Gray Matter

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 29 November 2010. Last updated on 10 March 2011.
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Gray Matter
Sam is a headstrong young woman who finds herself at a crossroad, literally and figuratively.
Gray Matter
Sam desperately tries to recruit Angela to be a subject of a neurobiology experiment.
Gray Matter
David may be wearing a mask to cover the burn scars on his face, but he is hiding more than just physical disfigurement behind the mask.
Gray Matter
Are the strange accidents at the campus caused by psychic energy from a powerful mind?
Gray Matter
The Daedalus Club is as mysterious as it is elusive.

The game is available at Gamesplanet (Germany). The German language release includes full English localization (English speech and subtitling).

Gray Matter: Collector's Edition

The Collector's Edition includes as bonus a soundtrack CD, a deck of playing cards, a double sided poster, and 5 postcards featuring exclusive artwork from the game, all packaged in a decorative metallic box. The game is otherwise identical.

It is not an exaggeration to call Gray Matter one of the most anticipated adventure games in history. Created by veteran designer Jane Jensen, the game has had a turbulent development history since its first announcement in 2003. Initially dubbed Project Jane-J, the game has suffered numerous unforeseen delays, including a change in both the developer and the publisher. In fact, Gray Matter is the first bona fide adventure game from Jensen for over a decade. With the continual downturn in the commercial market for adventure games, many fans worry that budget and resource constraints on the game's development may prevent Jensen's original vision of it from ever being fully realized. Having now played the game, however, I am pleased to say that such misgiving is largely ill founded. Gray Matter is truly a masterpiece of fiction writing and adventure gaming—a must play for all fans of Jensen and all lovers of adventure games.

Samantha (or Sam, as she prefers to be called) Everett is a street performer and a young but headstrong woman who arrives in England from America in search of the Daedalus Club, a secretive society of magicians and illusionists of which Sam aspires to become a member. During a stormy night, Sam takes shelter at the Dread Hill House, estate of the brilliant but reclusive neurobiologist Dr. David Styles. Realizing that she is too broke to continue her travel, Sam decides to stay behind under false pretense to work for David as his newly appointed lab assistant, running personal errands for him and recruiting subjects for his experiments which he conducts at home in his basement laboratory (a laboratory that is equipped with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine—he is just that rich). Little does Sam know about these experiments, except that they deal with cognitive visualization used to study the interplay between the mind and the body. These experiments are supposedly harmless—until Sam discovers that they may be linked to a string of mysterious accidents occurring at the university campus. Initially, Sam believes that these accidents are mere pranks perpetrated by David's rivals who are jealous of his career. She decides to investigate on her own to try to identify the perpetrator, but instead she finds evidence that these events may be truly supernatural in origin. On the other hand, David cares little at first of these accidents and only wants to continue his psi experiments in private so that he may reconstruct his memories of his wife Laura, whose death from an unexplained car accident years ago has left David both emotionally and physically scarred. Yet, when David learns of Sam's true identity, he mistakenly believes that she is the perpetrator who is trying to destroy his experiments. In the end, both Sam and David realize that neither of them is right, as they discover together that the true power of the mind may be beyond what they can ever comprehend...

By far, Gray Matter's greatest strength is its story. Jensen has again proven herself to be a master storyteller, able to seamlessly blur the lines between history and fantasy. This in turn lends authenticity to her writing, particularly on subject matters related to science. It is clear that Jensen has done a lot of background research in the areas of neurobiology and neuropsychology and draws her inspiration from such writings by experts like Oliver Sacks and Vilayanur Ramachandran. It is also clear that Jensen has adopted a more rational interpretation of psychic research, so that she needs not to always resort to the supernatural (including magic) as the obvious explanation. Similarly, Jensen expertly uses both of the main protagonists of the story to explore and contrast real human flaws and frailties, such as those that have been induced by abandonment (as in the case of Sam) and guilt (as in the case of David). Like a classic tragedy, Sam and David never find closure to their suffering. Rather, Jensen uses their struggles with their pasts to define their characters. Unfortunately, the interrelationship between Sam and David is less well developed, particularly the sexual tension that obviously exists between them. As the story unfolds, the focus shifts alternately over to Sam and David investigating the accidents at the university campus. Here, Jensen is able take advantage of the transition to deliver lighter moments of the story, with plenty of red herrings thrown into a whodunit mystery and a cast of oddball characters who are largely played as foils to Sam or David. Subtle in-jokes ("A towel is the most massively useful thing a hitchhiker can have.") and humorous references can also be found littered throughout the story, and the resemblance of David's mask to Erik's mask from Gaston Leroux's Le Fantôme de l'Opéra is unlikely coincidental. For most parts of the game, however, the story remains quite dark, climaxing to a final reveal that will likely catch more than a few players by surprise.

