Back in the 1990s, adventure gaming ruled supreme in the PC world. One of the publishers on top of that illustrious heap was Sierra, who gave us such gems as King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry.* Sierra also introduced the writer Jane Jensen, who worked on many of Sierra’s top titles, and later went on to design the Gabriel Knight series. For some of you, bells may be ringing now, but if you haven’t heard of the series, they followed the adventures of the eponymous hero as he delved into mysteries involving such dark fantasy goodness as voodoo, werewolves, and the Templars; players loved them for their bizarre subject matter, as well as their great stories and character development.
Some ten years later, the next Jane Jensen adventure game has just been released, and while Gray Matter’s themes aren’t as outright fantastical as those of Gabriel Knight, the experience of playing this new title is just as atmospheric and intriguing.
The heroine of the piece is Sam Everett, an American street magician, who takes a wrong turn on her motorbike and breaks down outside an eerie manor house near Oxford. The manor house belongs to a Doctor Styles, an enigmatic neurobiologist, and through a convenient bluff, Sam secures a bed for the night by pretending to be Dr. Styles’ new assistant. Dr. Styles is a recluse, estranged from the university, and people in general, after the mysterious and traumatic death of his wife which he’s never been able to recover from. After a good night’s sleep Sam decides to stick around to earn enough money to fix her motorbike – and so she begins her tentative steps into the adventure.
The game is structured in eight chapters, in which you’ll alternate between Sam and Dr. Styles, and follow them as they both pursue their different threads to the story. While Sam is interested in learning more about Dr. Styles, his past, and his research into ‘cognitive abnormality’, her own driving passion is to try and gain entrance to the Daedalus club, an exclusive group for magicians. In order to become a member, magicians are expected to complete a ‘grand game’, or ultimate magic trick, and while Sam ponders how she could best gain entry, a series of strange events begin to occur throughout Oxford. Dr. Styles, on the other hand, is obsessed with the death of his wife, and his own experiments into parapsychology. It is up to you, playing as both Sam and Dr. Styles, to piece together the puzzle of how these seemingly disparate threads all tie together.
It’s a clever premise, and for the most part it works really well. And while the puzzles in Gray Matter are straightforward, and fairly standard fare for seasoned adventure gamers, the inclusion of Sam’s magic skills as a way to solve problems adds something new to the standard odd-object-combination strategy that drives most adventure games. An initial flick through her trusty magic book shows step by step instructions for various tricks – and working these out, step by step, with the objects and people Sam comes across, is a genuinely fun experience.
In terms of look and feel, Gray Matter had a bit of push and pull for me. I found the use of 3D characters on top of a 2D background a bit odd at first, but at the same time I have to admit it certainly gave the game a greater sense of movement and flow. In addition, the artwork is so gorgeous and moody, and storyline so intriguing, you’ll forget you’re playing a “point and click adventure” as you get more involved in the mysteries around you.
OK, there are a few downsides – and in many ways these are faults of the genre, rather than this title – most significant being the frustration you inevitably get when you can’t figure out what the last bit is that you need to do before you can move on to the next chapter. A hints function of some kind could have been handy (but I guess that’s what GameFAQs is for).
And sure, there’s the odd bit of cliché - Dr. Styles is kind of obvious with his Lord Byron meets Phantom of the Opera clothes and demeanour – but Gray Matter also packs a lot of humour (and great voice acting). As an English Lit graduate myself, I particularly enjoyed the way Sam used the excuse “I’m studying English Lit” as a way to excuse her ignorance of the finer points of parapsychology and cognitive abnormality research.
I still find it refreshing that in a time where so many games assume the “more is more” addage, there are still a lot of thoughtful games out there that take their time to build atmosphere and story, and give players a bit of pondering time, rather than relying on reflexes (or frequent use of the autosave function). Gray Matter is definitely one of these games, and it’s sure to please Gabriel Knight fans as well as those who have yet to give classic adventure gaming a crack.
* Gamers who never got around to playing these awesome adventure games back in the day can check a handful of them out at sarien.net, who publish web-friendly versions of the classic titles, with the blessing of Activision.