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by Sam Derboo - January 1, 2011

Gray Matter - Windows, Xbox 360 (2010)

German XBox 360 Cover

German Collector's Edition Cover

More than any other genre in video game history, the graphic adventure has always been carried by significant personalities, the fictional characters on screen as well as the creative heads that brought them to life. Roberta Williams got her picture on the box of her games in a time when most games didn't even have credits scrolls, and for many years most adventure games have been identified with definitive auteurs, names that mean much to fans even today, be it Ron Gilbert, Al Lowe or Tim Schafer. Meanwhile, characters like Guybrush Threepwood, Sam & Max or George Stobbart are among the most iconic in all of gaming.

Roberta Williams' introduction from the back of a King's Quest box.

The late 1990s changed all that. The desire to be able to shoot, stab or at least punch things in the face apparently had grown greater than ever before in the world, while talking and solving problems with the use of one's brain got out of fashion. New trends forced King's Quest to transform into an awkward action-RPG, in unsurprisingly turned out to be its last sequel. The trends of the time also forced most franchises to replace artistic pixel backgrounds and characters with coarse 3D objects stripped of the minute details that used to make adventure game worlds special. Finally, most adventure game creators were pushed out of the industry when their companies started to abandon the sinking ship the genre had become commercially.

Then the second half of the 2000s came and the global video game market began to regain its ability to sustain niches beyond all that ever-marketable slaughtering. The greatest impulses to put the genre's heartbeat back on track came from Europe, but Telltale proved that the adventurers of the New World hadn't forgotten their long-lost champions, either. At latest when they brought Sam & Max back to the scene, it seemed that the time had come for the heroes of the genre to return.

Yet when gamers get thrown a bone in form of reoccurring names of those days of old, more often than not drama and disappointment are bound to be following not far behind. The comeback of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis creators Noah Falstein and Hal Barwood with Mata Hari seemingly put more effort in the various pointless mini games than in the actual adventure part. Plot holes, light puzzles and a lack of the historical depth that would have been adequate to the theme brought much grief to adventure fans and very lukewarm reviews to the game. Simon the Sorcerer in the meantime returned as an unfunny jerk in Chaos Happens. At least German developer Silver Style sought out the participation of series creators Simon and Mike Woodroffe after some fan backlash during production, a detail Vivendi never gave a damn about in their continued defiling of the corpse of Al Lowe's once beloved Leisure Suit Larry series.

Not so classy: Mata Hari.

Understandably, gamers' feelings towards news about Jane Jensen's big new game were thus prone to much nervous shifting between hype and fear. Her classic trio of Gabriel Knight mystery thrillers stands as one of the most outstanding examples of storytelling in video games to date. Mrs. Jensen's year-long work in casual games, however, rather instilled worries in those that valued the Gabriel Knight series for its deep, well researched plots, believable characters and challenging puzzles. On the other hand a number of well received mystery novels she wrote in the meantime served as proof that she had never lost her touch in storytelling, while interviews reveal that she continued to fight the good fight even with her casual gaming venture:

The idea is that eventually all this stuff would merge. The more these games sell, the bigger their budgets can be, and then we can put more and more story in them to the point where they are a full-length adventure game. Story games do well on the casual market because the audience tends to be older, and they tend to be more than half female. That's a great demographic for adventure games: people who want to take the time to explore their environment, they don't want to feel panicked or rushed. They'll get engaged with the story. (Source: The Escapist)

Then for a long time after its first announcement through The Adventure Company on E3 2003, at which point most of the story was already finished according to Jensen, "Project Jane-J" was left hanging by the publisher. It should take three more years before the game resurfaced as Gray Matter, now taken under the wings of the German publisher dtp Entertainment, who had made themselves a name by releasing many prestigious adventures from all over Europe, from The Longest Journey and Black Mirror to the Runaway series.

The actual production was outsourced to Tonuzaba in Hungary, but after several delays, the publisher decided that this company didn't have what it took to deliver what had already become the most anticipated adventure game of the decade. After another period of uncertainty, the French developing house WizarBox was hired to complete Jensen's vision. With an adventure portfolio consisting solely of So Blonde, WizarBox was also not quite the name to immediately soothe the mind.

