Welcome back, nostalgia fiends! This week on "Stephen Pastic's Rewind", we go against conventional wisdom and take a look back at something of a niche title, as opposed to something bound to garner far more hits - i.e. Metal Gear Solid (keep your pants on...it's coming). Released in 2005, Microids' Still Life is essentially a "point and click" adventure game centering around the pursuit of a serial killer.
First off, as a PC "point and click" title that was ported to the original Xbox, Still Life is certainly not a title one would be compelled to return to via gameplay alone. From a simple yet mega clunky inventory system, to a run button that does sweet bugger all in speeding up player movement, Still Life is something of a hard sell in convincing those unfamiliar with the game to give it a crack.
The basic thrust of the game involves players alternating between FBI agent Victoria McPherson (who is investigating a series of grisly murders in modern day Chicago), and flashback chapters as Victoria's grandfather Gustav - who is looking into a series of crimes with eerie similarities in 1920's Prague. As with most games of this genre, player progression is mainly gated by solving the frequent puzzles which rear their head - some of which can be anus clenchingly frustrating.
Whilst i enjoyed (possibly not the right word here, given the context) the overarching story, what keeps me coming back to this lesser known title is just how gloriously messed up certain segments of the game are - the centerpiece being a chapter as Gustav McPherson where he witnesses something in a state of utter powerlessness that would send even the most strong willed person well and truly loco. Furthermore, this event serves to give some pretty well thought out context as to how Gustav and Victoria's grandmother came together, given how his part of the story plays out.
On Victoria's side of things, a man wearing an ornate expressionless mask complete with a black cape and top hat serves as the primary antagonist. Right from the beginning of the game, Victoria is called to a crime scene to examine the perpetrators handiwork - it was from this early point that Still Life managed to get it's hooks into me. Collecting evidence at this first crime scene had an almost suffocating sense of atmosphere as you move through the abandoned building, trying to piece together the sequence of events that left an unfortunate woman mutilated in a bathtub.
As something of a psychology nerd, this opening sequence left me with the impression that the developers had a much more acute understanding of serial murder than most games dealing with the subject. As Victoria's fellow agent Claire reconstructs the preceding events after gathering the required evidence, i couldn't help but notice that Microids had gone above and beyond the typical level of research into subject matter such as this. Whilst this level of attention to detail wasn't quite maintained throughout, it was certainly an effective opener in getting my attention.
Progression through the story slowly reveals a set of uncomfortable connections between events in both time periods, and also with some recent additions to Victoria's boyfriend's art gallery. Whilst there are more than a few hokey, ridiculous occurences throughout, i challenge anyone interested in the subject matter not to be sucked in by the game's narrative twists and turns. I also have to stress that some of the locales throughout manage to tickle my brain in a way that few other titles have been able to outside of Silent Hill 2 - while not always being overtly messed up, some places (such as the upper class brothel) manage to be artistically beautiful, yet have a really uncomfortable atmosphere to them - despite the fact that any kind of action only occurs in non interactive cutscenes.
Finally, whilst the cliffhanger ending is something of a modern gaming trope, i feel that Still Life's ending may be one of the most effective, yet frustratingly cheap conclusions i have ever borne witness to (at least until it's god awful resolution in Still Life 2). In short, if you are one of the few people who can both handle mediocre gameplay for the purpose of a gripping story and also have an interest in the darker side of human mentality - suss it out.