Platform: Windows, Xbox
These days I have little worry that when I pick up an adventure game that the production values are going to be fantastic. Sure, there’s going to be the occasional lemon, but with the glutton of previews to be found on the internet, you pretty much know what you’re getting into. Most people seem to agree on what constitutes passable visuals and I can shop accordingly. Unfortunately, the standards for character development do not seem to be so widely agreed upon. In a game where the focus in on the interactivity between the characters, those playing the parts must be charming, engaging, and memorable. Just like when I read a book of fiction, if I don’t care about who I’m watching, little of what’s left is going to affect me. Needless to say, I felt Victoria and the rest of the cast in Still Life left me wanting.
Okay. So there’s been a few murders with the same M.O. In between investigating these murders, Victoria goes to her father house, listens to him whine, and sifts through her grandfather’s notes regarding one of his cases as a P.I. in Prague where he helped some hookers try to find who’s been killing their colleagues. There are several chapters in the game, the player alternating between Victoria and her grandfather, Gustav McPherson. Obviously, the cases have plenty of eerie coincidences (though the feeling of eeriness sort of fades with the predictability of it all), and it’s your job as the player to sludge through the game’s predetermined path until Victoria figures everything out.
It seem most adventure games release since the turn of the millennium have the same problem: while the stories themselves are generally engaging, there is almost no room for the player to explore. Still Life is the perfect example of such a game. Everything must be done in a precise order. The only freedom the player is awarded is the choice of whether or not to chat with certain people, which is irrelevant where the story is concerned. There’s not even a token red herring to make you stop and think for a second. I’m playing a computer game. I want interactivity. Being the passive observer can be tolerated if what I’m observing is brilliant; however, if there’s even a few underlying faults, I’d be better off just lounging on the couch and popping in a movie.
One of those faults which I wouldn’t have to put up with in a movie are the game’s puzzles. The game starts out great, with Victoria exploring a murder scene and using forensic tools to garner a few clues. But with just a couple exceptions, the rest of Still Life’s puzzles have little to do with investigating and fall into one of two categories: goose-chase, and esoteric. For no other reason than slowing down the game’s pace, you are often forced to perform tasks or find objects for other people, so that they will give you something you need (either advice, or another object) ad nauseam. This was acceptable in gaming twenty years ago, but is irritating now. As for the esoteric puzzles, the prime example here is the completely original task of baking cookies for your whiny father. Every investigator needs to take small breaks during a case to perform some mundane, pleasurable activities. But not Victoria McPherson. No, she must decode her grandmother’s recipe, which uses vague, poetic references to ingredients and measurements. I don’t know about you, but that is exactly the thing I want to do when I’m taking a break from stress at work. Oh, and lest we forget, we have an obligatory slider puzzle late in the game. Everybody loves slider puzzles. I’m so glad game designers discovered this and put them in every single adventure game.
Still Life, like Syberia, was developed by Microids, a French company. A lot of similarities abound, including the interface, which is easy enough. But the translation, while technically proficient, is obviously done by someone who didn’t grow up amongst English speaking people. When characters are angry, their words seem a little too angry. When they are being affectionate, they sound as if they’re in a romance novel. Part of the blame goes to the voice actors. Victoria’s not too bad until the end, where she inexplicably becomes one-dimensional, losing any empathy I had gained for her. Worse yet, her partner, boss, father, and the black cop are pure caricatures all the way through. As for Gustav, let’s just say the actor has watched too much film noir. But the script gave the actors little to work with. And as a result, I had a hard time caring about any of them, despite a story and atmospheric setting that had me primed to do so.
When the game focuses on what it’s good at presenting, I enjoyed myself. The graphics are grisly and powerful at times. The cut scenes are phenomenal. And when the detectives are actually allowed to perform real detective work, the game is worth playing. The game is short (and obviously cut short near the end, where the designers clumsily slapped together an ending when the budget ran out), but probably worth the time to traditional adventurers. I haven’t played the sequel (that wraps up the story), but apparently it didn’t fix any of this game’s problems.