More delays followed, but the game now started to made steady progress nonetheless, and finally saw its release in November 2010. (Though initially only in Germany. International versions followed a few months later.) The anxious question: Can Gray Matter after all those tumultuous years of its development fulfill the expectations and hopes that lie upon what was perceived as the long awaited spiritual successor to Gabriel Knight, or has Jane Jensen's intuition for deep plots, multi-layered characters and intelligent puzzles been spoiled from years of casual game development?

Quite a lot of story for a casual Minesweeper clone: BeTrapped!

In the very beginning, things don't look too promising. We see a woman on a motorbike, trying to reach London. It is raining as if the Flood has just begun. The storm turns around the signpost, leading the biker in the wrong direction. The vehicle breaks down, of course, just in front of a dark and spooky mansion. Stepping up to the gates, our heroine comes just in time to witness a girl practicing her introductory line: "Hello, I'm the new assistant of Dr. Styles." But something scares her so much that she immediately takes to her heels, although it is not quite discernible what is actually going on.

Now most would follow her example given the signs, but apparently aimlessly wandering around in the rain seemed more of a hassle than the atmosphere of immediate threat in an unknown mansion, so the astonishingly horror movie unsavvy protagonist decides to take the fleeing girl's place instead. Not to stay for long, of course, just until she finds out where she actually ended up. It seems almost ridiculous to cram so many clichès into just the first minutes of the game, but Gray Matter knows exactly what it's doing.

This and other cutscenes use a montage of comic book style still images. While more often than not an indicator that the game probably didn't get the budget its creators would have liked, Gray Matter exploits this medium for an undeniably artistic presentation. Some of these scenes are genuinely eerie and showcase a certain sense of expressionism.

Sam and Dr. Styles meet for the first time.

The protagonist of these early scenes is Samantha Everett. A runaway orphan and street magician from the US, she is traveling through all of Europe on her own and was headed for London to find the world's most secret society of magicians, the Daedalus Club. At first she sees her stay at the Dread Hill House as very temporary, and starts to look around for information to put her back on track. The improbably auspicious conditions, however - the job pays fantastically and since it was arranged through a student job agency, the residents know next to nothing about the applicant - seduce her to pose as a student of English literature in Oxford and stay just a while longer. First repelled by Dr. Styles gruff mannerism, soon the unique and tragic fate of her new employer begins to intrigue her, as she feels a certain connection to her own past...

Dr. David Styles takes over as the playable character for the shorter three of eight chapters to deal with his inner demons and push forward his experiments. He used to have it all, wealth, popularity, a promising career as the world's top neurobiologist and a beautiful wife. But a car accident that happened under mysterious circumstances in 2002, three years before the events of the game, ended all that. His wife Laura dead and the doctor himself disfigured by the severe burnings he suffered, he retired from the university and locked himself up in his mansion, ordering his housekeeper Mrs. Dalton never to change anything in the house that serves his memory of Laura. Convinced of the presence of Laura's mind still remaining around him, he has since been obsessed with the desire to get through to her. Rumors that spread shortly after the accident brought him the reputation of a mad scientist. But now he has decided to pick up on his former research on the potential of the human mind to directly alter the physical world, in hope that it will help him to find a way to communicate with Laura.

After a kind of tutorial to make the player familiar with the game's controls, where Sam has to feed her white rabbit Houdini, her first assignment as David's assistant is to find six voluntary human test subjects. Not an easy task, given how infamous Dr. Styles has become among students over the years. Yet she soon finds her targets among the universities freshmen, who are yet ignorant towards the rumors. She convinces fellow American and amateur filmmaker Harvey Kinderman, the vain rich kid Helena Beauregard, the shy but incredibly good-looking mama's boy Charles Ettington and the superstitious Scottish bumpkin Angela Mulholland to participate. Not quite as many as asked, but Dr. Styles can't hide his surprise that she found anyone at all. He himself has recruited another test subject, a quiet abroad student called Malik, and simply declares that the sixth is going to be... Sam! Brought together through their connection as the mad scientist's guinea pigs, the six former loners form kind of a clique, The Lambs' Club.

