"Hazelnut," I hear someone ask, "why is it that there's no old school styley pointy-clicky graphic adventures about any more that are any good or crafted with the same level of care and consideration as, say, Grim Fandango or Broken Sword or Monkey Island any more? Where are all the old Sierra style adventure games?"
To which I reply, "Well, how about Gray Matter?"
Released in February 2011 for PC and Xbox 360 and designed by Jane Jensen and Robert Holmes, who were responsible for the Gabriel Knight series, Gray Matter is such a title, and although it's not up to the level of some of the classics during the genre's golden age of the 1990s, it's still thumpingly good. This writeup, incidentally, refers to the PC version, because I. I don't have an Xbox 360, and II. the Xbox 360 version got slammed and I can't say I'm surprised because, well, you try pointing and clicking effectively with a control pad. And in general, adventure games have usually been a bit hopeless on any consoles. But I digress.
In Gray Matter, the protagonist, an aspiring 23-year-old stage magician from Washington DC named Sam Everett is doing the whole touring-Europe-trying-to-find-herself thing and gain admission to the "Daedalus Club" (sort of like the Masons for stage magicians) when her motorbike decisively dies on a very dark, very stormy night somewhere in southern England. She then notices a large and ominous looking manor house in the rain and takes shelter there. Upon waking, she finds that she's inadvertantly signed up to be the laboratory assistant of a Dr David Styles, inhabitant of said mansion, Oxford don and irascible neuroscientist investigating psychic and paranormal phenomena who's never actually got over the death of his wife in a car crash 3 years beforehand, and who's performing some sort of experiments in his basement
Sam them finds herself charging round Oxford trying both to gain entry to the Daedalus Club and also investigating paranormal phenomena that seem oddly linked to Dr Styles' experiments. Needless to say, the two are very much linked. You, the player, predominantly are Sam but for 3 of the 8 chapters you switch perspective to Dr Styles.
Well, first things first, the scenery. Christing hell, Gray Matter looks beautiful and has really quite low system requirements - you can run it on a 1.5 GHz Pentium 4, most likely. In fact, you could probably play it on a PC from nine or ten years ago. This is because all the backgrounds are pre-rendered and the only real-time 3D bits are the characters. As a result, even at low detail, Gray Matter looks lovely. Most of the locations have a slightly burnt golden tint to them, especially out of doors, which in a way plays up the idea of Oxford as being all the dreaming spires and suchlike. Whereas in Dr Styles' basement everything is harsh and grey and functional, eye-burning strip lighting and cast iron grates. And near the end, when one finally arrives at the Daedalus Club itself (according to the bit where Sam plots its location on a London street map, it's apparently atop the real life location of King's College, London, my alma mater) everything is colourful and gaudy yet somehow strangely creepy, and the existence of a room with handcuffs, an iron maiden, and the box used for sawing a woman in half only adds to the mood whiplash.
Then again, one thing that I do have to fault it over is that although they used real-life areas round Oxford (including Carfax Tower, Christ Church College, and the Bodleian Library), all of which are pretty accurate, the whole "dreaming spires" look does mean that it is somewhat flanderised, much like how Gabriel Knight flanderised New Orleans despite featuring landmarks from round that municipality. There's also a serious lack of interactivity in the areas which can make some places look and feel sterile.
Anyhow, moving on. The storyline is seriously good. An unusual inversion is that although Sam is a stage magician and her imagery and visual style tends to be organic and warm and slightly mysterious, she is coldly rational about things, assuming that there must be a logical explanation for the various paranormal events occurring round Oxford, possibly involving a professional magician of some description, much like how the woman being sawn in half's box has a false bottom. While Dr Styles, appearing sterile and sharp and severe and cold, believes that there really is something paranormal and supernatural going on. As it turns out (MINOR SPOILER) they're both right, but not how either expects, and the scene where the inevitable mole in the house is revealed has such an impact when you realise that every single paranormal event was a clue to who the mole was, but you thought nothing of it most likely. It also doesn't help that (MEDIUM SIZED SPOILER) the fact that it's considered bad form for stage magicians to claim they really are magical or psychic turns out to be the misdirect that the perpetrator was using...
