Go beyond horror with Martha is Dead • Eurogamer.net
Although the terracotta floor tiles are worn and the plaster on the walls is pockmarked with age, it looks stunning here. The umbrellas sit in a large urn next to the cold marble fireplace, but they don’t need them today; today the sun penetrates through unclosed windows and everything it touches is bathed in its golden glow. Two oversized, spongy leather chairs support a small table on which a fan swings – slowly and without much enthusiasm – blowing a light breeze through the center of the bright room. Next to that is an upright piano – it looks well used but in good condition – and although there are candles dotted around, this neat and unassuming dining room has a majestic electric candelabra that sits directly above the dining table. A dining table with a body on it.
While that’s not entirely unexpected – it’s called Martha Is Dead, after all; death is baked right down to the bloody title – the sight of the corpse in the coffin is all the more disturbing given the mundane backdrop of this bright and welcoming place. Our protagonist, Giulia, said nothing in passing, even though her head has been full of Martha since she woke up that morning. Instead, she steps out of the rustic Tuscan house and steps out into a lush courtyard with citrus trees and giant clay urns and a gorgeous green view.
Now I know what you are thinking because I felt it too. It’s the classic horror bait and switch, isn’t it? The game will draw us in with its stunning recreation of 1940s Tuscany, a world full of color and charm, just long enough for us to get comfortable before the sun goes down and things get scary. . It’s Horror 101, and quite predictable.
But that’s the thing, see; Martha Is Dead is not an eyesore: it is a thriller. And it’s only described as a psychological thriller because what creator Luca Dalcò really thinks it is – a horror drama – is a genre that doesn’t really exist yet, and it’s a hard sell. in any industry wishing to classify its products carefully.
“I think the word horror, as a general definition, can make people think that a game is something different from what it really is,” LKA creator and founder Luca Dalcò tells me, via a translator. “It’s easy to put an end to a game, yes, but it’s an eyesore drama.
“The problem is that it is a very difficult concept to communicate to an audience because there is no [such thing as a] horror drama … that’s why we defined the game as a psychological thriller. But you have the horror. You have thrillers. But drama and horror can live together.”
You see, while the story is undoubtedly taking dark turns – and trust me, things got really dark in the exclusive 30-minute slot offered to Eurogamer last week – Martha Is Dead doesn’t want to scare you that much. that he wants to share with you his deep and painful story. Yes, it is dark. Yes, it’s packed with mature themes and deeply disturbing imagery, similar to its predecessor, Town of Light. But none of this is as important as the central story of love and loss – the “grave trauma of losing someone you love” – which lies at the heart of Martha Is Dead.
“The game is not afraid of jumps,” insists Dalcò. “There aren’t any clichés you’d expect – giant zombies or anything.
“Images [within the game] which can be defined as horror is to create some discomfort for the player. It’s a technique to empathize with the main character because we want the player to become the protagonist of the game. “
By the way, it doesn’t seem like it will be difficult to empathize with Giulia. Despite the language barrier – Martha Is Dead prides herself on her “authentic shameless Italian voice,” which is the game’s default language setting – and the fact that she lives in 1940s Italy during the Second World War, it is surprisingly relatable; warm and kind, compassionate and observant. I’m not sure I fully understand what happened when she woke up that morning and dressed in the clothes of her deceased twin sister, just as I’m not sure why she is trying to deceive his parents about his identity. To be fair, however, these sweet mysteries do precisely what I suspect they’re supposed to do; they fucking intrigue me.
The little slice of Martha is Dead that I’ve seen so far is a curious offer, although it leaves me with more questions than answers. Much like LKA’s previous project, Town of Light, the photorealistic visuals are stunning, and it’s hard not to be distracted by the little details scattered around this world.
You will feel like 1940s Tuscany – which has been painstakingly and faithfully recreated from “a lot of materials based on research from [LKA’s] previous game “- is not so much a backdrop as a full-fledged character.
