Still Life


Review by · May 30, 2005

Ahhh, the venerable graphic adventure (a.k.a. the “point and click”) game. This genre of computer game was very popular in the 1980s thanks to pioneering titles such as Zork. LucasArts was the king of the graphic adventure heyday and created such classic titles as Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Sam & Max Hit the Road and many more. Over time, the genre became supersaturated with titles, many of which weren’t that great, and the genre eventually faded into obscurity due to slow sales and the changing tastes of the gaming market. Even the venerable LucasArts wasn’t immune as their critically acclaimed Grim Fandango fell under gamers’ radar in 1997.

But all is not lost, because the genre seems to be enjoying a mini revival. Lately, European developers have been creating classically styled graphic adventure games that are blowing audiences and critics away. Norway based Funcom released the now-classic The Longest Journey to an eager public and rave reviews back in 2000. Another European company called Microids is also joining the party. In but a few short years, they have released a slew of adventure games such as Amerzone, Syberia I & II, Road to India, and many more, including their latest offering Still Life- a sequel to 2003’s Post Mortem (which I have not played) available for PC and Xbox. I played the PC version of Still Life.

Many games these days are adopting a dual protagonist system, and Still Life is no exception. The seven chapter tale’s main protagonist is one Victoria MacPherson- a skilled FBI forensics agent in modern day Chicago who doesn’t always play by the rules. Of course, she is the granddaughter to Gustave “Gus” MacPherson- a skilled private eye and avid painter who also doesn’t always play by the rules. Gustave was the protagonist in Post Mortem and you get to play as a young version of him for a few chapters in Still Life.

The story starts out with Victoria visiting the crime scene of yet another bizarre serial murder, where a mangled body was found in the bathtub of an apartment. It’s right before Christmas so the agency is short-staffed. Unfortunately, Victoria’s partner for the case is Detective David Miller of the Chicago police department. He’s generally an okay cop, but he and dead bodies don’t seem to mix and this is the second time in a row he’s puked at a crime scene. To say agent Claire Ashby, Victoria’s senior officer, is pissed off is an understatement. So while Claire is cleaning up Miller’s vomit and preparing the body, Victoria is asked to search the apartment for evidence. This is the segment where the player can get acquainted with the gameplay and interface, and also read some of the in-menu documents to get up to speed on the case.

It seems this killer likes to dope young women up on a deadly combination of alcohol and rohypnol (a.k.a. “roofies” the date rape drug), drown them, and eviscerate their remains. This is the fifth murder of this type, and it seems the killer has added some steps to his modus operandi. In addition to the drowning and evisceration, this fifth body was brutally beaten and the killer spelt out cryptic words on the walls in her blood.

As the game progresses, you’ll play flashback segments as a young Gus MacPherson while he investigates a case in 1920s Prague. According to Victoria’s dad, this Prague case is how Gus met his wife, but is such a painful memory that Gus does everything he can to block it out of his mind. Through reading the memoirs she finds in the attic, Victoria discovers that her grandfather’s case in Prague is eerily similar to the case she’s working on. The victims in the Prague case were prostitutes who had been brutally murdered through drowning and eviscerations. It is important to note that Gus has this strange sixth sense where he gets hallucinogenic visions whenever he is in an area where violent activity has occurred. The first time this happened in the game, I was left scratching my head, until I did some research into Post Mortem and realized that this is par for his character.

The story is a classic murder mystery tale and while it certainly wasn’t the most original tale, it was compelling enough to make me keep playing and wondering “what happens next?” The story also deals with disturbing issues, has harsh language, and contains some nudity and subtle sexual content. In other words, it rightfully earns its “M” rating. Unlike other M rated games like BMX XXX that are just ultra-raunchy merely for the sake of being ultra-raunchy, Still Life is truly a mature themed game for mature adult gamers. That is a huge plus in my book.

Unfortunately, at only seven chapters in length, the game is very short and ends quite suddenly. Just when things were coming to a head and getting really interesting, the game just suddenly ended with a ton of loose ends and unanswered questions. This can leave gamers in one of three states: feeling cheated, clamoring for the sequel, or a combination of the two. On the other hand, the brevity of the chapters, the short length, and other nice conveniences make this an excellent game for gamers with busy schedules who may not have time to play daily. However, it can definitely be beaten in a couple of weekends, especially if you have experience with the graphic adventure genre. And since graphic adventures are often very plot intensive, most are quite linear and this game is no exception.