It is disappointing that Gray Matter's production, though competent, does not break any new technical grounds. Nonetheless, the use of 2.5D graphics for the game is a wise choice made by the developer. The pre-rendered 2D background scenes are richly detailed, with almost a hand painted quality. This is especially true for locations such as the Oxford Town Centre and Christ Church, where the modern facade of the city nicely contrasts with the period architecture there. The 3D character models are also very good, and the use of real time lighting and shadowing effect helps greatly to rid of any disjointing artifact between the foreground models and the background scenes (the quality of the graphics can be customized during setup to accommodate different hardware). Alas, character animations are more uneven. Sam and David are well animated. Sam, in particular, walks and turns with a ladylike grace that is very fluid and natural. Other characters, by contrast, are less well animated and often appear rigid with an unnatural stance.

The audio in Gray Matter is excellent. The voice acting is very professional. The voice of Sam (played by Phillipa Alexander) is pleasant and easy on the ears, with an air of vulnerability that befits the character. The voice of David (played by Steven Pacey) is appropriately intimidating but sounds too harsh sometimes. Lip sync is surprisingly accurate (and even language specific). The music, composed by Robert Holmes, is superb. It is grand, moody, sweeping, and melodic, but hides a tint of sadness at the same time. The main theme for the game also features folk vocals from The Scarlet Furies. Sound effects are decent but occasionally fall out of sync with the animations (such as footsteps).

At its core, Gray Matter is a classic third-person point-and-click adventure game. The game is divided into 8 chapters. For most of the game, you alternate playing as Sam or David. A brief optional tutorial is available to help you familiarize with the controls at the beginning of the game. In each chapter, you are tasked to complete a short list of objectives. These objectives are listed in a panel that also monitors your chapter progress as well as your current point score and percentage score for each objective and for the chapter. Some chapters include bonus tasks, but these can be hard to find and some of them cannot be scored later if they have been missed earlier. For reasons that I cannot fathom, most of the in-game controls have been stripped down to adopt the dreaded single-click mechanic: left-clicking the mouse on a hotspot automatically triggers the correct action, regardless of what that action may be. This, in turn, makes the context sensitive cursor—a cursor with an eye denotes a hotspot that can be inspected; a cursor with a mouth denotes a character who can speak; a cursor with a magnifying icon denotes an object that can be examined in close-up, for example—rather pointless. By contrast, in the inventory, right-clicking the mouse arms an object for use, which can then be combined with another object or be used on a hotspot (a cursor with a gear denotes a hotspot that can be manipulated, with or without an object). The inventory, located at the top of the screen, automatically tugs away when it is not in use. A diary can also be accessed from the inventory that includes a complete transcript of all preceding dialogs. Conversations between characters are handled through a simplified dialog tree that lists only topic keywords which can be cycled through. However, the diary will not play back the audios from these conversations. A map is available to let you visit the locations to which you are currently granted access as well as keep a tally of any outstanding tasks in these locations. A location whose label is colored gold means that key tasks remain to be finished there; a location whose label is colored silver means that only bonus tasks are left there; a location whose label is colored dark gray means that all tasks have been completed. This system is ingenious and greatly reduces backtracking. Not all of the backtracking can be avoided, however. This is because some hotspots do not become active immediately, and those hotspots that are already active may trigger different responses later on. All of these hotspots (some scenes can be scrolled left or right to reveal more hotspots) are easy to find though, since a hotkey can instantly enable hotspot labels and displays all interactive zones on the screen (so pixel hunting is unnecessary). Also, the labels for objects inherently give clues to their functions and how they may be used to solve some puzzles in the game. Some objects in the inventory can even be zoomed in or rotated to reveal further clues that are critical in solving these puzzles.

Most of the puzzles in Gray Matter are straightforward fetch quests. Even so, they are surprisingly well woven into the story and do not feel out of place or absurd in context. For example, in the first chapter, Sam must cleverly acquire a number of objects in order to win flavors with several students at the campus whom she must recruit for David for an experiment. Similarly, in the third chapter, David must secure of a number of mementos (such as a photo) which he can use to revitalize his memories of Laura for another experiment. Other puzzles are more elaborate and demand more careful observation and deductive reasoning. The best puzzles are those in the final chapter, in which Sam infiltrates the underground lair of the Daedalus Club. There, the solutions to the smaller puzzles play off each other to reveal the solution to the larger puzzle, and the cohesiveness of these puzzles makes solving them a very satisfying exercise. Likewise, there is an anagram puzzle that is devilishly clever. A few solutions require basic knowledge of classic literature (especially children's literature), though trial and error may sometimes suffice if the number of possibilities (such as dialing the correct phone number) is limited. Gamers who despise mazes need not fret about the maze in this game, since it involves no random path finding and can be solved easily by logic. Admittedly, I am somewhat disheartened by the overall longevity and level of difficulty of this game. Compared to Jensen's previous adventure games, the length is much shorter (about 9-11 hours), the puzzles are far simpler, and the gameplay is more linear, as if there is a conscious effort to dumb down the game to increase its appeal to the masses. This is acutely obvious when the solution to a puzzle can be conveniently found in a location nearby, even if such discovery makes little contextual sense there.

