crew members of the TV seriesBlakes 7, Del Tarrant.
Styles is engaging in parapsychological experiments, and at first, it is not clear what his motives are. Then, more and more strange events begin to happen. Is it Styles who is behind these occurences? Sam and Dr. Styles have different opinions as to the source of the strange events following the experiments, and though it is jarring at first to switch characters after playing for quite a while as Sam Everett, this actually adds to the mystery of it all, as there is no clear authorial viewpoint as to what is going on. Sam’s original intention was to find the Daedalus Club, however. Here I found my first real bugbear, as I thought finding the Daedalus Club logo seemed an unnecessary arbitrary puzzle, and could be a game-killer early in the game. At least to those like me, who like to avoid walkthroughs at all costs. It also irked me a little that it was pronounced Dee-dalus throughout, though it is a legitimate pronunciation.
Actress Lorelei King was voice director, and her feedback must have tightened the dialogue even further. Adrienne Posta as Mrs. Dalton has a great rustic accent, and even she has a film history – she was one of the schoolgirls in the ’60s film To Sir, With Love. The voice actor who plays Malik (Sacha Dhawan) is also Gryff Whitehill in Telltale’s Game of Thrones adventure game. You can visually see him as Naveed Shabazz in the most recent series of 24 (2014). Incidentally, Naveed’s mother in the series is actress Michelle Fairley, who played the role of Catelyn Stark (more Game of Thrones trivia).
Being a magician, as well as having a conventional inventory Sam devises magic tricks via use of a specialised screen where you organise your magic. At first I had breathtaking admiration for this invention, but unfortunately the feature was underused, as it is is largely the case of copying instructions directly from your magic instruction book (also in your inventory). It’s a shame that the magic tricks were isolated in this way from the main action, as I would have preferred it if you had to manually work out the puzzle in the environment, though of course this would have made the game much more difficult. The cursor also turns into a top hat when you can perform a magic trick, so the time to perform magic tricks is obvious, rather than allowing more user forethought. Like Hardcore Gaming, I wished that they had allowed the player to indulge in more adaptive thinking. You do have to find the correct items as well though, which means it is no pushover. Right-mouse clicking places items in your hand, which you can then use on other items, although this process is not completely intuitive. You can also check your progress from the menu, which lets you know what percentage of tasks you have fulfilled. At times it feels like almost bordering on cheating, but this often becomes necessary, as sometimes all you need to do is accomplish some triviality to complete a chapter, and trigger a cut-scene. Pressing space bar to locate screen hot spots is also possible, though I would avoid it unless absolutely necessary. A notebook documents all dialogue lines, which I kinda liked in preference to a diary.
Some minor irritations are completing puzzles such as rebus puzzles (where pictures represent words). The puzzles themselves are great, but until you manually do other tasks you cannot cash in on your solution. At one point you have to work out which type of wine Laura was drinking, but as a puzzle it makes little sense, as it is just trial and error – there should have been some clue around the mansion as to which particular wine to choose.I was also thankful that the tutorial with Sam’s pet rabbit was not too artificial, as tutorials usually grate on me. Some people though have wondered how she manged to transport that rabbit around on just a motorbike?
Where the game descends into its lowest point is where you are looking for the identity of a person, and you have to manually cross the other names out to progress, rather than just crossing the names out mentally. There are other points in the game where this mechanic occurs. You have basically solved the problem, but don’t realise it, and are wandering aimlessly until you realise it was just a game mechanics issue. Apparently controls are awkward on consoles as well, though I only played the PC version. One peculiarity is that the US box art was amended to show less of Sam’s cleavage, which seems like over-the-top censorship, though actually my preference is the more subtle image.
Visually the game is stunningly beautiful. Development teams switched during production, from Tonuzaba to Wizarbox, and Wizarbox’s visuals advance on Tonuzaba’s without the unnecessariness of 3D. Jensen’s husband Robert Holmes also provides a decent melancholic soundtrack, with three major themes produced by his band, The Scarlet Furies.
One review website, the A.V. Club, called it the best adventure in a decade. To date, it’ s my girlfriend’ s favourite adventure game, and that includes such classics as The Secret of Monkey Island and Simon the Sorcerer, so that’ s saying something. For me, it certainly ranks amongst the best games ever.