Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Adventure of the Week: The Shivah (2013 Ed.)

I do much of my modern gaming on the PC, and most of that via Valve's Steam service.  So while I've wanted to play Wadjet Eye Games' 2006 point-and-click adventure The Shivah for quite some while, I've been lazy about actually buying it from the company's site.  Fortunately, author Dave Gilbert decided to update the game for an iOS release this year, and a pleasant side effect has been the release of a new Kosher Edition for the PC as well.  (Since the game has been available for more than five years, and the new remake appears to be a straight audiovisual update, I'm not applying my usual five-year rule against covering it here.)

I've always liked Gilbert's matter-of-fact, New York-based indie-adventure style -- he borrows the mechanical trappings of the classic Lucasarts adventures, but keeps his characters and stories grounded in the real world of the city.  This early effort lacks some of the substance and polish of his later Blackwell series, though the updated edition looks terrific, but the lack of supernatural content makes for a nice contrast (given, of course, quite a few references to God and the afterlife in the context of morality.)

What I really like about The Shivah is that, while the plot is a fairly straightforward detective story, it's set in a world that few games have attempted to explore.  Our protagonist Rabbi Russell Stone is the recipient of an unexpected gift from a former member of his synagogue, a man who died recently under suspicious circumstances; moreover, the deceased and his Indian wife-to-be parted company with Rabbi Stone under duress eight years ago, after he refused to officiate at their interfaith wedding.  Stone's attempts to find out what happened to his unexpected benefactor lead him into danger and intrigue, but he is always first and foremost a Rabbi -- he has his doubts, but he also stands by his religious convictions.

Interested readers are, of course, encouraged to purchase and play The Shivah before reading my notes below.  It's not a lengthy game, nor an expensive one, and it's readily commercially available at Wadjet Eye Games and Steam, among other channels, so it's not hard to experience it firsthand.  Beyond this point, as always, I'll be exploring its narrative in detail, so there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The story begins at a poorly attended Shabbat service, where we meet young cantor Josh and learn that our protagonist, Rabbi Russell Stone, is struggling with faith -- in his dwindling and unenthusiastic membership, and in the bigger picture as well.  He cancels the service and retires to his office, where an unexpected visitor gets the plot moving.

From a police detective, we learn that a man named Jack Lauder, recently murdered, has bequeathed ten thousand dollars to B'nai Ben-Zion, which surprises our hero as he and Lauder parted on poor terms some eight years earlier.  The cash will definitely come in handy, but something doesn't sit right with the Rabbi, and he begins to think he should look into the situation a bit more closely.

We can explore the Rabbi's office, noting some unpaid bills and artifacts of the Rabbi's past, but we can't really get anywhere until we hack into our own computer (an older machine, set up by the cantor and previously unexplored.)  I tried various email ID possibilities, before guessing the right one, rstone; later, I looked at the Rabbi's business card and found it there, so it's not really necessary to guess.  We can use the CLUE button and the built-in brief Yiddish glossary to guess the Rabbi's password.  Reading through his email gives us some information about his temple's current poor fortunes.  We can also use the computer's search function to obtain an address for Lauder's apartment, adding a destination to the map of Manhattan.

Rajshree Lauder (nee Sharma) isn't too pleased to see the Rabbi, once she knows who he is, but she accepts his interest in investigating her husband's death and provides some information about the family business, a fashion design company called Sharming Industries.  The office is almost completely empty, but reading the company ledger and email establishes a couple of things -- one, the Lauders were good partners and loved each other, and two, the company was having problems with one of its investors, a Joe DeMarco, as noted by the company's accountant, Ethan G. -- Ethan Goldberg, of Goldberg & Weiselbaum -- and quite a few personal checks written to Mr. DeMarco.

The Shivah features a notebook clue-combination mechanic that's also used in at least one of the Blackwell games, where we can drag-and-drop concepts onto each other to draw formal conclusions -- even if we've figured out the relationships on our own, we need to establish them in-game to open up conversation topics and locations.  There aren't very many topics to combine, and most of the "puzzles" here have to do with figuring out who Ethan is and setting up some questions about whether this Joe DeMarco was Jewish, as he apparently did quite a bit of business via networking at Beth Tikvah, where Lauder and Ethan also attended services.

Visiting Beth Tikveh proves interesting -- the temple is clearly financially well provided for, and Rabbi Amos Zelig seems not to know his congregation very well.  He claims little recollection or acquaintance with Lauder, Goldberg or DeMarco.

Searching for news on the characters involved on Rabbi Stone's computer discovers something unsettling -- Ethan Goldberg was himself killed recently outside a bar known as Paddy O'Hare's.  Visiting the bar provides a small treat for Blackwell series fans, as Rosangela Blackwell is here with her spirit guide Joey; she's too distracted to speak with us, and Stone sees her as many other people likely do, as a poor woman talking to herself.

Rajshree Lauder knows Joe DeMarco was an investor, but knows nothing about the tension between her husband and the investor.  Revisiting Beth Tikvah with some more pointed questions about the relationship between the murder victims and the synagogue ultimately leads to Rabbi Zelig giving Rabbi Stone the boot, leaving him with his business card and promising availability for questions via email, which we don't really expect him to provide.  A return trip to the bar encounters the mysterious Joe DeMarco himself, a surly, seedy-looking individual who also admits to no knowledge of Lauder or Goldberg, and says the checks written out by Sharming must have been to a different person with the same name.

