Let me preface this review with a history lesson onThe City of Lightsand before you ask, no, I’m not talking about the Blackpool Illuminations. The City of Lights was a 2016 release by Italian studio LKA.it that told the story of Renée, a 16-year-old girl who is placed in an Italian asylum in 1938. Placed there on the pretext that she is a danger to herself and the people around her, the play tells of her attempts to come to terms with this. It was a game that put under the microscope stigmatizing views of women’s health and their position in the world, as well as the mental health and treatment of people with such issues.
For me, that resonates. The game doesn’t compromise, but it doesn’t force you to watch either. This helps to show the predicament these people went through when the concept of mental health was an afterthought. Renée’s character study is insightful and the ending is a bitter pill to swallow, but it all rings true from a society that either profited or was unaware of the issues people still face to this day.
I prefaced this review with Martha is dead because it sheds light on the path taken, or rather the path taken. By shifting the scope from an individual to a group, the rhythms of the story remain the same while the scale increases. There’s a lot to unpack, but in short, you play as Giulia, the titular Martha’s twin sister who, shockingly, was killed under mysterious circumstances. Giulia tries to figure out who’s responsible as World War II rages in the background.
There’s a lot more than has been mentioned, but what’s important to note is that none of it really matters. Martha is dead makes every effort to teach the player the mechanics of the game, like sending telegraphs, and an incredibly detailed photo mode that includes film development. After several nightmarish sequences, the game will proudly shout “Hooray! You have developed your first photo! Not only that, but you’ve also unlocked a skin for your old camera! Good for you!”.
In short, it’s a video game, a fact that Martha is dead puts in harsh juxtaposition alongside various mini-games with gruesome content, including a now infamous scene that involves the player cutting off a dead woman’s face before bringing it to first person. Ho-yes, we’ve got the strongest possible metaphors for a game that, by all means, deserves more nuance than a speaker. Sony’s decision to censor this content was controversial, but I understand that, although it’s personally not what I would choose to censor.
Without getting into spoilers, there’s another scene right after that shows more intense and shocking footage, and now the speaker is broken. That’s a really edgy statement trying to play with the psychological side of the game, but if you’ve played The City of Lights, you already know how it ends. It’s not about the light at the end of the rainbow, or some hallucination hiding the true dark end, it’s about bigoted people doing bigoted things, which this game is full of.
Despite these simple representations, the characterization is very weak. They’re vessels for misery to take effect, and with the game’s reluctance to show human confrontation up close, opting to play with metaphors instead, nothing lands as it should. The climax should be the conflict between Giulia and her mother, but it all leads to implications, which The City of Lights also engaged. The difference here though is the previously mentioned scale of this project, something the game can’t handle, both narratively and technically.
One of the biggest problems Martha is dead a is the incredibly buggy nature of it. Whether it’s messy lighting, infinite loading screens, constant crashes, story-relevant areas not loading, or corrupted saves in a certain chapter, this game is full of glitches. horrible. Sometimes you’ll start an interaction not knowing what to do, so you’ll play the enjoyable guessing game of “Did I miss something, or did the game block me?” Which is never fun.
None of that stopped me though. To deviate a little, I hold The City of Lights close to my chest like a seething portrait of the horrific treatment of mentally ill people before proper care kicked in. Rarely do you find a game so mundane in its presentation that also showcases such devastating lore without compromise. Martha is dead compromise, and for what? A photo mode you can’t indulge in half the time?
The problem is here. It turns a war zone into a playground. A toy box taken from a grave. This story is told in such an immature, banal and pathetically complacent way, that everything suffers. He is not interested in providing more information on the German forces present in Italy during World War II. He is not interested in further showing the difficult situation observed in The City of Lights. He’s not even interested in Martha herself. What it cares about is being controversial enough to stick in your mind afterwards, which is a dangerous design line.
I’m finished Martha is dead, of course, but what did I get out of it? I wasn’t looking for fun, but I wasn’t looking for death either. I was looking for insight, the revitalization of a studio that wanted to provide information and support to the right people, but instead we see it fall down the same paths that only the most deaf AAA editors find themselves. It is not an evolution of lessons learned. It’s a mockery of what you believe in and what you stand for. There is nothing here.