A good ghost story usually comes about via a tale which has been handed down from generation to generation, as all-new tellers add little flourishes here and there to make it in their own story. It needn’t just all be about things making you jump with fright or focused on beings with claw-like hands chasing you around a deserted mansion. A good ghost story is one which makes the hairs on the back of your arms stand up; where you keep looking around, feeling a presence behind you watching. Martha is Dead is a good ghost story, but it’s so much more than that too. Let me tell you why.
Martha is Dead has been created by the Italian team at LKA, published by Wired Productions and I have a big fondness and admiration for their body of work. Games like Deliver Us the Moon and The Town of Light provide immersive narrative adventures full of great storytelling and atmosphere. This game fits neatly into the same mold, but for me delivers a much greater experience. Now, some sequences in here are truly shocking in nature, your character tasked with actioning certain things; things that you might have never or ever wanted to do in a game. For this reason, Playstation has censored their versions of the game, causing delays in the hard copy, while on Xbox and PC you can play the complete version untouched.
Martha is Dead is a first person psychological dark narrative adventure that I would compare to watching a very good European arthouse movie. Set in 1944 in the middle of the second World War in Italy, you play the role of Guilia, the twin daughter of a German father and Italian mother living in the Tuscany hillsides. Your twin sister Martha is murdered, found drowned in the lake and you must work out what has happened, taking in the after-effects of her death on the family.
What the game does at the same time is weave in a story of the “white lady” – the ghost of a woman who was killed by her lover in the lake and goes out into the world to take other young girls into her watery grave. At the same time, the game offers many different narrative threads with the backdrop of the World War ever present. Here we see the Italian resistance army in action, with German troops on the other side hunting people in the woods. There are stories of teenage pregnancy and unrequited love. But at the same time, the narrative weaves into fantasy and folklore; the very essence of stories themselves and unreliable narrators. Tarot cards, murder, and even Death himself make an appearance. The use of the Italian language with English subtitles as default in Martha is Dead is very important for the atmosphere and narrative. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, capable of creating social drama mixed with terror and horror, lustrously entwined with each other.
Gameplay-wise it’s in the first person, leaving you to explore the house you live in, the grounds, and the lake. You can move around as normal and pick up items, documents and interact with doorways or telephones. But one of the most interesting things that you get to do is take pictures. Guilia is a photographer and you will be taking pictures in certain areas to forward the story; you can also take snaps for your own pleasure. Getting the perfect picture is like a little mini-game, playing with getting the composition right and the focus. You develop these pictures in a dark room, which in itself is like another little mini-game. It is interesting to play and remember how photographs used to come to life.
There are other sections in Martha is Dead, where you send messages using morse code and unlock crypts on the quiet. But there are also certain moments that are completely horrible in what you have to do; absolutely vile. It is this though which makes the game effective, all as you have a hand in recreating the horror. You are part of it. Yes there are a few minor glitches too, but nothing to write home about.
Martha is Dead also looks amazing. It’s a brilliant document of historical accuracy in regards to the interiors of the house, phone, darkrooms, and cameras. The lighting is effective and brilliantly used, giving the game a haunting quality throughout. The invention is also found in the more creative aspects, particularly the tarot card set design and a puppet theatre that you interact with to tell the story. These are works of genius.
The soundtrack is a wonderful mixture of original atmospheric music, as well as music from the era; jazzy numbers to Italian opera. You should be aware that the voice-over for Martha is Dead is in Italian, but it is beautifully performed by the main narrator. All the other voice-over actors do a fantastic job as well, managing to create a realistic and solid world that the characters live in.
Martha is Dead is a brilliant era-based thriller. The headlines will focus on the sections that have been censored by Playstation, but that would be a shame because there is so much more to this game than those moments. Experience Martha is Dead and it will stay with you for some time to come.
Martha is Dead is available from the Xbox Store