COntroversy for COntroversy’s sake?
Many games have irrelevant titles – Martha is Dead is not one of those. A dark first-person psychological thriller, Martha is Dead tells the story of Giulia – a girl in her late teens dealing on her own with the loss of her twin sister, the titular Martha, and the fallout from her murder in World War II era Italy with the added complication of being the daughter of a German army General.
Martha is Dead is the second game from Italian based developer LKA. In their own words it is “unashamedly Italian”; being the first indie game launching with Italian as its default language, and set in a small beautifully detailed Tuscan town, with an authentically ‘40s Italian soundtrack. It is a bold, yet refreshing step for a developer to aim for this level of authenticity – I wish I could speak Italian just to boost the immersion further. Ironically, this was one of my first gripes with the game, being the uncultured swine that I am I changed the language to English. Unfortunately, the English accent was jarring and out of place, and I found myself yearning for at least a hint of an Italian or German accent akin to those found in old war films.
The depicted Tuscan countryside is beautiful, and very much reminded me of the film Call me By Your Name. Adopting a smaller map has allowed LKA to achieve a great level of detail with the game, exceeding my expectations graphically. The beautiful fields, haunting forest, and the homely villa have great character and feel real. The game however runs at a very noticeable 30 frames per second. Call me a frame-rate snob, but this was my biggest criticism. It felt incredibly janky, particularly when running or cycling through the countryside. Hopefully they can patch in a 60-fps option at a later date, this would definitely aid the feeling of immersion that LKA are striving for.
Much of the story is told through a lens, with photography playing a leading role. Giulia is an avid photographer, having inherited the bug from her father. This is well implemented as you are provided with the freedom to photograph and develop whatever you like, but key items that progress the story are highlighted by displaying a small camera icon above them. There are various films and lenses for your camera, along with different skins that can be unlocked by finding additional cameras throughout the world.
As well as taking the pictures, you also have the ability (a requirement at certain points) to develop them in the dark room of the villa. The process is simplified, but it’s a nice touch that it takes the time to explain to you the full process of developing an old film like this.
Martha is Dead’s story is described as “the true protagonist of the game” and I whole-heartedly agree. It is intense, emotional, intriguing, complex, unpredictable, reflective – I could go on. It is everything that a solid story should be, and it is told in an engaging and engrossing way though traditional first-person explorative gameplay, emotional cutscenes, beautifully illustrated story books, and even the use of marionette-style puppetry. It perfectly blends reality, superstition, and the tragedy of war with each branch unfolding before your eyes. I won’t say much more on the story; to say more would be to spoil it.
Playing in the first person, exploring the beautifully presented Italian geography, I had that same level of nervousness and anticipation as I had playing Resident Evil Village. That feeling was to be had traversing through the narrow tunnels and corridors, but it probably goes without saying, there isn’t the same focus on jump scares. Instead, you find yourself in a constant state of unease, testament to the storytelling and the atmosphere.
“At no point do you ever feel that anything was purely for impact or shock factor, they simply add to the mystery and tell the tale, which feels like a very personal tale from the development team.”
A hints system is present and welcome to give you a gentle nudge in the right direction. You do have the option to switch it off, but I left it on. It isn’t essential as for the largest part I was always clear of my objective whether that be from the objective menu or just from the storytelling, but I would recommend leaving it on as if you find yourself stuck and spending a lot of time working out your next objective this could really break the flow of the game and lose the tension that is building all the time.
In addition to the explorations, you often find yourself taking part in what are essentially mini games, whether that be trying to decipher some memories using the marionette puppets, sending and receiving messages via morse code (which was infuriating yet educational) or performing a daily tarot. It varies the gameplay enough without making these feel too gimmicky or overstay their welcome.
Like most narrative-driven games, at points you have choices to make. It did not feel like these decisions impacted how events played out (I could be wrong as I have completed one full play through), rather these felt like they were intended to be more impactful from the perspective of how Giulia reflected on the decisions she had made as the events unfolded. There were not many of these, but they certainly added an extra layer of immersion.
Time to deal with the elephant in the room, the subject matter is incredibly dark. You would be excused for not having heard of Martha is Dead up until last week before the PlayStation censorship debacle hit the headlines (check out CrossCast 62 for our takes on censorship), but as they say all news is good news and you would imagine the publicity can only be a positive for LKA. The game does indeed deal with a number of sensitive subjects, but these are clearly signposted before you get started with a content warning for themes including blood, dismemberment, disfigurement of human bodies, miscarriage, and self-harm.
These challenging themes are entwined effortlessly throughout the story and add to that feeling of unease. At no point do you feel that anything was purely for impact or shock factor, they simply add to the mystery and tell the tale, which feels like a very personal tale from the development team. Yes, these could be triggering for people familiar with the matters explored, but the warnings are present and, in my opinion, the warnings within the Xbox and PC versions of the game are sufficient.
Having knowledge of the changes implemented within the PlayStation version, my concern is choosing to play the censored version will be less impactful and could damage the story in areas. I will not list the changes made as it would be hard to do so without spoiling things, but they will now be widely available to research if you so wish. I never felt like any of the gameplay elements were unfitting of the story (that may say more about me than the game), in isolation I can understand that these could have a shock factor, but you lack context in that situation. Martha is Dead is in no way a gorefest, I would even struggle to call it a horror – it is simply a dark psychological thriller as portrayed by the developers.
Luca Dalco has stated that if someone described Martha is Dead as “just another game” it would “hurt so much!”. I agree, it is much more than that – It is a beautiful game that tells a dark powerful story on so many levels that will have you questioning your understanding of it right up until the end and beyond. Martha might be dead, but this tale will live on in your mind long after the credits roll.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X, available now on Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and PC.