Tuesday, August 16, 2011

GAME REVIEW: THE SHIVAH (2006)

THE SHIVAH
Designer/Developer/Script and Dialogue by Dave Gilbert
Original Music Composed by Peter Gresser
Backgrounds by Tom Scary
Character Animations by Shane Stevens

Featuring the voice talents of:
Abe Goldfarb as Rabbi Stone
Ruth Weber as Rajshree Lauder
Joe Rodriguez as Amos Zelig
with
John Swist
Francisco Gonzalez
Kim Lee
Dave Gilbert

Published by Wadjet Eye Games, 2006

The Shivah is a PC game after the style of the point-and-click mystery adventure games of the 1980s and 1990s. It tells the story of Rabbi Russell Stone who leads a synagogue on New York's Lower East Side. His temple has fallen on hard times. No one shows up to hear his services, save for a sleepy old lady. His email inbox is filled with angry and disappointed messages from former members of his congregation who have been alienated by his harsh, cynical sermons. The bills are piling up, and he expects to be evicted from the property any day now. That's when the homicide detective shows up to tell him that his old friend Jack Lauder has been murdered. The Rabbi is a suspect because Lauder has left Stone a sizable fortune. Of course, the detective has no hard evidence, and so Rabbi Stone, piloted by the player, must solve the mystery and clear his name.

The Shivah orchestrates an intriguing dramatic situation around the murder investigation. Like any good murder mystery there is much more to the case than meets the eye. There are also issues tied to Rabbi Stone's sense of his own identity as a religious leader. He has sacrificed much of his own personal happiness to his profound sense of what it means to be a rabbi. The game doesn't come right out and reveal every last detail of this sacrifice, but it starts out with the broad picture, a depressed and embittered rabbi in a fading synagogue, and gradually zooms in on the specifics of Stone's past and, by implication, the nature of his personality that has led him to the particular dilemma he faces in attempting to clear his own name. The mystery isn't just, "Who murdered Jack Lauder?" It is also, "Who is Rabbi Stone?" It is this second mystery that the game as a game allows players a certain degree of freedom to solve. The choices you make determine the game's ultimate outcome. There are several endings, each one dependent on key moral and ethical choices the player makes as they pilot the Rabbi through the game.

Another fascinating element about Rabbi Stone is the fact that he is a flawed character. Many video game protagonists are screwed-up people. First person shooters and RPGs are filled with violent, heavily armed sociopaths, mutilation and power obsessed barbarians, and brain-washed militarists. Rabbi Stone's flaw is also his strength: his unwavering commitment to his sense of identity, and the kernel of remorse that he seems to feel over a harsh decision he made a long time ago. A decision that affected the life of his old friend Jack Lauder. Rabbi Stone is a dramatic character in the way of great literary characters: Oedipus, Sam Spade, Hamlet, Othello, The Continental Op, and Antigone. He isn't just another ultraviolent cipher to pilot around a dungeon or field of battle. He actually comes off as someone who could conceivably exist in real life.

The dialogue is excellent, sharp, and is worthy of a stage play or film. There are some rather impressive one-liners, and some pitch-black humor as well. One of the key elements of Rabbi Stone's character is his questioning nature. It seems, depending on which dialogue options you follow, that he is always seeking to respond to whatever trials that reality or God or whatever sends his way with the right question. Rabbi Stone's identity is tied to this view of life as a constant inquiry. This outlook is also a great fit with a mystery-adventure gaming dynamic.

A strong cast of voice actors, led by Abe Goldfarb as Rabbi Stone, lends a massive amount of credibility to the characters and the story. I would like to say more about individual performances, but I don't want to give away too much of the story. Suffice it to say, that all of the voice actors do top-notch work, including designer Dave Gilbert in a cameo role.

The visuals are consciously retro--way retro. Like, King's Quest retro, but very carefully done. All of the locations by Tom Scary are rendered with pixelated precision. The game presents synagogues, bars, apartments, stores, and subway platforms that look like they've actually been inspired by genuine New York settings. It's hard to describe, but it's rather impressive that such locations and atmosphere are so effectively rendered with such limited graphics.

The character animations by Shane Stevens are also effective, and include some surprising events. Whenever there is dialogue, the characters' faces are rendered in boxes and display a pleasing array of emotions and nuances which are complimented by the strong voice acting. The effectiveness of the dialogue animations reminded me of Scott McCloud's breakdown of emotions and expressions in Understanding Comics. McCloud puts forward the notion that sometimes visual storytelling can achieve surprising depths and abiding effects by paring real life actions and emotions to their bare essence and then sequencing those essences correctly. It's just another example of how a retro-game can offer worthwhile, involving experiences in a world of ultra-tech gaming.

A state of the art 3-D gaming engine could, of course, deliver photo realism, physics, and a persistent world to get lost in--but would it offer such a concentrated dramatic experience? The Shivah is like an intriguing Off-Off-Broadway play in a black box performance space. Or maybe a memorable crime novella you might find in an old paperback collection of murder mysteries. The retro-charm runs deep.

The musical score by Peter Gresser is mournful, jazzy, and achieves some epic highs as the drama escalates. The mournful, contemplative opening theme is particularly effective, establishing a mood unlike what you would find in most video games. It isn't at all intrusive, and, in fact, it helps with the investigation. I found it to be the perfect underscore for a murder case. Although Gresser's score is more accomplished, it put me in mind of the underscores for the Kemco/Seika NES adaptations of the classic graphic adventures Deja Vu, Shadowgate, and Uninvited. The music in those games, for me, was also mood enhancing and conducive to ratiocination.

The gaming element which is most distinctive is the Clue Inventory. In adventure games, it is not uncommon to have inventory puzzles, wherein you must combine items in your possession in just the right way and use them on some key element of the environment. The Shivah uses a similar dynamic with clues-words and phrases that Rabbi Stone picks up on while questioning people and investigating the various locations. You can then click on a clue and drag it over other clues, click, and see if the ideas work together to offer new insights. The clues also figure into the dialogue options. Clues beget clues, and so the investigation proceeds. The game is much too brief to fully realize this intriguing gaming mechanic, however it does reinforce the cerebral and questioning nature of Rabbi Stone.

Another interesting feature is the Kibbitz Mode, which is a DVD-style commentary that you can choose to switch on while you play the game. In Kibbitz Mode, as you play through, Dave Gilbert, the game's creator, pops up as a charmingly animated talking head and talks you through how he made the game, and offers interesting insights into how, why, and when certain decisions were made. Gilbert is an enjoyable commentator who offers a generous amount of insight into how and why he made the game the way he did. It is strongly advised that you do not switch on the Kibbitz Mode until you've played through the game a few times, as it gives away most of the puzzles and plot twists.

The Shivah is not a very long game, nor is it difficult. But it offers a compelling and concise dramatic narrative with clever dialogue, effective music, and a strong thematic focus.The Shivah is offered through Wadjet Eye Games's website for near-instant download. I say near-instant because it took about an hour for the company to process the order. For $4.99, The Shivah is cheaper than a movie ticket, and much better scripted and acted than what you are likely to find at the summer multiplex.


Official game website:

Game Trailer:

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