The Lambs' Club

Sam's way to win the heart of her acquaintances are her various magic tricks she brings from her "profession" as a street magician. These account for a good portion of Sam's puzzles and are supposed to be Gray Matter's big new thing in terms of gameplay. When the time has come to deceive a person with a trick, the talking icon will switch to a magic hat for interaction. Sam then has to select the appropriate trick out of a dozen from her spell book, then apply the standard trick which is usually meant for a stage setup to the real life situation at hand by using commands like "Palm" items in her hand, "Vanish" them up her sleeve and so on.

Unfortunately, most of the time the solution is quite simple, and demand no more from the player than to follow the instructions in the trick description, only replacing the typical deck of cards with the item she wants to make disappear. To help Harvey getting back his documentary from a girl he filmed in an unfavorable situation, for example, she has to switch it with an empty tape while casually playing around with it, then burn the fake tape in front of her victim's eyes to make her believe the original is destroyed. This kind of puzzle would open a lot of interesting opportunities, if it was set up less dogmatic and demanded more adaptive thinking from the player. In the form it is implemented, however, the trickery is no more than a nice but unexciting distraction like the smaller mini games, which have Sam piecing together torn paper or filing articles alphabetically.

Sam's magic tricks could have used a bit more finesse.

For some of her tricks Sam needs special props from a magician's supply store, where she stumbles upon a link to her original goal to find contact to the Daedalus Club. She meets the sly and charismatic magician Mephistopheles, who tells her a lot about the society, including the "Grand Game" anyone who hopes to enter has to perform, a large scale scheme of remarkable trickery. (Among the examples he gives for famous Grand Games is a certain TV magician's performance in which he made the Statue of Liberty disappear for 30 minutes.) In his store Sam also finds a puzzle box of the club, which sends her on a scavenger hunt to win the club's attention. There are two such hunts in the game, each of which stretches over two chapters and focuses on traditional riddles like rebuses and word play. Most of them are full of Alice references - this is Oxford, after all, and Sam even gets to visit the original Alice in Wonderland Shop.

But no need to worry, there are also "normal" adventure puzzles in Gray Matter that revolve around the manipulation and combination of items. Many tie in with Sam's magic tricks, like when she has to hide a first-aid kit beforehand to lengthen the effect of her Super Gross-Out Healing Wound trick. The solution is almost always rather practical and requires little outside the box thinking. On the plus side, this warrants that the puzzles never feel overly constructed. Only the occasional case of the "Runaway syndrome" might annoy quick thinkers, when the protagonists won't take an item or interact with a hotspot before they know what to do with it. It's not nearly as grating as in the trope's name giver, though, and most of the time one wouldn't think of picking the stuff up, anyway. (At least not in the first playthrough, of course.)

Apart from the few harder puzzles in the final stages of the game, veteran players might mourn the lack of a truly brain-teasing challenge. Here's probably where Jensen's casual game influence comes into play, as in contrast to the sometimes really tricky puzzles in Gabriel Knight, pretty much everyone should be able to complete the game without a walkthrough - but not without stopping to think every once in a while, mind you. Even though the puzzles never get unfair or too far out-there, their logical solution often leads back to previously visited places and forces to remember subtle clues one wouldn't think of immediately.

Backtracking is never much of a hassle, as a map of Oxford allows for fast travel to different locations from anywhere. On the map, names of locations still relevant to the main plot are rendered golden, places finished for the current chapter grey, narrowing down things for the player so one doesn't need to waste any time on the latter. At one point (in chapter 6, which is overall the most weakly structured part of the game) it is possible and not unlikely to break a sequence by using the map, which doesn't break the game but makes for a weird backwards progression of certain events. Some names appear in silver/white, which means that there are yet bonus points to be gained there, even though they don't serve to advance the main plot.

