The Shivah

The Shivah is a bite-sized adventure game with a story that's over a few scenes after it starts. But it sticks with players—not for its touchy puzzles, nor for its "retro" graphics, which hearken back to the earliest adventure games, but for its content. You play as Russell Stone, a gruff old rabbi whose bleak sermons have chased away his congregation. The murder of an old congregant brings Stone into a world of crime, where he seems to move all too easily, not because he tolerates evil, but because he already expects the least of everybody.

This is a short game, and Stone's a stubborn man, so he doesn't change much. But he becomes more sympathetic the more you learn about him. For example, his falling-out with the murder victim is harsh, but the details provide some insight into Stone's hard heart—and then you can decide whether to soften it. The Shivah fits a compelling moral conscience over a tight decision tree, and compared to sillier interactive fiction like Phoenix Wright or Hotel Dusk, its rewards are subtler, and more satisfying.

Beyond the game: Designer Dave Gilbert set out to tell a distinctly Jewish story, and he deftly weaves culture into the noir storyline. The Yiddish dictionary and the stash of Jewish humor are a nice bonus.

Worth playing for: Compared to the story, the retro gameplay and animations serve as comic relief. The blocky splotches of blood that fly from a gun wound will get laughs from anyone who played a Sierra adventure game on an Apple IIe.

Frustration sets in when: You can only beat the big finale through a lot of trial and error, and some of the other puzzles are unnecessarily obtuse. Here's a tip: You can combine clues with other clues to get more clues, and when in doubt, ask questions.

Final judgment: It doesn't live up to its full potential, but it raises the question of why the bigger games don't, either.