GRAY MATTER: Games Convention preview from
Translation courtesy of r and Krss.

Alas, it seems to be the rule that none of the noteworthy and hopeful titles in the adventure genre has an easy delivery. The Vampyre Story survived only thanks to the dedication and private savings of Bill Tiller, and Jane Jensen's Gray Matter was in a similar situation. During the hiatus following her forced farewell to Sierra (Gabriel Knight series), Jane Jensen worked on a game concept for the American The Adventure Company - the leader on the adventure game market at the time - but it never got further than concept. The revival of the project, much to our surprise, at the Games convention last year is owed to the German dtp, who showed the first playable version of this awaited game on this year's exhibition.  

"The storyline is centered around two main characters, one of whom is Samantha Everett, a street magician," Claas Wolter, PR manager of dtp, said at the start of the press conference presentation. "The American Samantha embarks on a journey through Europe, to visit various interesting sights and earn a few bucks with her tricks. One evening in Oxford when she is passing the Dread Hill House manor, her old motorbike breaks down and Samantha needs a place to stay for the night. So she walks to the house on a nearby hill and rings the bell. The maid, who answers the door, mistakes her for the new assistant to the owner of the estate, due to arrive that day. Desperate Sam, in need of a shelter, decides to play the role, but when she wakes up the next day she realizes what she's done, and fearing the consequences decides to leave the house asap."  

Claas presented a short demo of the game from its beginning, when Samantha awakes in the visitor's bedroom in Dread Hill House. Keeping in mind the inexperienced player, the intro to the game is a form of tutorial, explaining the -for the seasoned adventure gamer- notorious point-and-click interface. So, just briefly: when placing the cursor on an object, a text command appears, e.g. "Look" or "Pick up", hinting at actions that can be performed. Alas, it never says on the screen what the object in question is, so the player is at first sometimes confused what he's interacting with. The inventory is hidden in the black space at the upper margin of the screen, and upon a click the selected object appears in a square in the upper left corner of the screen, signaling it's ready to be used. The texts, which will of course be dubbed in the final version of the game, appear in the black space at the lower margin. Simply - nothing new under the sun. We have to say: thank god.  

Samantha's first task is childishly simple: as the text window of the tutorial informs us, we have to find Samantha's bunny Houdini, whom we have to feed and water. All has to be accomplished in a single room that can't be at the time left. So we take Houdini from the corner, where he's munching on a plant, and place him in his cage. Then we search Samantha's backpack on the floor by the bed and acquire an assortment of useful objects - playing cards, books on magic, purse, matches, pocket knife, carrot and a small flask. The latter we fill with water from the tap by the bed and together with the carrot we make Houdini the happiest critter in the world. Task accomplished - Samantha can finally leave her room and explore the old house, looking for a map or a bus timetable at least, since she has no idea where exactly she is and which way she should go.  

Exploring the interior -the huge entrance hall with a staircase, the study and dining-room- we can observe the remarkable graphical style of the game, which takes us down the adventure game memory lane. The graphics look honest to god hand painted. We could argue at length though how the sharply polygonal Samantha fits into all that. Locations are side-scrolling and alive with various animations, the branches of the trees move, clouds float on the sky and a flock of birds flies above Dread Hill House. Considering the 2D nature of the game with many features yet incomplete, it's quite a feat. It's not missing detailed views of important actions, like picking up Houdini or exploring a painting of an elderly woman, either.

In addition, a piano track plays during the exploration of the above mentioned painting, in which the player instantly recognizes the style of Robert Holmes, Jane Jensen's husband, who composed the soundtrack for the Gabriel Knight trilogy. It seems we'll hear his atmospheric work in Gray Matter as well.  

But back to the story after Samantha leaves her room. "Exploring the interiors of the house, she finds out that the owner is a certain Dr. David Styles, neurobiologist from the Oxford University, who becomes another playable character during the course of the game," continues Claas. "When she descends the staircase into the entrance hall, she notices an envelope on the door, addressed to the new assistant. She refuses to take it at first, but when she later decides to take the job, since the real assistant doesn't arrive at all, from Styles' letter she learns about her first task: to find 6 volunteers from among university students for the doctor's experiment." Which won't be easy at all, considering the bad name Styles has in campus after the death of his wife.  

Jane Jensen is back on the scene, at least as far as storylines go. The game is not bad technologically either, in spite of the fact that it's being developed by a new, completely inexperienced team. Yes, under the lead of an experienced American designer, graphic artists and programmers can do miracles.