Misdirection, manipulation, and an inventory filled with objects are the tools of the stage magician, but they’re also the basics of the adventure-game genre. Why it’s taken so long for the two to be combined is anyone’s guess, but in Gray Matter, the fit is so natural that it seems like it’s the way adventure games always should have been.
Gray Matter’s stage-magic theme also serves the narrative purposes of character manipulation and investigation required for most games: Sam Everett, a struggling young magician, seeks to join the Daedalus Club, an exclusive magicians’ society. On the way to London, her bike breaks down and she takes refuge in a gothic mansion, pretending to be an Oxford student sent to assist the mansion’s resident, a physically and emotionally scarred neurobiologist. Given the setting’s immediate creepiness, it’s no surprise that something paranormal is going on.
Gray Matter was designed by industry vet Jane Jensen, best known for her work on the Gabriel Knight series, arguably the best adventure games of all time. The same craft is on display in Gray Matter: gothic themes, mysticism both Christian and non-Christian, high-quality writing, and a strong sense of place. The last two strengths make Gray Matter stand out. The videogame industry has largely adopted the grammar of film, using cutscenes and breathless action sequences to maintain momentum in most games. Gray Matter takes a more leisurely approach, providing a world to explore and characters to learn about, like settling in with a long book. It works not toward immersion in the game, instead preferring to build momentum via revelation about the setting and story. The puzzles flow naturally from these premises.
Gray Matter’s weaknesses are primarily technical: The character animations seem a little bit stiff, and the motion-comic-style cutscenes are jarring compared to the game’s graphics elsewhere. But this isn’t the kind of game which is played for technical achievement, and while that may prevent it from being a crossover success, Gray Matter has “cult hit” written all over it. As well it should—it’s the best traditional adventure game in a decade.