Gray Matter is a rare example in video games of story and characters being let down by faulty gameplay. Typically, the story and characters exist to serve a function, but Gray Matter presents a passionate story of loss and hope with a small cast of compelling characters. It’s unfortunate that this story is attached to a remarkably average point-and-click adventure game.
Jane Jensen first found fame with the fondly remembered Gabriel Knight series of supernatural mystery adventure games in the nineties. Gray Matter marks her return to the genre and weaves a tale around two main characters: young street magician Samantha Everett and Oxford Professor of Neurobiology David Styles. The doctor has lost his wife in a tragic accident, and in his grief, has locked himself away in his mansion, Dread Hill House. He requires an assistant for a mysterious experiment, but, caught in a storm in the middle of nowhere, what he gets is Sam looking for shelter. She pretends to be the new assistant, at first running errands and recruiting participants for tests. The experiment involves monitoring the power of the brain. The six participants—at night, with a mad doctor, in a mansion in the middle of nowhere called “Dread Hill House” … that’ll go well—all get hooked up to an MRI, while David partially hypnotizes them to believe they are exercising at the local track. The aim of the experiment? To see if the brain is powerful enough to exercise the body without it even moving. It becomes clear that David is desperately trying to get in touch with his wife; he believes the power of the mind can overcome even death. He may even be right. At the exact moment of the experiment, a very bizarre event occurs at the running track they’re dreaming of. It’s up to Sam and David to investigate.
Your investigations will take you all over a beautifully rendered, stylized Oxford. The town on display here roughly matches the real Oxford, but casually ignores things like cars and shopping outlets. Apparently, England is made up of pubs and small, specialty shops. Regardless, this is the world Gray Matter creates, and it’s a wonderfully atmospheric place. You navigate the world with nothing more than the mouse, clicking where you want to move and which objects you want to interact with. You’ll also need to pick up items to use on parts of the environment, or even combine several items to create something new. It’s standard adventure game stuff, though it’s all smoothly integrated and streamlined. With a map of Oxford, you can fast travel anywhere, so you won’t need to waste time running back and forth.
Each chapter presents a certain number of objectives. Sometimes these are obvious, but more often than not you’ll have to do a lot of exploring to find your next goal. This can be frustrating. As you unlock more areas, you have to scan each one more and more carefully for clues, as having to re-explore when you get stuck is a time-consuming process. The puzzles themselves range from too easy to just right to so out there that you’ll wonder how anyone’s brain could make sense of it. Those with adventure and puzzle experience will probably settle in without any problems.
The big twist on the adventure game formula is magic. As a magician, Sam has access to a few neat tricks she can use to procure various items, persuade people to provide information, or even just distract or impress them. A magic book describes the procedure for each spell, and all you need to do is gather the necessary tools, activate the spell, and then, using a simple interface, input the steps for the trick. It’s much easier than it sounds. You can refer to the spell book anytime, and it gives an exact step-by-step breakdown of each trick. It’s a decent effort, though perhaps a little too easy.
There’s also a storyline running parallel to the main story: that of Sam’s search for the Daedalus club. The Daedalus club is a secret society of magicians, and there’s a lengthy process of clue-finding and puzzle-solving to gain entry. A small shop called the Black Wand is run by a magician named Mephistopheles, who may or may not be a member but helps Sam work through both mysteries and sells magic supplies for her spells. He also describes “Grand Games,” tricks put on by magicians that can involve dozens of people over long periods of time without them even realizing. Are the supernatural occurrences part of a local magician’s own Grand Game?
All these elements work well together, not just because of the top quality writing, but because of the atmosphere. This is something all good mysteries need, and Gray Matter has it in droves. I was frequently reminded of books such as Harry Potter and The Famous Five, though Gray Matter’s story is definitely a little more adult in theme. Tying everything together is the fantastic score, which reinforces every element of the story—loneliness, loss, sadness and hope.
Gray Matter works best when dealing with mystery and possibility. The puzzles and investigations are good enough, but they’re not at the same level as the well-developed story and characters. The background behind David’s experiments is fascinating; this point of intersection between science and the supernatural acts as the centerpiece of the game. The storytelling itself is great, too. Like a good book, you’ll find it hard to put down once the investigation points to the students in the experiment and Sam has to investigate each. The puzzles could use some polish, and in the case of the final chapter, they’re downright annoying, but the compelling narrative and strong characters are more than enough to keep most gamers playing right through to the surprisingly satisfying conclusion.