To be fair, I wasn't all that enamoured with Sam as a character at first as she came over as a bit bland and more than a little objectionable and willing to use her skills at stage magic (you get to do this in the game) to bluff and blag and con her way into various things and at one point even resorting to phone hacking. Dr Styles is far more developed as a character in my view; despite having lost his wife in a car accident and, in his first scene, every last hot spot causes him to miss her, he never appears wangsty or emo. I rather suspect that when the designers first came up with the rough plot, they intended Dr Styles to be the protagonist all the way through until it was pointed out to them that "reclusive borderline mad scientist who rarely leaves the house" wouldn't make a particularly adventurous protagonist. However, later on, the two protagonists do grow on you quite a lot and the game keeps you guessing as to exactly who's responsible until the very end, and even then their motivation is only revealed in the absolutely last scene - (RATHER BIG SPOILERS) upon where Dr Styles then realises that person also killed his wife.
The reason why Gray Matter works as a whole, though, is that there are three things that graphic adventures do really, really, well. One is humour (Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry, Normality). Another is horror (Alone in the Dark, The 7th Guest, Waxworks, Chzo Mythos). The third, into which it robustly falls, is mystery. It manages to have tension mounting all the way throughout despite the fact that there are almost no action sequences within the game at all. People who remember the bad old days of dying because you wandered under a chandelier that only appeared loose the instant you so did (not mentioning names, but Laura Bow should be embarrassed here), or not picking up the bridle on the one occasion you get to the area where it is and which is completely invisible (King's Quest IV), or not throwing the can of spinach overboard (Leisure Suit Larry II - are we noticing a pattern here?) will be pleased to know that Gray Matter is deathless and has no unwinnable bits, even by mistake. That's not to say it isn't without its frustrations. Certain events in the game are not triggered until you've got every point leading up to that event, and certain points can be easily missed such as, for instance, by not looking in someone's drawers, or by not looking at a plaque. The last lousy point in Chapter VI is one that has specific teeth-gnashing involved as it's so easy to miss something in one of the students' rooms and end up flailing round for hours trying to think of exactly what you didn't look at.
There aren't any really annoying puzzles other than that. That, and possibly the MRI record trawl, which is slightly dodgily built in that it relies on you, the player, knowing something that you find out in a chapter where you're Sam but which you need to rely on when playing as David Styles. If anything most of them are a bit easy.
One other thing that bears mention is the music. Robert Holmes is in a band called the Scarlet Furies with his daughter, Raleigh, and naturally, one of their songs ("Never Going Back") is the theme for Gray Matter. The rest of it is very lonely sounding piano and acoustic guitar stuff that fits in with the feel of the game nicely, although the Daedalus Club theme does have undertones of Gabriel Knight's music about it (also by Robert Holmes) though without the belt-hitchingness. Another Scarlet Furies song, "Safe in Arms," is name-dropped and featured in the game.
That's about it really. I do hope there is a sequel, because there are several threads left hanging loose. Firstly, that Dr Styles may well be a member of the Daedalus Club or affiliated thereto somehow himself as when he goes to find Sam at it at the end of Chapter VII the doorman clearly knows him on sight. Furthermore, there's the issue of the magic shop owner Mephistopheles and what he's up to, not to mention the fact that (MORE SPOILERS) there is actually haunting going on, and not to mention that right at the end, after the credits, a cut-scene of a Daedalus Club riddle named "The Bride of Frankenstein" is seen in the gutter on the road where Sam first broke down.
In all, I'd rate Gray Matter fairly highly. While it's no Gabriel Knight, and certainly no Beneath a Steel Sky or The Longest Journey, it's certainly worth checking out. If you must, you can get it off Amazon for about twenty pounds. I did.