“We are detail-oriented,” says Dalcò, reflecting on the five-year development period – a significant chunk of time for an independent studio. “We always come back to each environment to rework it multiple times because we believe that small details that could be overlooked at first glance can actually convey that very important sense of reality. That’s what we’re aiming for, and I believe, and I hope, that we will be able to achieve our goal, not least because we are working in the same environment. “
Yes, you read that right ; to find out if the team managed to capture a real location, Dalcò simply walks out of his studio door. “If I want to check if the atmosphere is right, I can come out of the studio and take a look because the environment here is the one portrayed in our game.”
As I wander wide-eyed through these stunning surroundings, I wonder if I will ever really learn to trust this place; At the end of my limited time with the game, I seriously doubt it. I remember Silent Hill, and in particular the second seminal opus. Yes, I know it’s a bold comparison – even sacrilist – but I promise I’m not just hyperbolic here as the world I thought I knew is transforming and turning into something different. Something worse.
Later in the preview without intervention we return to the body. This time the room is dark and I have to take a picture of the corpse in the coffin. Martha is horribly young, her hands clasped on her knees, her eyes closed but surrounded by dark circles. There is an abrasion staining the otherwise flawless porcelain skin of her forehead, and slight scratches stain her mouth. I didn’t notice those scratches the last time I was here, but have to take a picture of her face now? Well, now they are a must.
The camera is a key feature of the gameplay this time around, and I can’t go on without framing the subject of my shot, focusing it correctly, and then making sure I’m using the correct exposure. It’s horribly disturbing – horror has taught me that Martha is going to point her head towards mine and give me a devilish wink at any time – not least because Guilia doesn’t say a word while she’s down. fulfills its task. As she carefully lines up her photo and assesses the room with nothing but a lighter to repel the darkness, I realize that there is nothing sunny or mellow about this place. Not anymore, anyway.
The camera is very present in what I have seen of the game so far. It’s a bit boring at first – there are a few tricky bits and even a full darkroom sequence to go through – but it’s a new game mechanic introduced to give you more control, Dalcò tells me, acknowledging that some players accused Town of Light of being little more than a walking simulator. Personally, I think walking simulators get a bad rap – I don’t mind going through a game if the story I’m being told is compelling enough, and Town of Light certainly did for me – but it did. is a sign that LKA is enthusiastic about innovating and improving immersion. I don’t know how crucial this camera will be yet, but even though Martha Is Dead isn’t the first game to feature a device that allows you to distance yourself from a “reality that can sometimes be even crueler than the fantasy ”, I can’t wait to learn more about how this plays out in Guilia’s mysterious story.
It’s hard to find the right balance between immersion and storytelling, explains Dalcò. While Guilia can generally move around and explore her world on her own, there is always a part of the story that is “told in third person, as if you are watching” to control the player’s perspective.
“It is sometimes very difficult to give the player full control, to say everything the game wants to say using full interaction,” he admits, adding that sometimes the best way to deliver a story-driven game is sometimes. is to retain the player and strip their agency.
“There are ‘saints!’ moments in the larger scale of the narrative where the player must not interfere, ”he adds. “These moments have to be recounted because it’s part of the big project. [Game developers] are sometimes afraid to make very clear choices in what the story is. “
Unsurprisingly, things take a dark turn towards the end of the preview. The lamp we were carrying goes out, and there’s a chase sequence – damn it, do I hate chase sequences! – before crossing a war-torn trench – at least I think it’s a trench? – and find yourself in front of a huge mahogany door. Countless skulls and bones protrude from the muddy walls on either side of us, and I know that all that waits on the other side of this door may not be very happy to see me.
Which is interesting, because Dalcò – the man behind Martha Is Dead – smiles quickly, and is outspoken and enthusiastic about his work. But while he insists that neither Town of Light nor Martha are autobiographical and “unrelated to Luca’s personal stories,” he admits “there’s a lot of Luca in these games” alongside ‘a good dose of superstition and Italian folklore.
To finish? I can’t help but ask about this name. I can’t remember the last time a title made me sit down and pay attention to it like Martha Is Dead did, and I want to know exactly how Dalcò and LKA invented it. Turns out Martha Is Dead was actually the development codename for the project, but the team liked it so much that it stuck. Dalcò says it speaks to both the directness of the main character and the premise of the game itself.
“There are no bells and whistles,” Dalcò laughs. “That’s it. Martha is dead. It’s the game.”