Magic plays a dual role in the puzzles in Gray Matter. First, Sam must use her skills as a magician to play tricks on her targets in order to secure (or rather, steal) objects of interest that are currently in her targets' possession. Most of these tricks require only simple sleight of hand. Some of these tricks require props, which Sam can find in a local magic shop. To execute a trick on a target, Sam must first select the correct magic trick from her magic book and then program in the correct sequence of steps (such as misdirect, palm, plant, and other moves). If the correct steps are selected, Sam will perform the trick on the target. Oddly enough, Sam's target never gets suspicious, no matter how many times she fails in performing the trick previously. While this magic system is undoubtedly innovative and is meant to introduce a new gameplay mechanic, in practice the system falls apart and amounts to little more than just an exercise of copying and pasting verbatim the instructions (which are conveniently capitalized) from the magic book. Moreover, the correct trick can always be found by simple trial and error, since the solution allows for only a single trick to be used. Second, Sam must use her knowledge as a magician to locate a number of magic puzzle boxes that are scattered throughout the city of Oxford. By solving a pair of rebuses hidden insides these boxes, she will discover the secret location of the Daedalus Club where she (under her stage name, Lady Bryon) has been invited to perform. Supposedly, Mephistopheles, an enigmatic magician and owner of the local magic shop, has taken an interest in Sam (for reasons that are never entirely clear) and agrees to help her to gain admittance to there as a member. These puzzle boxes can be collected and cracked independent of other tasks that Sam needs to be complete for the chapters, though they must eventually be solved before the rest of the game can proceed.

Despite its many merits, calling Gray Matter a flawless game simply ignores the game's blatant shortcomings. The most jarring is the discordant visual style between the cut scenes and the rest of the game. The cut scenes feature still and animated panels that are panned and zoomed like a graphic comic. Yet, the characters depicted there resemble little of their rendered counterparts. This is particularly true for the secondary characters in the Lamb's Club (Angela, Charles, Harvey, Helena, and Malik). Moreover, the quality of the art in these cut scenes averages from passable to poor, as if the developer simply decides to recycle previously rejected production storyboards and reuse them as materials for the cut scenes. By comparison, flaws in the rendered graphics are far and few in between (for example, the clocks on the walls at St. Edmund Hall all show different times from each other, and they do not change regardless of what time Sam visits). The game also suffers from odd graphical glitches, such as misplaced hotspot labels and missing exit icons (especially after reloading from a saved game). Strangely, some locations have been cut off from any access during the entire game despite hints that suggest otherwise. For example, at the Oxford Town Centre, a man from campus security stands guard in front of Brasenose College, and Sam comments that she can probably get pass the guard if she needs to do so; however, for the rest of the game, Sam never follows through this challenge and attempts to get inside. In the Dread Hill House, Sam finds a floor grate in the basement hall and whines that she will need a few sticks of dynamite to open it; yet, the grate never needs to be opened for the rest of the game, even though it appears otherwise. Other minor annoyances include limited game save slots (only 20 slots) and a load screen that flashes with each scene change. Not surprisingly, the game's ending does not bring closure to all of the plot threads. Further, the use of deus ex machina as a plot device to explain away the ending is a cheap escape. All in all, though, these shortcomings are mere minor distractions—they in no way detract from my enjoyment of this game.

An obvious question about the game that may be posed is this: is Gray Matter Jensen's magnum opus? I submit that this is not the correct question to ask. Rather, the correct question about the game that needs to be posed is this: is Gray Matter a great game? The answer to this question is, of course, a resounding and an irrefutable yes! It is inevitable that a few gamers will be compelled to dismiss this game because it has not matched up against some misguided expectations of what it must be after years of hype and anticipation. However, for the rest of gamers who opt to evaluate this game on its own merits, Gray Matter is a game that can easily measure up against the best of what the genre can offer. This claim is not an empty endorsement. Gray Matter succeeds not because of its pedigree but because of what it can deliver. Jensen's mastery in storytelling truly shines through in the game, seamlessly mixing science, fantasy, mystery, and even history to form a compelling narrative that is ultimately a study of the human condition—love, hate, loneliness, obsession, guilt, and forgiveness. The game's epilogue hints at the possibility of a sequel. If this is true, then I do not yearn for Gray Matter to become Jensen's magnum opus. This way, I will have the satisfaction of knowing that, someday, there will be another game from Jensen worthy of this praise.

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