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Still Life and the Mystery of the Unfulfilling Adventure

September 8, 2005 By Glenn Turner

Have you read much about Still Life? I mean, have you read any reviews of it? I certainly did, even those that told me right up front that they'd be discussing spoilers. Why? Well, most mature critics only discuss spoilers when absolutely necessary, and they certainly deemed it necessary in the case of Still Life, throwing vitriol and other nastiness towards the game's ending. I read right along, exposed myself to the details of Still Life's conclusion and proceeded to attain it anyways.

Now while many contemporary gamers might not bat an eyelash at the prospect of spoilers about a video game (unless it's perhaps, Final Fantasy related), Microids's Still Life is an adventure game. Adventure games belong practically in a different time age, an era where the plot, characters and dialogue were intrinsic rewards for playing a game, as opposed to today's joy in teabagging someone 5000 miles away from you. Since the days of Mystery House, adventure games have been married to the narrative more than practically any other product that dare label itself a video game. Consequently, you might think that the prospect of knowing the end of a game, especially a murder mystery like Still Life's would be a grave deterrent from playing, much less finishing said game.

But as a mother in a prior adventure game may have once told me, live for the journey – not the destination. Sure, I may already know the end but that doesn't meant that the entire experience of the game is now ruined, does it? Sadly, I didn't piece together that the poor ending might be indicative of the quality of the rest of the game.

So despite the warnings of my internet peers, I lurched right into Still Life and was initially content: it's a dual-pronged murder mystery spanning two eras, each connected by more than just family blood. Victoria McPherson is an FBI agent working with the Chicago police on a series of serial murders when she stumbles upon notes from her grandfather and private dick Gus McPherson (star of Microid's earlier adventure game Post Mortem), detailing his investigation of an uncannily similar series of grizzly murders in 1920s Prague. As Still Life progresses, you flipflop between the two characters and their respective time periods, navigating each closer and closer to solving the mystery.

The first few steps into each case aren't too shabby, if you ignore Victoria's insipid attempts at injecting humor into a crime scene (how awkward). Luckily, a good deal of her time is spent reading about her grandfather's adventures while holed up at father's house in her pink frilly fru-fru room, lackadaisically chewing gum and holding her teddy bear tight. Oh what a fine FBI agent she is! Oh, and you even get to aid her in making special cookies for her father by following her mother's old recipe. Unfortunately, this recipe reads like a sickeningly cute Hallmark greeting card and makes for an infuriating baking experience.

At least her laziness studious attention to Gus's case gets us out of her house. Gus traipses all over Prague, following the meekest of clues and sullen prostitutes around the city until he trips over a lead. Regardless, the first several 'chapters' of the game are vaguely entertaining with their standard adventure game devices (pulling levers, pushing boxes, pixelhunting) to have suckers like myself feeling nostalgic and slightly queasy thinking about days gone by. Even the cut-scenes that try so hard to have that 'ripped right out of Se7en' feel are enough of a carrot to keep plugging away, backtracking and tedious trying to plug random inventory items together like a madman.

Sadly, around the halfway point of the game even the pre-rendered cut-scenes and adventure game charm can't hide the mess the game has become. Victoria finally rubs the sleep out of her eyes and ventures beyond her stereotypically girlish bedroom, only to have to jump through a number of hoops that have very strictly defined rules. For instance, at one point you have to make a fake ID so you can sneak into a brothel. The player, using his or her powers of deduction, can easily figure out how to fashion a fake ID and one would hope an FBI agent of the caliber that Victoria is would figure it out too. Unfortunately, if you don't discuss the matter with a working girl from said brothel before trying to make the ID, you're refused the ability to put the pieces together. If you really wanted to stretch matters, you could say these devices are simply representative of the kind of bureaucratic red tape a detective is forced to deal with on a daily basis however, it's plainly obvious through Victoria's actions (like breaking into her boss's office and you know, sneaking into brothels) that she has little respect for such protocol.

And Gus, poor Gus. His case gets severely bogged down in a series of insipid puzzles that do nothing but tediously wear down the player. Have a spare hour or so? I hope you like picking locks with a controller, because you're gonna be going at it for a long time. Gus also has the honor of treading through one of the dullest mazes I've encountered since Manhunter's sewers. By this point in the game, each step forward by Victoria or Gus's is obstructed by a monotonous and dull puzzle, like yet-another-infernal slide puzzle and the always yawn-worthy generic water bucket puzzle. It's just one poorly implemented 'puzzle' after another, but sadly at this point it's simply too late to just cut your losses and quit playing the game. After all, there's a mystery to be solved, right? Right?

Part of the problem is, as a mystery Gus's case (and how it intertwines with his brethren's investigation) is extremely transparent. Before you hit the barrage of intellectually bankrupt puzzles, you've pretty much sorted the matter out. And even after sorting Gus's mess you're left with the maddeningly stagnant Victoria investigation, which puts you through an amazingly wearisome timing puzzle including a robot and a laser. One would think a puzzle with such a premise would be exciting, containing automatons and lasers but no! Tack on a few more humdrum actions to Victoria's horrible life and, well then you're stuck with the aforementioned ending.

As I had knowledge about said ending before starting the game, I can't say I was disappointed by the actual conclusion. In fact, I expected worse. This isn't to say the finale isn't a disappointment as it certainly leaves something to be desired, but for the sheer number of tiring puzzles and filler you have to sift through in the final act, I couldn't help but be left with the following realization:

It wasn't worth it. The journey was junk. It was all downhill from the moment you maneuver Victoria around the first crime scene. And even if Still Life's ending provided some sense of satisfaction, it would be hard to recommend it as the game falters away from the allure of the murder and focuses solely on the time-eating puzzles, which are nothing you haven't seen before and certainly nothing you'll relish playing. So the mystery is, why bother slogging through it at all? Here's a suitable ending for such a nail-biter: there's no reason at all.

This review was conducted using the Xbox version of Still Life.

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#1 Anonymous May 15, 2009 07:25pm

Still Life was amazing, period. :)