Still Life is a 3D point-and-click adventure that garners its "M" rating due to its gruesome subject matter. Players take the role of a gifted young FBI detective named Victoria McPherson, who is assigned to a difficult case in modern Chicago involving the apparent serial killings of (at least) five prostitutes. Frustrated by the abundance of gory, circumstantial evidence and the dearth of useful leads, Victoria visits her father for a break, to clear her mind. Here, she talks about of her grandfather, Gus McPherson, who worked as a private investigator in Prague during the 1920s.
While looking through one of her grandfather's old case files, she begins to notice uncanny similarities to the case she is currently investigating. As Victoria ponders the circumstances of both her grandfathers 75-year-old case and her own modern mystery, players travel back and forth between Chicago and Prague, as examining the horrific murders from both perspectives may be the only way solve the cross-generational crimes. Still Life was developed by Microids, the studio that created 2003's Post Mortem. Gamers who enjoyed that earlier adventure game are likely to remember Gus McPherson, who was its lead character.
I'm a sucker for adventure games, particularly the traditional LucasArts/Sierra-style games that very few companies bother to make any more. That's why I make a special effort to follow companies like Microids, a French outfit acquired by Ubisoft, who continue to fight a gallant battle to bring out old-school adventure titles. Microids was responsible for Syberia, one of the best adventure games of recent years, as well as Post Mortem, a slightly more experimental adventure title that I really enjoyed back in March of 2003. So when Still Life, the sequel to Post Mortem landed on my desk, I simply had to load it up. What I found was a title that retains many of the strengths of its predecessor in storyline and presentation, but comes out weaker than the original thanks to poorly conceived puzzles.
One nice thing about Still Life is that you don't need to have played Post Mortem to pick up this game. While there are a few references to the first game's storyline, Still Life tells a completely separate tale. This time around, players will be following the adventures of Victoria MacPherson, an FBI Agent in Chicago who's working on tracking down a serial killer who's brutally murdered five young women. As she investigates the killer, though, she stumbles across the memoirs of her grandfather, Gustav MacPherson, a private investigator in 1929 Prague. It seems that he too, investigated a serial killer who's choice of victims and method of operation are shockingly similar to the killer she's hunting. As the story continues, the player will jump back and forth between controlling Victoria in modern-day Chicago and Gustav in 1920's Prague.
This switching back-and-forth and the presentation of the storyline marks Still Life's greatest strength. The serial killer angle, while a bit clichéd, works in this case because of the way that the storyline jumps between time periods. As the story moves forward and coincidence after coincidence pile up between the two eras, the game's dramatic tension ratchets up nicely. Who, exactly, is killing these women? Why do people with the same names seem to crop up in both times? Are we dealing with a copycat, or could there be a deeper, possibly even supernatural, cause behind the deaths? The game is filled with "Aha!" moments when the player picks up on weird things that are happening before either of the two protagonists, and the storyline takes great advantage of this by throwing out a lot of red herrings that really are nothing more than coincidence.
It helps that both Gustav and Victoria are relatively compelling, well-drawn characters. Victoria is a talented cop and a decent forensic investigator that doesn't let her grim job get in the way of a wry sense of humor. Gustav is a bit flakier, but he is, after all, tormented by psychic visions of murderers. Despite that, he's got a good heart and is one of the few people who genuinely care enough about the prostitutes of Prague to try and find their murderer. As they travel through their story, a good bit of it gets told in long, often action-packed, cut scenes, and these too are a highlight of the game. The cinematic vision behind the framing, staging, and camera work of the cut scenes is excellent, and they manage to do what I thought was almost impossible, make me actually care about the actions of polygonal objects. The deaths of the prostitutes as shown in flashback are horrific, and the chase scene between Victoria and the murderer through the snowy streets of Chicago is rife with tension, shocks, and some genuine thrills.
As good as the cut scenes are, though, they don't hold a candle to the sheer graphic beauty of the interactive areas. Keep in mind, however, when I say "beautiful." I'm using the term in the "art and graphic design" sense, because many of the places the game takes you to (such as an abandoned crack house, an S&M club, a burned out section of Prague, and a Chicago Police autopsy lab) are incredibly disturbing. Every element of these areas is drawn and created in meticulous detail, each creating a different atmosphere that can actually be felt while playing the game. The crack house, for example, is a filthy, roach infested den with peeling wallpaper, exposed insulation, hanging wires, vile stained mattresses, and gang graffiti all over the walls. Even as I manipulated Victoria around the area investigating the first murder, I could practically feel my skin crawling with disgust. The S&M club, on the other hand, is a sybaritic Wonderland filled with ornate, overstuffed furniture, decadent artwork, and the kind of subtly degrading architectural details that makes you feel less than human just for being in the place.
Unfortunately, graphic beauty, storyline, and exciting cut scenes can only take you so far. The fourth element of an adventure game, and arguably the most important, is the quality of the puzzles. It's here that Still Life breaks down. Put simply, Still Life's puzzles fall into two different categories, the absurdly easy and tear-your-hair out nightmares. The majority of the game's puzzles are in the first category. Conversations are completely out of a player's control, the only thing they have to do is select the right or left mouse button to decide whether to get straight to the information or intersperse your conversations with a bit of flavor text. They are, in effect, nothing more than cutscenes, albeit ones that pause every now and then. The other so-called puzzles in the game are slightly more difficult, but not by much. Need to get the keys to a suspect's apartment? Just find her and ask her. That's it. Even here, though, the puzzles manage to be annoying as they constantly make you travel back and forth between areas doing pointless busywork that feels like nothing more than a way to artificially extend the game's length.
Every once in a while, though, you run into a puzzle that just makes you want to find the designer and subject him or her to the kind of tortures so graphically displayed in the game's cut scenes. One that comes immediately to mind is a lockpicking challenge that's nightmarish, but can at least be figured out via trial and error and some note-taking. The one that practically made me scream, though, has Victoria baking cinnamon Christmas cookies for her Dad. Yes, that's right. In the middle of the biggest murder investigation in Chicago in years, the game grinds to a complete halt until you as Victoria bake cookies. Even worse, the recipe for the cookies is in some absurd code written down by your grandmother where you have to figure out what ingredients she's referring to when she says to mix together "Half a cup of generosity and a tablespoon of romance." Don't go looking for clues in the rest of the game, either. Apparently, whoever designed this game somehow believes that all the information you need is contained within the recipe. Maybe so, but this puzzle marked the first time in years I've had to resort to a walkthrough to get through it.
There are also some issues with the game's translation. As in Post Mortem, the game's dialogue was clearly written in French and translated by someone who has a good technical knowledge of English, but no feeling for American colloquialisms. This is particularly noticeable in the game's African-American characters. While I'm not someone who reacts to every politically correct outcry, the shuck-and-jive, faux-street lingo, and voice characterizations of the game's black characters struck me as borderline racist. Whether this is a true negative or just a matter of taste, naturally, depends on individual sensibilities. For me, though, the characterizations were (if not so outrageous as to be truly offensive), unnecessary, gratuitous, and in incredibly poor taste, distracting me from what is otherwise a well-told tale.
In the end, then, what you're left with is a game that more truly deserves the appellation "interactive movie" than almost any game I've ever seen. Every time the game is telling its story, whether it's through a compelling cutscene, a bit of exquisite dialogue, or the well written books and documents you come across in the course of the investigation, Still Life truly shines. It's unfortunate that pointless busywork and a poorly designed and integrated puzzles end up throwing roadblocks in what should have been one of the best adventure games in the recent memory. If you're an adventure game fan, Still Life is definitely worth picking up.
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