Still Life Review

Still Life follows on the heels of the previously-published Post Mortem, which focused on private detective Gus McPherson, as he attempts to resolve a gruesome double murder in Paris. In Still Life, the player alternates between Gus's granddaughter Victoria McPhereson, and -- in flashbacks -- Gus himself. Victoria is a present-day FBI agent investigating a serial murder case in Chicago. Along the way, she discovers her grandfather's old case files, one of which reveals uncanny similarities between Victoria's current assignment, and a case that Gus worked 75 years earlier in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

There were so many outstanding qualities to Still Life, identifying any single one is impossible. The realism of the scenes is incredible, and was the first thing that drew me in. Beautifully rendered 3D backgrounds highlight incredibly detailed scenes. Often, close-ups of objects or scenery are available, which are not required to solve any puzzle, but only to lend further realism to the environment. Even the coloring has been carefully crafted to contribute to the somber note throughout much of the game -- with lots of drab hues and dimly-lit scenes. (Yet I had no difficulty seeing any Still Life scene clearly -- a problem that I encountered throughout virtually the entire game in Post Mortem.)

The story line is excellent. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it is one of the better-developed stories that I have encountered in an adventure game -- rising to the caliber of such icons of story-telling as the Myst series or the Syberia games. Rather than loosely fitting a banal plot into a pre-determined puzzle or adventure game, the developers obviously spent extensive time developing the story line as the basis for the game. The more I played, the more I could see both Victoria's and Gus's personalities developing. And the format of a murder investigation is the perfect setting for allowing a story to "unfold", piece by piece, as investigations continue to turn up new evidence, and dialogues with the many characters in the game continue to enhance the story. What starts out as a fairly simple murder investigation eventually grows into a tremendously complex plot, with enough turns and twists to captivate (and confuse) even the most ardent mystery lover.

There is quite a cast of well-crafted characters with whom to interact. Much of Victoria's time is spent with her FBI colleagues, and in high-technology facilities. (She also has a bit of interaction with her father, some of which is designed to develop the story, while other is purely "familial chit-chat" -- which adds to the "personality" of the story line.) Gus, on the other hand, spends most of his time amidst the seamy underbelly of 1929 Prague -- the thieves, the hookers, the less-than-desireables. For the most part, the characters are very "real". Their actions and reactions -- even the voicing given to the characters -- seem very true-to-life. Rather than being a boring or frustrating task to find -- and speak with -- all of the necessary characters, I looked upon it as an intricate and entertaining part of the overall game. And much of the character interaction was not only necessary for progressing through the game, but was also the key to the continuing plot development and unfolding of the story. (Note: some of the characters are a bit crude in their dialogue -- a case of balancing "realism" with "audience appeal", apparently. Even Victoria gets a bit foul-mouthed at times. See the rating comment at the end of this review for related comments.)

While Still Life can certainly be played as a stand-alone game, it can be compared to its predecessor, Post Mortem -- as both are story-based murder investigations that share a central character. However, there are also several key differences, as well -- and even for those who have not played Post Mortem, highlighting these contrasts should, hopefully, provide further insight into Still Life. Both games contain much dialogue. But while Post Mortem used the familiar multiple-choice dialogue menus, Still Life dialogues are really more like cut-scenes that have been broken up into smaller segments. Dialogue is continued simply by clicking the mouse button without selecting a specific topic. My initial reaction to this was disappointment; I felt that it put more emphasis on the story development than on the gaming. And yet, I realized how frustrated I had gotten in the earlier Post Mortem, due to the randomness of topics, the indecision of what to talk about, and (sometimes) even the inability to get all topics discussed. The more I played Still Life, the more I wanted those dialogues to continue in the simple manner that they were. It left me able to put more thought and energy into playing the game, rather than trying to interpret some designer's goals by navigating endless dialogue options.