Bonus points mean that with the scoring system an old friend from Sierra On-Line days makes its return in a slightly updated form. Like in the good old days, every correct action is rewarded with points, some of which are completely optional. Typical "tasks" for those include just examining certain items or engaging in the few non-vital dialogues, but there are also a few more elaborate nice touches. In chapter 2, for example, Sam can buy flowers from an old lady in town, which she may use to decorate certain places in Dread Hill House to make the place less dreadful. While those simple things don't affect the main plot at all, some feel quite rewarding in themselves. Instead of one overall score, however, the game breaks it down to each individual task for a chapter with completion percentages. While giving a clear-cut overview to the current progress, this screen actually does more harm than good for morale by demonstrating at any time how little point there is to the scoring, as about 90% are obligatory, anyway. It's nonetheless a cute little throwback to times thought forgotten.

Back from the grave: Scorekeeping in adventure games.

But what about the one thing everyone is mostly looking for in a new adventure by the author of Gabriel Knight, the story? After throwing players into the setting quite abruptly (although Jensen wrote a Christmas story introducing readers to Sam's life before the Dread Hill House more smoothly in 2008, see the link below), the plot starts to develop rather slowly. Sometimes the pacing also seems to come to a halt, demanding the player's initiative to find out what is actually supposed to go on next. But at the very latest when strange acts of vandalism start to appear at the real locations Dr. Styles sends his test subjects to during the "mind exercises" in his laboratory, Gray Matter starts to become entirely captivating. Not much in video game storytelling has ever been as intriguing as the ways Sam and David discover more and more links between past and present incidents coming from their entirely different angles. While David is determined to find messages from his deceased wife in those paranormal pranks, Sam is dwindling between suspecting a plot against Styles and the assumption that one of the students might be conducting a Grand Game to gain entry to the Daedalus Club before her.

What soon ensues is a truly masterful character-driven mystery plot that manages to play out the personalities of the cast to great effects. The switching between the two protagonists brings interesting insights from two perspectives that couldn't be any more different, which is especially noticeable when the two meet in direct confrontation. The at first awkward dynamics between the outspoken street artist and the embittered scientist that grow closer over time ever so subtly are certainly the high points of the writing, but the supporting characters are no slouches, either, even if some have a slight tendency to devolve into stereotypes. The extensive research which already made the Gabriel Knight games the most convincing pieces of fiction in video gaming also shouldn't go unmentioned. At the end of the game, the player will have learned quite a bit about the history of Oxford, mythology and parapsychology, although it sometimes takes a keen critical eye to distinguish fact from fiction.

Irony is when a supposedly serious game like Gray Matter sets out to school all the "funny" games about humor. Despite its often grievous topics, the story finds always time for the bright side of live, and many of the characters are blessed with a life-like, genuine sense of humour. Their jokes are always in character, which sets them miles apart from the one-liner machines many adventure game protagonists have degraded to in their attempts to try and emulate the one-of-a-kind brilliancy of the LucasArts classics.

Not every joke gets a laugh, but helps to establish character.

However, even the greatest adventure games developed in France, Germany or the Czech Republic suffer on the international stage from lackluster English localization. Here Gray Matter thankfully is on the safe side thanks to Jane Jensen's authorship. Not only is there no such thing as a translation loss, but Mrs. Jensen personally took care for the quality of the English dub as well, overseeing both the casting and production. Both the German and English voiceovers are among the better ones in recent times, but thanks to that touch the English for once is far superior. With very few exceptions even the smallest characters deliver their roles convincingly. With its fairly international cast, a lot of care has also been placed on the various accents, often a sore thumb in adventure game dubs. Not all sound entirely authentic, but even that is accounted for. Helena, the speaker of the most out-there accent, never concretely reveals her origin, only telling Sam that she comes from a tiny eastern European country she "wouldn't have heard of."

Like in all three Gabriel Knight games, the adventuring is once again accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Jensen's husband Robert Holmes. Most of the time, the arrangements are decidedly low-key, but fit the scenes on screen so extraordinarily well it sometimes almost feels like Mr. Holmes is improvising live on his piano just for the player. At least until the next location, when the music stops and another song is loaded - it's really high time someone comes up with a modern equivalent of LucasArts' iMuse system. The three major themes in the game are performed by Holmes' band The Scarlet Furies, which couldn't have been chosen more perfectly. Their moody, sometimes melancholy sound just hits the nail on the head when it comes to complement the emotions the game strives to convey. Altogether, it's one of the best game soundtracks in recent years and maybe the best soundtrack in an adventure game so far (or at least second place after Monkey Island 2).

