The Shivah: Kosher Edition
PCAlso available on iPad
Dave Gilbert (not to be confused with Ron Gilbert, the other great adventure game designer) has become a well-known name amongst the amateur adventure game community. This is largely because his games have consistently demonstrated skill and storytelling well beyond the "amateur" title to the point where he and his company, Wadjet Eye Games, are able to sell them commercially. The Shivah was Gilbert's first game, originally created as part of a monthly competition on the AGS (Adventure Game Studio, a free tool for creating point-and-click adventure games) forums and then expanded and released formally in 2006. In the years since, his company's most famous product has been the Blackwell series of games. You may also know of Wadjet Eye through the games they have begun to publish by other developers, such as Gemini Rue, Resonance and Primordia.
In The Shivah you play as Russell Stone, a Jewish Rabbi who is having a crisis of faith and losing touch with the members of his synagogue who have begun to abandon him in their droves due to his bitter nature. To make things worse, he barely has the money to keep his temple open. He's ready to give up, but a visit from the police informs him that he has been left a considerable sum of money by a former member of his congregation who has been murdered. Unfortunately for Russell, he and this member did not get on very well and the police have the poor Rabbi as a suspect in his demise.
This sets up the driving mystery of the game: who killed this man and why did he leave you so much money? To sort this all out you need to investigate using the standard point-and-click tropes: wander around locations, talk to people and solve puzzles. You have an inventory at the top of the screen, but as it turns out you barely need to use this as there are no objects to pick up throughout the entire game. Instead, the game relies almost entirely on conversation and exploring the details of your surroundings by searching for clues.
This may not sound like the most engaging experience, and in some respects you would be correct. The extreme simplicity of the game's design means you solve puzzles very quickly often just by travelling to a different location or making sure to enter the correct search term on a computer. What elevates the game is the strong writing and the overall mood which remains consistently atmospheric. The conversations which drive the game end up being entertaining experiences, with each person you talk to having distinct personalities which immediately cause you to react to them in different ways. Instead of allowing you to choose direct responses in these conversations, you are instead given the option of choosing how you would like to reply from an emotional context: calm, aggressive, defensive. There is also an option to give a "rabbinical response" which is referring to a joke presented at the start of the game stating that Rabbis always answer a question with a question.
The Shivah is presented here in a newly enhanced version (subtitled the Kosher Edition) but quite purposefully is designed to look like an old school adventure game from the 1990s. The enhancements include new graphics, which are gorgeous in all their low-resolution, hand-drawn nostalgic glory and absolutely full of atmosphere. The design leans more towards the offerings of Sierra-On-Line rather than LucasArts, so if you know your Space Quest from your King's Quest you'll have a good idea of what to expect. The game is also fully voiced and the actors all do good jobs in the roles (many of the voice actors appear in Wadjet Eye's other games too).
The game's story relies heavily on the Jewish religion, and if you're unfamiliar with the terms presented then you may worry that you will feel lost or confused, but the meaning is often clear and a mini phrasebook of common Yiddish expressions is even included in your inventory. This turns out to be a necessity as the solutions to some puzzles rely directly on this. These puzzles turn out to be somewhat inelegantly implemented and it's easy to get stuck almost right at the beginning just due to poor direction on the game's part.
The Shivah turns out to be an extremely short game, completable in between one or two hours, and this includes the time taken to see all three possible endings. The low price does reflect this length, but it still feels like its over extremely quickly. Considering how few people worked on the game, the end result still remains mostly impressive. The Shivah can be congratulated for presenting an unusual subject in an adventure game and making you want to keep playing, containing strong ideas about morality and faith. It still ends up feeling slightly weak taken in the context of 2013 compared to what Wadjet Eye have produced since the game's original release and its amateur roots are still clear, ultimately faring only slightly better than a curiosity and reflecting the idealism of early experimentation Dave Gilbert must have been having. If you think of it more as dialogue-based murder mystery rather than a traditional point-and-click adventure then you should come away feeling satisfied with the experience.