Spring has recently sprung, and what goes better with the celebration of new life than the contemplation of life expired? Okay, so that was a little bit tortured. Death, particularly homicide, is always an interesting premise for a video game though. In this instance I'm particularly thinking about Microid's 2005 title, Still Life. A detective style, point-and-click adventure game, this title does the developer's legacy proud as it follows the quasi parallel stories of FBI agent Victoria and her private detective grandfather, Gustav McPherson.
|Victoria and Gustav|
Still Life's most defining feature is the manner in which the story is framed. Victoria is working in present day Chicago when a rash of murders go down. Eerily, the victims of her cases closely mirror the work of a serial killer that Victoria's grandfather, Gus McPherson, tried to track down in 1920s Europe. Despite the fact that 75 years separate our main characters, the number of similarities between their cases is unmistakable. By alternately focusing on these two investigators, Still Life sends the player on an engaging adventure in the hopes that someone will finally bring the serial killers to justice. Along the way, gamers meet a number of well characterized NPCs and stroll through one breathtaking environment after another. Microids, after all, is the patron saint of beautiful adventure game settings. The player also faces a number of questions as they fill the shoes of Victoria and Gus. Who is committing these atrocious murders? Is Victoria dealing with a copycat serial killer, or have the current crimes been committed by the same person Gus investigated? Is that even possible?The Good:
Still Life benefits from solid characters, a compelling story, and (for the most part) very natural puzzles. Not only are the main characters strong enough to carry this game but even the less important NPCs are strongly characterized. One of the things that impressed me the most was the prostitutes Gustav spent a significant amount of time interacting with. Each woman had a distinct personality, and each woman was treated with dignity without the game resorting to tropes and stereotypes in an effort to streamline the tale. Gustav corresponded with the women in the same way that he did all others. Most charmingly he even afforded them nods of his head, a tip of his hat, and other social pleasantries one would not expect given their station. In the end, character interactions throughout the entire game are very well done.
Since I do not want to spoil the story, let it suffice to say that Still Life's tale is well constructed and it maintains a steady pace throughout. I genuinely wanted to know what would happen next, and the script manages to continue luring you forward without resorting to cheap tricks. Plot points are not unnecessarily belabored and little time is wasted with needless backtracking. A few of the story elements may require some suspension of disbelief on the player's part (depending on how jaded they are regarding adventure game logic), but the shifts between Victoria's and Gustav's timeline are well placed and they flow naturally from one to the other. I personally never felt like too much emphasis was given to either character, and I very quickly felt the (natural) emotional connection that Victoria shared with her grandfather. Overall, there is very little to complain about here.
|The Bane of My Existence|
While I found little truly "bad" about this title, there are certainly a few of things that Still Life could have done better. The most notable of these being the character models. While most of the models fall well within what one would expect from an adventure game circa 2005, there are a couple which are extremely sub-par. The prostitutes of 1920s Prague are particularly guilty of this. It is clear that their clothing and hair styles attempt to follow era appropriate fashion, but something about their appearance never looks quite right. The women end up looking far younger or far older than their intended ages. One woman in particular, who was supposed to be very popular with the men (for her beauty among other things), does not even resemble the role she plays. A shapeless dress, boxy grandmother heels, and swollen cankles make me wonder how she ended up with the number of clients she reportedly entertains . For a developer that clearly put a great deal of effort into every other visual aspect of this game (something that some of the other character designs reflect), I am perplexed at how characters like this woman slipped through the cracks.
(click to enlarge)
Another nitpick is the manner in which this game compensates for Gustav's lack of current forensic technology. While Victoria has the FBI's resources at her fingertips, Gustav is a private directive with few resources beyond his wit and connections he has made over the years. I will not go into how the game compensates for Gustav, but let's just say that the talent it introduces does not make a great deal of sense without context. A bit of reading on my part seems to indicate that it makes more sense if one has played the related game Post-Mortem, but a passing mention in Still Life of how this talent was acquired would not have been amiss. (Released in 2002, Post-Mortem is essentially a prequel to Still Life, and features Gus as its main protagonist.)
Last but not least is the English voice acting. As you can tell I played the game in French. On one hand, this was partially because doing so helps me maintain a grasp on the language. On the other hand, it was done so because the English voice acting is atrocious. During the first chapter some of the voices (like Victoria's) are tolerable, but others are so mind-gratingly awful that I actually turned on subtitles. With the dialogue not readble, I could skim the text and then skip through the spoken dialogue at a much faster rate. That, my friends, is never a good sign. The voice overs are not a game breaker, but I really wish that Microids would have hired decent actors for just one game in their library. As for the French actors, I found their VO to be pretty good. Not every character was excellent, but they were certainly more tolerable than their English counterparts.
|Victoria's GPS vs Gustav's Map|
|Character Specific UI|
It should be noted that Still Life has a sequel (Still Life 2) in which some of its events are (hopefully) resolved. The game does end with a cliffhanger and an end-credit cinematic tells us where the next game will take place. The credits also urge gamers to continue the experience online at stillife-game.com. No longer an active website, the Original Official Still Life website can be found here via the Wayback Machine. I have not played the sequel yet, which recently became available on GOG, but I see myself picking it up very soon. In the end, Still Life is a point-and-click adventure game which makes you forget that it is a point-and-click adventure game. The story is compelling, the characters are memorable, and the environments are beautiful. I can unreservedly recommend this game to anyone looking for a good story, even if adventure titles are not usually your "thing."