Gray Matter

Created by famed game designer and story teller, Jane Jensen, and having been lost in development hell for the last seven years, Gray Matter occupies a similar status within its genre as the long awaited Duke Nukem sequel. Although given that its genre happens to be the cult world of the point and click adventure, the number of people who have been chomping their nails in anticipation is undoubtedly a lot smaller (although we’ve certainly been chomping our nails just as sore). The use of the word ‘cult’ is no accident. Jensen, whose Gabriel Knight trilogy were pioneering point and click adventures for Sierra throughout the ’90s (and can be downloaded along with numerous genre classics from, knows the somewhat insular nature of her genre and its followers well, and it is playfully reflected in her protagonist Samantha Everett, an ex-goth and an aspiring stage magician, who is attempting to gain access to the magic fraternity’s most exclusive bastion, The Daedelis club.

In the opening sequence of the game, Sam’s attempts to reach this secretive London club is scuppered when her bike breaks down in front of a mansion on the outskirts of Oxford. This is the ominous Dread Hill House, family home and former ‘Centre for Cognitive Abnormality Research’ (you’d think the name would give it away) of genius neuro-biologist, David Styles. Styles is a mysterious and charismatic millionaire who has become a cynical recluse and victim of malicious rumours since the death of his beloved wife, Laura, in a horrific car crash three years prior. Sam is an orphan and a drifter, unaccustomed to human contact. In short, they are made for one another.

Masquerading as Styles’ new assistant to get out of the storm, Sam sticks around as she becomes increasingly fascinated by Styles and the mysteries surrounding the experiments he is conducting. These experiments, which form the meat of the game, concern psi theory: the pseudo-scientific study of the hidden powers of the human brain to manipulate reality (according to which, visualising exercise has the same health benefits as actually exercising, so good news for gamers!). Styles is attempting to focus the psychic power of himself and his test subjects in an attempt to bring Laura back from the grave.

Gray Matter is split into eight chapters, each of which consists of a series of puzzle sets, with bonus points scored by performing sometimes quite poignant optional actions, like changing the dead flowers in David’s lab. The game alternates between the player controlling Sam, who jaunts around Oxford recruiting test subjects and investigating strange occurrences, and David, who slouches elegantly about his mansion thinking about Laura and pouring over MRI scans searching for anomalies. By using two protagonists (also recently done in the excellent Lost Horizon and the remake of Broken Sword), Jensen cleverly shifts the player’s perspective of events and sympathies. It’s the kind of device that’s typical of the fragmented narratives of gothic literature such as Frankenstein (the influence of which weighs heavily on the story) and it creates some fine moments of dramatic irony.

In fact, Jensen’s love of literature runs rampant in Gray Matter, from Sam’s stage name ‘Lady Byron’ to the frequent allusions to the Faust legend, including a character called Mephistopheles who runs a magic shop Sam frequents. Lovers of Greek mythology (or anyone who has played the excellent God of War III) will of course be familiar with Daedelis as the father of Icarus and designer of the labyrinth. One of the game’s more elaborate treasure hunts references Alice in Wonderland, whilst a character quotes the poems of Robert Frost. The incredible thing is that despite its myriad of postmodern, intertextual references, the game’s story stands on its own as an utterly compelling yarn and undoubtedly the game’s biggest asset. Jensen manipulates her mature themes of bereavement, isolation, the limits of the mind and the occult like a master stage illusionist, weaving a multi-layered narrative of surprising depth, which is aided by some excellent voice acting, particularly the British stage actor, Steven Pacey, who plays David Styles.

Gameplay is somewhat less innovative than its narrative, however, and relies heavily on tried and tested point and click techniques. The Xbox control interface attempts to reconcile some of the typical problems suffered by the genre on console by using an attractive and functional, if somewhat clunky, contextual wheel, which points to various interactive spots around the screen. In spite of this there are a few instances of frustratingly obscured event triggers (some kind of subtle prompting system wouldn’t have gone amiss) and unclear explanations, but on the whole the puzzles are quite satisfying and occasionally ingenious. Keeping with its theme of magic, Sam can also use a magic book to perform specific tricks tailored to a situation, a clever system that avoids the usual distraction clichés that dog the genre.

The game doesn’t have a huge amount of environments, but each one is beautifully crafted in an ever so slightly painterly realism, very close in style and atmosphere to the excellent horror adventure Black Mirror II, which was released last year. The game is let down somewhat by some fairly crudely stylised cut-scenes, which simulate semi-animated oil paintings; which is a shame as some of the  promotional stills hint at how good they could have been. Given its tortuous production history and specialist interest it’s peculiar that it’s been given a risky boxed release on Xbox, a console with virtually no other examples of the genre, rather than a safe XBLA download. Here’s hoping it finds an audience as a promise of a sequel hangs on its success and seven years is too long to wait for another Jane Jensen adventure.







2 responses to “Gray Matter”

  1. Lauren avatar

    Nice review Dean. I played the demo and I do love point and click games, so this will be another game in Feb for me I thinks.

  2. Dean avatar

    Thanks Lauren. You should definitely check out is you’re a fan of the genre. Lots of goodness there.

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