…And I’m Not Feeling So Good Either
HIGH An accurate reconstruction of ’40s Italy with pleasant graphics.
LOW Too much gore and not enough research into characters’ psyches
WTF The newspaper written in two languages.
The Town of Light by Italian developer LKA was among my favorite experiences in 2016. It told a harrowing story of how patients were treated in mental hospitals back in the ’40s and ’50s, complete with case reconstructions based on historical research. Martha is Dead tries — apparently — to do the very same thing, but with a completely fictional story set in the same period and the results don’t stack up.
The story begins in 1945, in a small Tuscan villa occupied by Nazis. Main character Giulia witnesses the dead body of her sister Martha floating in a lake. The story then follows Giulia as she tries to figure out exactly what happened, and why her memories regarding the fateful day are so vague. It soon becomes clear that Giulia is an unreliable narrator and by the end it remains unclear whether the events actually took place at all.
The game raised eyebrows after Sony asked the devs to reduce or remove certain violent scenes in order to be published on PlayStation, so I played the uncut PC version for the purposes of this review. For those wondering, there are only a few scenes, though they are quite graphic — things like a body being cut open or a face being removed from a character with a sharp tool. However, since the story is about psychological horror (there are no serial killers nor any supernatural elements) this imagery feels mostly irrelevant, existing only to amp up the shock factor. Ironically, the story feels less effective as a result of its presence.
The gameplay is, as with The Town of Light, of the “walking simulator” variety — travel in first-person, interact with items, pick up a few select ones and progress the story. There is no character interaction, but LKA did try to develop a few mechanics, which mostly left me scratching my head. The first is taking pictures with a complicated camera setup, then developing said photos in a “real darkroom”. This is used a few times to further the narrative, and the game also entices players to take “extra” pictures, but the purpose is never clear.
Then, there’s the telegraph. Oh boy.
At one point the story grinds to a halt because the game offers the choice to communicate with the partisan resistance forces by using a telegraph as one would in real life, morse code and all. The problem is that, instead of providing a clear morse code scheme, there is a complicated, nonsensical picture to use as a reference. In the end, the puzzle is simple (even though sending and decoding eight messages is a bit much) but I had to resort to looking up Morse code on my phone, which definitely did not support the immersion.
Then, at the end, another mechanic rears its head — a puppet show. The point is to move puppets in the correct order to make them play out scenes from Giulia’s memory. It’s barely a challenge at all, and like the rest, seems little more than an attempt to provide some sort of gameplay apart from walking. Worse, instead of being naturally spread throughout the story (which is only around 6-7 hours) they’re all clumped closely together, so they become irritating in a hurry.
On Steam, the developers list “unashamedly authentic voice acting in Italian”. Well, I don’t know what they mean by authentic exactly, but I played with English subs on and couldn’t help but notice something strange. The subs would say different things than the voiceovers, and the discrepancies couldn’t be easily explained as slight differences in translation. I’m really not sure if I should have followed the story told in the subtitles or the one in the voice acting. There’s more language confusion elsewhere — if one reads a newspaper, half is in Italian and the other half in English. This jumble makes for Tower of Babel-like confusion.
After The Town of Light, LKA’s team of male writers decided to try their hands at writing another woman with mental health problems, touching upon issues like pregnancy, menstrual cycles and abortion. The overall message seems to be about caring for one’s mental health — something I’m sure we can all get behind — but the mechanics are too peripheral and the script is too confusing, gory and horrific for a tale that is ostensibly about a woman’s interior journey. By the time credits rolled, I was not convinced that the version of Giulia’s story present here was one worth telling or experiencing.
Disclosures: This game is developed by LKA and published by Wired Productions. It is currently available on PC, PS4/5 and XB. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: The game is rated M by the ESRB, it contains Blood, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Self Harm and Violence. It features quite a lot of harrowing scenes, so this is one definitely recommended for adults only (and not for anyone squeamish). The game does feature warnings before one particular scene of self-harm, even though it ends up being slightly less violent than others with no warning.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All spoken dialogue in the game features subtitles, but text cannot be altered or resized. The telegraph gameplay section is subtitled so it can still be played, even though it might be more difficult without audio. This game is not fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: On PC, the game is controlled like most first-person titles — WASD to move around the the mouse to interact. Shift can be used to run. The controls are not remappable. there is no control diagram.