GRAY MATTER: First Review by Canard PC on 10/15/2010
Translation from French by Krss.
Original French article in Canard PC: page1 page2
I think, therefore I click
There are trends in video games. For example, for a few years now, the traditional loading progress bars have been replaced by small circles that spin the way circles know so well how to. Is it the triumph of a Buddhist view of computers, which sees drive access as a cyclical phenomenon? Is it a polite way for the developers to tell us we haven't finished waiting for the game to start? Probably.
Besides, to help us waiting, they now systematically include small "tips" in the loading screens. Small gems like "Press the 'attack' button to attack." Brilliant! And so, during the first loading screen for Gray Matter, a tip showed up: "The first studies connecting the mind with the morphology of the brain were performed in 1861." That's when I immediately knew that I was in front of a different game. Because Gray Matter is an author's game. Not one of those arrogant authors who write their name in large letters followed by a pedantic possessive, like "Peter Molyneux's" or "American McGee's", no. A talented, discreet author, an honest craftsman who does what he knows, and does it well. Hidden behind Gray Matter is Jane Jensen, brilliant video game creator to whom we notably owe the Gabriel Knights, legendary point&clicks from the 90s mixing esoterical elements with police investigation. These themes return in Gray Matter, spiced with a pinch of philosophical reflection for taste. What? In a video game? That's a reason to be afraid indeed. The souffle risks letting out the rancid smell of self-importance, or falling flat. And yet...
Adrenalin. "Adrenalin is a hormone from the family of catecholamines. It is secreted in response to a stressful situation, leading to an acceleration of the cardiac rhythm and a dilation of the bronchial tubes. It responds to a need for energy, for example to face a dangerous situation."
Hunger, cold, everything that threatens our survival, push us to take quick, careless decisions. That's how Samantha found herself Dr. Styles' assistant. Penniless, young street magician gone to London to learn more about the Daedalus, a magicians order with a pronounced taste for discretion, she sees her trip suddenly interrupted in the Oxford countryside by a motorcycle flat tire. Desperate, she decides to enter the first house she finds, where she is received with open arms. When she wakes up the next morning, she discovers that she spent the night in Dr. Styles' "Center for Cognitive Abnormality Research" and that, even if the center hasn't received patients for a long time, the neurologist keeps working on his experiments. In exchange for a salary she can't refuse, plus food and shelter, she is assigned her first task: go to the local campus to try and find a few young people crazy enough to participate in one of his experiments. Of course, all the local students run away as soon as Sam brings up Styles' name, and the heroin, who quickly shows herself machiavellic enough, decides to try her chances with the first-year students, poor lambs who should be oblivious enough to be fooled.
Norepinephrine. "Norepinephrine is a neuromediator that plays the role of adrenergic hormone. It is mainly secreted by the nervous fibers of the orthosympathic nervous system and functions as a neurotransmitter at the level of effector organs."
Samantha is as manipulative and witty as she is nimble with her fingers, which comes in handy to someone who wants to be a magician. On several occasions through the adventure, the player will have to use magic tricks to make progress. Whether you need to misdirect the attention of a troublemaker, or to steal an object, you can be certain that the little book Sam carries with her contains a useful recipe for the current situation. When an object or a character requires a little sleight of hand, the cursor changes, inviting the player to choose the adequate trick. A series of steps must then be followed (sliding the object up her left sleeve, transferring it to her right hand...) within a special interface. Most of the time, the actions to do are very simple, but the magic system is well put together and is a welcome change from the never-ending object combinations point&clicks have accustomed us to. So Samantha is crafty and manipulative, and when, soon enough, Dr. Styles takes a bigger role in the story, even being at some points controllable by the player, the similarity between the two protagonists will be evident. Both of them have a goal, an obsessive quest. She searches for Daedalus, he desperately tries to contact his cruelly departed wife. But he has tipped over into madness, ready to do anything just to regain his lost paradise for a moment. And, following a professional bias that we can imagine among neurologists, he ends up believing that solipsists could have been right, that reality is nothing more than what the mind makes of it, and that it could be sculpted.
Dopamine. "Dopamine is a neurotransmitter from the family of catecholamines and thus secreted by the tyrosine aminoacid. It was noticed that an increase in the concentration of the melanine neuro-receptors in the animal brain was coupled with an increase in its curiosity."
Of course, for someone who wants to nitpick, not everything is perfect in Gray Matter. Despite a scenario of a rare intelligence and a hardboiled execution, the game suffers from a few problems. The graphics are luxurious, certainly, but the animations are at times rigid, fragmented, not lively enough. The player has to deal with a few unclear puzzles and a few situations that require examination of the slightest objects in the environment before being able to progress in the adventure; we'd have preferred a less constraining way to encourage the player to be an observer. The loading screens that systematically appear at each change of scene become tiring. But, finally, it's most regretful that a game showing such intellectual ambition, searching to delve into complex subjects without falling into pedantry, is confined to such a classical format. Gray Matter is a brilliant point&click, one of the best in recent years, but one that remains traditional, despite a few original ideas. However, video games are not art, and if we can only criticize the format of an otherwise impeccable title, in the end that means we don't have much to reproach.
- Louis-Ferdinand Sebum
Our opinion: Constantly intelligent without making a show of its intelligence, brilliantly written without being verbose, technically flawless, avoiding the abominable pitfall of the "tricky enigma" typical of the genre, Gray Matter represents the return of the ambitious adventure game, the one that gives food for thought while entertaining you. It certainly reminds us of the Gabriel Knights, but we could also think of Shadow of the Comet or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. With a bit more daring format and without a few shortfalls, it would have been perfect. Score: 8/10.