Greg Hunter

Game Review: The Shivah

In Games on September 15, 2009 at 9:00 PM

_resizeThere are a lot of reasons I’ve been playing mostly adventure games, lately (and I’m going to save most of them for a later post) but one of the more practical reasons is that there are a lot of them are either free or very cheap. Since the heyday of the genre ended about ten years ago, and demand is low, even new games are inexpensive compared to the latest Rockstar release. Also, thanks to the freeware Adventure Games Studio, anyone with enough time and basic coding knowledge can develop his/her own point-and-click adventure and post it on the AGS website, usually for free.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been poking around AGS forums looking for the best of the best. Among these games, two developers’ names come up often, Ben Croshaw, author of the Trilby survival-horror series, and Dave Gilbert, founder of indie adventure label WadjetEye Games. Both are very good, but in my opinion, Gilbert, one of the few AGS devs to charge money for his games, is the best.

Gilbert’s most famous game, The Shivah, is a mainstay in the ongoing discussion of “games as art” and mature gaming in general. Said discussion is mostly useless, in my opinion, and “art-gamers”, as they like to call themselves, have a bad habit of putting heavy-handed writing and high-mindedness before fun, but The Shivah really is something special. Rarely have a well-written, thoughtful story and immersive gameplay been combined so effectively.

My love for The Shivah starts with the premise; it’s a film-noir-inspired crime drama starring an aging orthodox rabbi. More than anything, it’s a genre piece–the brooding protagonist’s early encounter with a trenchcoated detective is something of a statement of principles–but its religious themes and Jewish cultural references spice things up enough to keep them interesting.

shivahss02Russel Stone, head of a poor, nearly unattended synagogue in New York, is on the verge of retiring. His bills are unpayable, and his increasingly cynical sermons have alienated his flock. Out of nowhere, he is left $10,000 in the will a long-estranged member of his congregation. The money is the windfall he needs to keep going, but the circumstances surrounding the gift are murky. Unable to accept the money without first uncovering the truth, Stone begins his own investigation into his benefactor’s death.

Two of Gilbert’s design choices in The Shivah are really admirable. The first is that the game is short. There is an odd emphasis, these days, on the length of a game. In order to be truly “great”, a game has to be long. (Game critics prefer the term “epic”.) This trend makes  sense–if a game is good, I want it to be as long as possible–but it’s the bane of economical storytelling. Most games’ plots are episodic, and/or spread out between long stretches of gameplay. The Shivah, though, is minimalist in both game and plot structure, which makes the two easier to integrate.

This leads me to the other great thing about The Shivah: plot and gameplay are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Unlike most adventure games, The Shivah is almost devoid of objects to be picked up and used with other objects. It’s puzzles are all language-based, and each puzzle solved drives the plot forward by revealing an essential piece of information. The Shivah isn’t the only game that does this, but it’s always exciting when a game does it well.

The Shivah isn’t free, but at $5, it’s only a little more than your average used bookstore mystery novel, and a little less than most lunches. You can pay for and download it electronically here. Do yourself a favor, and give it a try.

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