The aspect that hurts the story the most is the voice acting and the sometimes awkward scripting. A game such as this is so highly dependent on dialogue and character interaction that the quality of voice acting can make or break it. Still Life is supposed to be a taut and serious-minded thriller and that illusion is often broken by either over-exaggerated “cartoony” voice acting and/or the enunciation of the wrong words making conversations sound unrealistic in relation to the way people normally talk. The voice actor who plays Gustave was clearly the best of the bunch, but while he was excellent with the calm and patient scenes, he fell a bit flat during high tension, dramatic scenes. The scripting is a bit awkward in places as well. There are times when attempts at humor feel forced and fall short, particularly during some of Victoria’s dialogue. There are also times that characters seem to say things that are out of character. Miller, for example, was difficult for me to get a bead on. One moment he was an incompetent cop puking at crime scenes, the next moment he was a resourceful cop running all kinds of correlational data to find a lead, and the next moment he’s a tactless ogre cop who tries to pull rank to get his way. Don’t get me wrong, the plot and game are quite enjoyable, but I think the common mantra goes “if only they had dubbed and scripted it better…”

One good thing about the scripting is that during dialogues you have the option of either speaking in a strictly businesslike manner or engaging in more casual conversation. As investigative agents, Gus and Victoria often use the more casual conversation to put people at ease while grilling them for information. I would like to see this feature expanded upon. As it stands now, picking one or the other does not make a difference in the outcome of the game or character relationships, and even if you skip the casual conversation branch, you eventually go to it at the end anyway since the game makes you engage in all the dialogue trees. How cool would it be if the type and quality of information you acquire differs depending on the type of conversational style you adopt.

The graphics are a classic blend of polygon characters on prerendered backdrops. The prerendered graphics are quite good and certainly not for the faint of heart. The murder scenes and photographs of murder victims are quite grisly and never subtle about the blood. What impresses me is that some visual artists would make the scenery in a game like this a splatter fest, but not here. Even the most grisly of scenes is very artfully done. All the locales look very stylish and compellingly creepy when need be. I found the visual designs from 1920s Prague more interesting than modern-day Chicago, because I had never played a video game set in the 1920s prior to this one. The polygon characters are quite large and fit well with the scenery. They look very smooth and have great detailing, especially in the faces. The character designs are nicely done and even the most radical looking characters look like people we would see in real life. The peoples’ movements are a tad stiff and sometimes exaggerated, though. There are some CG full motion video cutscenes throughout the game, but are often grainy and feature stiff, almost robotic character movements. The motion capture could certainly use some improvement.

Complementing the creepy visuals are creepy music and sound effects. Music is sparse in the game and whenever it does play, it enhances the creepy atmosphere of the game. Some of the more interesting pieces play during the Prague scenes. Sound effects sound like they are supposed to, and their use as background noise is great. Some of the music even incorporates sound effects in it making for some interesting sonic textures.

The gameplay is pretty standard fare for the genre: converse with people, explore environments, examine your surroundings for items, and manipulate (and perhaps combine) items to solve logic puzzles or get past roadblocks in the quest. The game offers some nice conveniences as well. The game allows you to choose between using the mouse or the keyboard to interact with the environments. I usually tended to favor the keyboard, especially for the puzzles that require dexterity (i.e. the robot puzzle in chapter 7.) The icon-based menu is much easier to navigate with a mouse, so I found myself switching back and forth on the fly. I did not find the menus difficult to navigate at all and were quite thorough. I really liked that the game not only had the protagonists keep journals (which were always fun to read) but that all the conversations were logged as well. In addition, the protagonists cannot die so there is no “Game Over” screen. Another convenience is the ability to save any time you want; however, menus are inaccessible during puzzle screens.

The game is far from easy, though. Some of the puzzles can be tricky, twiddly, and/or require large leaps of logic due to vague and/or near non-existent hints (the cookie baking puzzle in chapter 3 comes to mind.) The game generally starts out with easy puzzles and ramps the difficulty upwards as the game progresses. Even seasoned graphic adventurers may find frustration in some of the game’s puzzles. I will say, though, that many of the puzzles were cleverly designed, even if some didn’t integrate super smoothly into the narrative. And thankfully, there is very little in the way of pinpoint pixel hunting. Especially if you use the keyboard, environment interaction icons pop up quite readily. One thing to note is that when you opt for keyboard control, movement is character-relative (i.e. like Resident Evil) where pressing the up arrow key moves the character forward regardless of which direction he or she is facing. I still have a hard time getting used to that control scheme.

So did I like Still Life? Yes I did. I had an enjoyable experience playing it. Do I look forward to the sequel? Yes I do. I have experienced Victoria’s story this far and would like to see how it turns out. I’d also like to see more of Gus’s adventures, since the early 1900s is a setting not often used in video games. Post Mortem chronicled his mission in France, this game chronicled his Prague mission, and his mission in London is mentioned in a conversation between Victoria and her dad in chapter 1. Maybe the next game in the series will chronicle that London adventure. Do I recommend Still Life? I do, on a few conditions. So long as you don’t mind the short length, cliffhanger ending, and less-than-stellar voice acting, this mature game’s disturbing content will certainly take you on a wild ride.

Overall Score 84
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Neal Chandran

Neal Chandran

Neal is the PR manager at RPGFan but also finds time to write occasional game or music reviews and do other assorted tasks for the site. When he isn't networking with industry folks on behalf of RPGFan or booking/scheduling appointments for press events, Neal is an educator, musician, cyclist, gym rat, and bookworm who has also dabbled in voiceover work and motivational speaking.