This also played directly into another contrast between the two games. For those who have played adventure games where you've spent most of the time asking "What the heck do I do next?", then you are already familiar with one of my basic frustrations with a game like Post Mortem. But apparently, the developers of Still Life felt it was more important to allow the story to flow in the manner in which it had been designed -- rather than to try to "stump the player." As a result, there was almost no time while playing Still Life that I felt I had to ask that question. Victoria might say "I think I'd better go check with the boss at the office." Or Gus might say "It's time to have a little chat with so-and-so." It wasn't always quite that obvious; sometimes, it would require reading one or the other's journal of notes that they were taking. But invariably, there would be a "lead" -- either in conversation, or in writing -- to help the player determine what needed to be done next. Again, as a veteran adventure gamer, my initial response was "How puerile!" Yet the more the game developed, the more cohesive the entire story became, largely as a result of the fact that I wasn't wasting a lot of time wandering aimlessly.

Navigation uses an intuitive point-and-click interface. There are no difficult keystrokes to learn, or icons to decipher -- and players can focus on the game rather than on the interface. The background music is aptly suited to the theme of the story, as well as the scenes themselves (which take place in such places as a graveyard, an abandoned church, and a morgue). Accompanying documentation within the game (e.g., journals, papers, books, etc.) also lends interest, assistance, clues, and ambience to the game. Inventory items typically do not even need to be "used" on a specific object or scene location. If an inventory object can be used in a scene, most of the time simply selecting it from inventory invokes a cut scene showing the main character (either Gus or Victoria) using the object appropriately, thus avoiding another bane of adventure gamers -- the frustrating pixel hunts and endless occurrences of "try this object here... no, try this object... no, maybe this one". (One minor frustration stemmed from the fact that, at times, the character had to be standing in just the right place, before an inventory item could be "used". However, the game provides assistance in that regard, by displaying an "action" icon on the screen when there is something the character can interact with at that point.)

The puzzles within the game are more of a "story thread" than distinct logic puzzles -- and many are based on inventory objects. I felt that the puzzles contributed to the general flow of the story, rather than interrupting it. I will admit, there was one puzzle -- best described as a "logic puzzle" -- that was absolutely terrible. The design itself could actually have resulted in a very excellent puzzle. But it was made inordinately difficult, and almost "illogical" -- not because of the puzzle itself, but due strictly to a very poor explanation of how to manipulate it. One other difficulty resulted from one particular "pixel hunt" -- a rare occurrence in this game, so I can't complain.

The hardware requirements for the game are not overly demanding -- a welcome relief, after having played several other recent adventure games that function only on the very latest video cards and drivers, and require several gigabytes of hard disk space. I had no technical issues or problems with the game.

One note of caution: the "M" rating in Still Life is well-earned. The label on the box denotes "Blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language". None of these are assigned casually. The game focuses on serial murders -- complete with Jack-the-Ripper style eviscerations and disfigurements of the (usually naked) victims. And, as has already been mentioned, a lot of attention has been given to the graphical aspects of the game; the language is often crude, and there are enough gruesome, macabre, and bizarre scenes to turn the strongest stomach. While I never had the feeling that this was done gratuitously, it is possible that those with weaker stomachs for this sort of thing may have their enjoyment of the game tainted by its realism.

My final comment could be considered a spoiler. So even though I will try to couch it as carefully as possible, some readers may wish to stop here. The topic is the game's ending. For days and days, I had enjoyed one of the most fascinating games I've played in a while. The graphics are very, very good. The 3D character animations are excellent. And the story is one of the best, for a single game. The interest level was high; the excitement was good; all other aspects of a good adventure-puzzle-mystery game were done well. But the game ending left me slack-jawed. I felt cheated. Maybe not quite as angry as some of those posting in various game forums... but not far off. That's all I'll comment, to avoid any further spoiler. But suffice it to say, I was upset enough to contact The Adventure Company, the distributers of Still Life, for more information -- something I've never felt compelled to do after playing any other game before. The good news is that they are "definitely looking at plans for a sequel", although no details exist at the present time. I think that this will be welcome news for anyone playing this game.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.