Friday, April 20, 2012

Let's Talk About: Still Life

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.

The Basics:

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 
Perhaps most important for me was the natural implementation of Still Life's puzzles.  While my old nemesis puzzle locks made a number of appearances, I suppose that is to be expected of any point-an-click adventure game.  The majority of the puzzles not only made sense in the context of the story, but with some careful thought they were possible to solve without resorting to gamefaqs or walkthroughs.  Likewise, character interactions made it clear where the player was supposed to go and what they were supposed to do when arriving there.  In addition, I only ran into a handful of instances were objects I needed to pick up blended into the background.  Environments are designed in such a way that points of interest were clearly defined without being extremely obvious.  No pixel hunting here.

The Bad:
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.

Dialogue Options
(click to enlarge)
While a minor gripe, there is also this game's conversation system. Instead of opting for a dialogue tree à la Syberia or Broken Sword, Still Life institutes a rather unique method of navigating its extended dialogue sessions.  Upon initiating verbal contact, Victoria or Gustav generally speak for a while and receive a reply from their contact, and then image of a mouse appears.  If there is more detail to be uncovered about the recent exchange, then the right mouse button will be highlighted red.  If there is additional key dialogue to add to the most recent exchange, then the left mouse button will also be highlighted red.  There is no on screen indication to show what will be discussed, there is no tree that will let you revisit pas dialogue points, and there is nothing telling you what the purpose of the right and left mouse buttons are.  I only discovered the difference between the right and left buttons by testing them out.  One can assume that old dialogue options (even from the current conversation) cannot be revisited because everything they say is added to the character script log.  One shouldn't have to open a new screen and scroll through mountains of text to find something if they missed a detail though.  I can sort of see what the developers were doing here.  After all, everything else in the game tries to flow as naturally as possible.  The story elements flow smoothly into each other, puzzles fit naturally into the world, and even cut scenes mainly exist to advance the story so that it doesn't stagnate.  When mixed with these aspects, a traditional dialogue   tree or "notepad" element could easily feel stilted.  By using their mouse system, conversations flow smoothly and have beginning, middle, and end.  I can't help by wonder though why the dialogue tree was axed when equally awkward lock puzzles were left in.  After all, you cannot tell me that people actually use complex systems like that to secure their chests and safes.  In the end, Still Life's dialogue system is not a deal breaker, but it does not really do this title any favors either.

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.

The Worth Noting:

Victoria's GPS vs Gustav's Map
Still Life's attention to visual detail is one of the things that makes this title so special.  There are always amusing little features like the Microsoft "flower box" screensaver seen on the computer in Victoria's father's office, but Microids also took a great deal of pain to differentiate between the early-2000s and the 1920s.  Details and settings found in one era often found their way into the other as if to reinforce the year gap.  For instance, Victoria's SUV is a prominent game feature since it is used to navigate from one part of the city to another. While Gus uses a paper map (instead of a GPS like device) to move from location to location, era appropriate cars are scattered throughout in order to emphasize changes in technology.  These vehicles would be easy to dismiss, except for the fact that Still Life makes sure you see them.  The first time we meet Gus, one vehicle is blocking a one-lane road near the river.  The sole purpose of interacting with this object is to have Gustav wonder what kind of jerk would park his car there.  In another example of era comparison, both Victoria and Gus speak with coroners and morgues.  The FBI Bureau's morgue is a pristine, metallic locale with bright lights, modern technology, and clean white linens.  You can almost smell disinfectant in the air.  Gus' coroner (Chap. 2), however, is an former, accidental army surgeon who operates out of an abandoned chapel. Blood stains the floor, the table, the medic's apron, and the player almost gags on the smell of death, dust, and decay.  In 2005, the deceased was placed on a brushed metal table and covered in a clean sheet.  In 1920's Prague, the deceased was placed on an old stone altar and still wore the old burlap police had used as a makeshift body-bag.  From a visual standpoint it also bears mentioning that cut scene camera angles are both varied and interesting.

Character Specific UI
To only focus on the environments though, would be doing the game's interface an injustice.  That is right, the interface. A title's UI is generally something one does not usually pay attention to past the point of noting whether it is intuitive, functional, or a pain to use.  With this game, however, one must go a step further since it changes in appearance according to the character using it.  Victoria's interface is predictably electronic in nature, and puts one in mind of a palm pilot (or other early-2000s data storage device).  Here she can access extensive case files and conversation notes.  The usual inventory management and save features are located here as well.  Gustav, on the other hand would not have had access to this kind of technology.  A such, his case notes and and past conversations are recorded on faded notepaper.  It is as if he is flipping though a handwritten notebook or file folder to obtain the information he needs.  Other visual cues differentiate between the eras as well.  For instance, where  Victoria's character picture is color and on an FBI card, Gustav's head shot is black and white and on a yellowed ID card.  In the grand scheme of things something like this may seem small, but it is one detail which convinced me that playing this game through was a good idea.  Any developer that cares enough to change features like that, things which most people would not have noticed had it stayed the same, has most likely dedicated equal, if not more, attention to the game play features that really do matter.

The Verdict:
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  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."