I got stuck here for a while -- DeMarco doesn't seem vulnerable to any of the question topics we can raise, Beth Tikvah is off the map, Rajshree has nothing new to add, and the Rabbi hasn't gotten any new email.  I tried some search topics (including Beth Tikvah and Rabbi Zelig) without learning much of investigative value, and finally had to consult a walkthrough that suggested hacking into Rabbi Zelig's email.  We have his email address from his business card, and his password clue references his beloved dog, Dodger, mentioned in Zelig's online bio; reading his email suggests that DeMarco has been carrying out "hits" on Lauder and Goldberg -- very likely on Rabbi Zelig's orders.

Returning to Paddy O'Hare's and confronting DeMarco leads to a fight in the subway -- we learn that Stone was a bit of a boxer in his youth, and DeMarco is a professional assassin, but it's ultimately most productive to probe DeMarco's childhood using the classical question-based Talmudic approach.  Challenging him not to hide behind his lethal knife allows the Rabbi to seize the upper hand -- we can choose to throw him onto the subway tracks, but I chose to spare his life (the right decision, as it turns out later.)

The game's climax takes place in Zelig's elegantly appointed, expensive apartment on the Upper East Side, and it took me quite a few attempts at this section to reach the most positive ending.  Rajshree Lauder has been kidnapped (we can see her disturbed apartment if we visit before coming here) and Rabbi Zelig has no intention of letting Rabbi Stone disrupt his lucrative religious community.

Zelig is not a man of direct action; he orders Stone to jump off the balcony, threatening Rajshree if the Rabbi does not do as he commands.  It seems sensible to try to grab Zelig's gun, but while he misses with the first few wild shots as we approach him, he connects with the third bullet and the game is over.  I thought perhaps we could get him to run out of bullets before killing us, but that didn't work out either -- refusing to follow his orders for too long gets Rajshree killed, which uses up the third bullet at considerable moral expense, and we still get killed out on the balcony anyway, as Zelig shoots us once in each arm, and once in the head.

The right thing to do (assuming we have not killed DeMarco) is to feign agreement with Zelig's command and head out to the balcony -- before we get through the sliding glass door, DeMarco shows up to demand his money for killing Lauder and Goldberg.  But Zelig doesn't take kindly to demands, and he shoots DeMarco, sparing Rajshree in his haste to remove Stone from the picture.

On the balcony, we have to get close enough to Zelig to grab his gun, distracting him long enough to do so.  This involves making two attempts to grab the gun head-on, resulting in bullet wounds to both of Stone's arms but allowing us to get closer to the target.  Then we have to climb over the edge of the balcony, hesitating to jump, claiming we are admiring the view (something Zelig is very proud of.)  When Zelig looks out at the view himself, we can grab the gun -- with Stone's injuries, he's not able to hold onto the weapon, but at least it's out of the picture.

Rabbi Zelig is a bit of a fighter himself, and Stone is not at his best.  We can keep Zelig engaged in conversation, and I was able to get a few punches in at times, but I kept getting overpowered and thrown off the balcony.  It took me a while to figure out exactly what was going on here -- we have to respond in Rabbinical fashion, posing questions to Zelig, and when he does not answer with a question, we can get a punch in.  The conversation here is interesting in its own right -- we learn that Zelig believes God supports him in his Mafia dealings and use of violence to increase his own wealth, and it's only after protracted questioning that Stone can corner Zelig and punch him out.

I opted not to kill Zelig, leaving him unconscious as a present for the police, rescuing Rajshree and returning to B'nai Ben-Zion.  The ten thousand dollars may not hold out forever, the Rabbi notes, but it solves some short-term issues, and the experience has reaffirmed Stone's faith in his role as a spiritual leader.  The most interesting aspect of the story's conclusion is that Stone still stands by his policy against interfaith marriages -- he sees them as a dilution of the Jewish people, a threat to their very existence, and while he recognizes that Rajshree and Jack were well-matched, he still stands by his convictions.  It's an interesting conundrum whenever morality and religious conviction conflict, and Gilbert makes an unusual and interesting character choice here.

The murder is solved, and the story resolved, but there isn't the sense of victory common to most adventure games -- challenges remain for our characters, and nothing can bring back Zelig's victims.  The color scheme remains appropriately somber as the credits roll:

The Shivah didn't take a long time to play through -- the mystery is fairly straightforward as long as one examines all the available evidence, and there aren't a lot of locations or conversations to deal with.  But it's an unusual specimen of the point-and-click adventure game, with a richness to its morality, characterizations and storytelling that transcends the conventional gameplay.  It's very much worth playing, especially if you're interested in experiencing the boundaries of the genre, and it's never looked better.


  1. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThePasswordIsAlwaysSwordfish

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Definitely on the short side, though that's not usually a bad thing when I'm on deadline. :)

  3. Great review of a very enjoyable (though short) game.

    1. Sorry, I accidentally deleted it and the re-publish came out a bit strange. Thanks!