When I hear “psychological horror” in relation to video games, I can’t help but recoil a bit. Often psychological horror games will try to clumsily tackle important subjects while slapping on layers of melodrama to add a sense of authenticity. Martha Is Dead suffers from these issues, but adds a new one I haven’t really encountered much before: gratuitous amounts of gore.
Martha Is Dead is a first person, psychological horror adventure game. In it, you play as Giulia, twin sister to recently deceased Martha. Martha was murdered, and Giulia has to deal with the consequences—and trauma—from the experience, all while having to deal with the stress of World War II. Martha Is Dead takes place in Italy during the height of the war—in fact, Giulia’s father is a Nazi Army General. Giulia will have to deal with her own mental trauma, and the supernatural, as she discovers the truth behind her sister’s death.
Most of Martha Is Dead is spent exploring and taking photographs. In fact, photography is a pretty large part of Martha Is Dead. Taking photos is not only essential to the story line, but the developer goes through great lengths to not only show the process of developing film, but also informing the player of the shortcuts the game takes to make the process more streamlined. There are different attachments to the camera, and while some are required to further the story at certain points, not many are even necessary to use. Taking a photo isn’t as simple as pointing and clicking, either—you have to set the proper exposure, and properly focus. If it sounds extremely technical, it really isn’t. Too bad there aren’t many surprises with photography, especially considering the supernatural aspect of Martha Is Dead.
The rest of Martha Is Dead’s gameplay consists of walking (or biking) around an Italian villa exploring locations and completing objectives. Martha Is Dead takes place over the course of a week or so, with each day having new tasks to accomplish. Between each major change in scene, there is usually a lot of dialogue explaining what is happening “off camera” (so to speak). There is a whole lot of “telling” in Martha Is Dead and not nearly enough “showing.” But what it does show seems to focus on lots of gore.
If you haven’t seen the controversy before now, it’s worth noting here: Martha Is Dead is an exceptionally gory game. It’s not just gory, but it requires the player to perform incredibly gruesome acts, including cutting a baby out of a dead person’s womb. It doesn’t just perform the action with the push of a button, but it actually requires you to drag the cursor/move the joystick in the direction of the cut. I definitely feel like this crossed a line. Then again, the gratuitous gore set against a beautifully rendered Italian Countryside is almost Lynchian in its juxtaposition.
One of the main things that kept me playing to the end of Martha Is Dead is its mystery. Martha Is Dead has plenty of twists that kept me wanting to see more, and to find out where it was all leading. Unfortunately, the payoff was not a satisfying one. In fact, some of the game’s best reveals are marred by strange design decisions, like long (and painfully tedious) puppet show sections. One of these puppet shows is actually one of the most clever (and shocking) moments in the game, but when they’re reintroduced, they quickly outstay their welcome.
I don’t consider myself someone with a weak stomach, but even I felt like Martha is Dead crossed a few lines. If its gratuitous gore was done in the name of making an amazing experience, I could be more willing to accept it—but it’s gruesome to the detriment of its story, and message. Martha Is Dead is ultimately about someone who has to deal with a lot of trauma, and they can’t cope. Handled well, Martha Is Dead would have told an important message—but that message is lost in blood and melodrama.
A Steam key was provided to us for the purposes of this review.