Martha is dead, and so is my capacity to game for a while.
Now those are harsh words to start off my first review in months, but bear with me. I’ll try to make sense of my thoughts surrounding this pixel-perfect narrative muddle below.
TW: mentions of abuse, self-harm, and suicide
Strong Opening Act
The first hour had me hooked. You play as Giulia in 40s Tuscany – World War II is raging across Europe, and you have moved to the relative safety of your childhood nanny’s home in the countryside with your family. The radio is always on in anticipation of urgent news broadcasts. At the start of the game, you discover your twin sister Martha’s body in the lake, followed by an impulsive action that will forever change your life – taking on her identity.
This is the first moment where the cracks in the game’s narrative began to show. Giulia takes such a drastic step, with no visible motivations to do so. It is only through a voice-over (which follows the premise that the entire story is told as a recollection by Giulia) that we come to learn that Giulia’s mother resented her and favoured Martha, which is why she chose to do this.
‘Show don’t tell’ was the most helpful advice I received when I wrote my first piece of interactive fiction in 2018. Not only does it involve the audience to a greater extent, but not doing so actively undermines the emotional impact any revelations might have had on the audience if the creator chose to depict the sequence rather than talk about it. Martha is Dead continues to disregard this throughout its runtime, often choosing to reveal crucial plot points and character details through Giulia’s narrations that pop-up between segments of gameplay.
Photography is a core mechanic in Martha is Dead, and the game requires you to take pictures with your vintage camera at several points to progress in the story. I appreciate the polish and attention to detail in this mechanic, however the tutorial started feeling pedantic after the first couple of points. You can use add-ons to the camera to take pictures in the dark, for example, or make changes to the color tone. The developers (thankfully) removed a few steps from the process of developing a photo in the darkroom, and the resulting version in the game is a simplified sequence lasting about a minute or two. Often, the tension is palpable as you wait for a crucial photo to develop and reveal its secrets to you.
Descent into Darkness
As Giulia’s attempts to uncover the mystery of her twin’s demise lead her deeper into psychological hell, the world begins to fall apart, and so does her grasp on the fabric of reality. This is where Martha is Dead begins to stumble and eventually falls. It subsequently fails in all further attempts to get back on its feet.
Often, it feels like the game is unsure of what it wants to be. It keeps jumping from a horror/murder mystery to a painstakingly detailed 40s photography simulator, finally settling on talking about the effects of childhood trauma.
Taxing Ambiguity and Mixed Messaging
The whole ‘I don’t know what’s real anymore’ trope can only go so far. Constantly having no clue as to what’s real and what’s imaginary ended up frustrating me to the point that I didn’t have the faintest idea of where the story was going anymore. I held on to the hope that the writers would pull off an ending which would resolve all narrative threads, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. The ending is ambiguous, which isn’t a bad thing itself. In this case however, it is directly at odds with the game’s complicated tale.
I personally believe that as the game tries to tackle complicated subject matter like the trauma of child abuse, self-harm, and suicide, removing some of the ambiguity surrounding Giulia’s memory of the incidents would go a long way in lending weight to this discussion. You cannot simultaneously hint at psychosis resulting from childhood trauma and bring into question whether the events occurred or not. There is further mixed messaging in that the creators urge people to get help for suicidal thoughts shortly after Giulia’s monologue about her life in a mental asylum. ‘In the end, they won,’ she declares, and ‘something died in me.’ It is hard to imagine feeling empowered to seek out help after hearing about her horrifying experiences at the asylum.
Martha is Dead is undeniably a visual treat, especially when you realize that this is an indie game. The haunting soundtrack is hands-down one of the best aspects of the game.
Technical issues kept me from enjoying the Italian countryside in its 1080p splendor, with frequent stuttering marring the experience even on lower settings. A jumbled narrative that trips over itself bogs the game down, as does the mixed messaging about mental health and trauma. While it is a great sign that we are at a stage where developers feel confident taking on such mature topics through video game narratives, I do not feel like I have come out of the experience with a deeper understanding of any of the issues addressed, and that itself speaks volumes about the end result of Martha is Dead.
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