Gray Matter is a game that doesn’t shy away from the label "point-and-click adventure game”. It still very much looks like it was made in the ‘90s, but this is no ordinary attempt at glory far gone. This is from famed game designer Jane Jensen, and it’s her first game in 10 years since Gabriel Knight 3. Gray Matter has had a troubled development; originally announced in 2003, it encountered a number of delays over the years, even changing between developers at one point. But it’s here now, even if the box and manual are all in German.
You play as American-born Samantha Everett, ex-goth and now magician, sporting purple hair, black lipstick, piercings, a studded collar, and a tattoo of the Ace of Spades on her chest. And that’s just Sam’s day-to-day appearance. On her way to London, Sam is misled and finds herself in Oxford. Her motorbike breaks down and, in the pouring rain, she finds refuge at – where else? – a creepy mansion, which turns out to be a Centre for Cognitive Abnormality Research. Sam lies her way into an assistant position for Dr. David Styles, a famed scientist and recluse who spends all his time moping inside his labs. With black hair and a white mask covering half of his face, he’s not unlike The Phantom of the Opera. Divided into eight chapters, you’ll play Gray Matter alternating between both Sam and David.
The game is classic point-and-click. You have an inventory in which to store the items you pick up – or rather, steal. Click on an area to walk there, and click on hotspots to examine or interact with them. All of the hotspots can be displayed onscreen at once at the press of the space bar, but it’s only there if you get well and truly stuck. Jensen still wants to provide that same brain throbbing feeling you got all those years ago from pixel hunting.
Sam has more tricks up her sleeve – literally. Certain puzzles will require Sam to perform an illusion. Using your trusty magic book you need to pick the right trick and follow the steps in order, providing you have the right materials. I’m sure The Magicians Alliance would frown upon the sharing of their industry secrets, but really it’s only the simplest of tricks. Using the trick interface, basically your task is something along the lines of dragging an item to Sam’s left hand, using misdirection on her audience, swapping it with another item, and then hiding the original item up her sleeve.
While Sam plays along with all the assistant duties, she also has an ulterior motive; to be accepted into the super-secret Daedalus Club for the world’s best magicians. As assistant, Sam’s first task is to recruit student volunteers for Dr. Styles’ latest experiments. Sam and the students begin to bond, coming together over the strange events happening around Oxford. Sam thinks it’s a magician’s Big Game, but David believes it has more to do with Psi -Theory. Wanting to solve all the mysteries of Gray Matter will keep you going right to the very end.
Difficulty-wise, it’s your typical adventure gaming fare. You may find some puzzles less obvious than others. The way Gray Matter works is a little more transparent. You earn points for each correct thing you do or examine. You can view the current progress of all your goals, and how many more points you need to complete a goal. This includes bonus points which you get for entirely optional interactions or comments. On the game’s map, it highlights which locations still have things to do there, so you’re not re-exploring every location again and again. Even then, I must admit I still had the occasional peek at a game guide. Because of this point system, the story won’t progress until you complete all the tasks. Sometimes you just need to finish off little things you may have missed.
Cutscenes are present, but they use a different art style to the rest of the game, using pretty cut-out drawings and very little animation. Like most old school 3D adventure games, the game itself is a mix of 2D backgrounds, 3D character models, and some 3D fixtures. It’s reminiscent of games like Syberia and The Longest Journey. Some of the animations seem a bit limited, but as long as you pretend you’re playing in the ‘90s you should be able to let that go.
Given the full voice-actor treatment, the game sounds very engrossing, and the dialogue penned by Jensen herself hits the drama high points, as well as a bit of comedy with quips from Sam. David Styles is a much gloomier character owing to a tragedy that consumes his every waking second. He doesn’t have much to joke about unless he’s insulting Sam in some way.
Telltale Games seems to have all the fingers in the adventure-gaming pie, which is why we are blessed to receive such an offering from Jensen and company. All the things you love and hate about ‘90s-style adventure games are still there, including getting lost and confused due to an absurd puzzle with only one solution. Gray Matter is a welcome return of the classic story-driven adventure game, even if it doesn’t change anything. I hope to see more Gray Matter games, as long as it doesn’t take another 10 years. Got that, Jane?