The Scarlet Furies

Polygonal characters in front of mostly static bitmap backgrounds have become kind of a standard for the point & click adventure genre, and Gray Matter makes no exception here. Elaborate lighting techniques do a great job to set the mood and create a rather convincing illusion that both layers belong to the same world, only on a few screens it becomes visible that the characters are hovering in front of a flat plane. Despite the whole game taking place in and around Oxford, Sam and David visit many locations with very different scenery and atmosphere. The backgrounds are full of countless small details that make each one of them stand out. Some bathe in grandeur like the stunning view in Mr. Headley's office or the top of Carfax Tower, while others feel deserted and claustrophobic. In the endgame it gets all crazy and surreal, too. The game also conveys a strong sense of authenticity. One can hold photographs next to the more famous places of Oxford and try to spot the minute differences. The lack of animated elements in most backgrounds is barely noticeable, since they all look so gorgeous, though not all in the same way.

When WizarBox took over development, they continued to use the art assets Tonuzaba had already created. The character models were created from scratch, but some of the backgrounds have merely been retouched and lit. This makes for a slight but noticeable gap in style between new and old backgrounds. Still, since most if not all Tonuzaba backgrounds come from Dread Hill House, rather than disturbing the overall impression, they grant the mansion a subtle surreal atmosphere that's hard to point your finger on without knowing the reason beforehand. At one point Sam even lampshades the fact by pointing out how weird a tower looks in the scenery, when it is in all actuality clearly sticking out in front of the moving clouds and trees. Once again Gray Matter manages to turn into a strength what would else have been a weakness.

On the downside there are a few obviously unfinished animations. Most of the time the characters move around naturally enough, but when Sam is drinking during her breakfast, for example, she holds the cup much to high without bending back her neck at all. Before exiting the magician's shop after buying props, she reaches out her hand to pay Mephistopheles, but he doesn't so much as move to receive the money. At times there are also clipping errors when characters directly interact with the 2D backgrounds. All those are few and far between, but constitute the most disturbing fails in the visual representation of the game. Overall the cinematic direction outside the cut scenes feels a bit frumpy and dated after seeing the clever use of zooming and transparencies in Secret Files 2, and when screens constantly fade in and out in a scripted scene because doors are immovable, the lack of animations does get a bit grating, after all. There isn't much to see in terms of facial expressions, either.

The controls take the inevitable streamlined catch-all interaction button approach, complete with all comforts the genre has developed over the past decade. A double click causes the protagonists to hurry to their destination, while inventory items are readied with a right click and then used automatically when interacting with the correct object. Sam and David also each maintain a notebook, but it is of limited use and very bothersome to browse, as it just documents all the dialogue lines. Following a more recent trend, Gray Matter makes use of the space key as a toggle to show all hot spots on screen. Whether through this option or by pointing on each individual hotspot without it, it always takes about a second for hotspot titles to appear, which can get a bit annoying. Not an issue at all are the loading screens, which appear with each change of location but are very fast and tell very interesting historical or mythical facts that have some more or less obvious relation to the plot.

Sam only visits a handful of locations in Oxford, which are selected on this map.

Nowadays even adventure game publishers have to take consoles into account to grant a commercially viable audience, but instead of going for the obvious Wii port route, Gray Matter was developed for Xbox 360 alongside the Windows PC version. This version was only available in Europe - dtp lamented the lack of a publisher interested in releasing the Xbox 360 port stateside.

The inferior lighting effects for the console version are criticized much, but while the game looks undeniably better with the highest settings on PC, the differences are rather marginal. Gray Matter is also more taxing on the system than players of 2D adventure games are usually accustomed to, so a decent gaming rig is necessary in order to use settings that beat the 360 at full speed.

The real problem of the console port, however, are the controls. The designers really went out of their way to create the most stupid control scheme imaginable for the controller. The characters are controlled directly with the left analog stick, which only works great as long as the player never changes directions, at which point they get caught on nothing but thin air all the time. In order to interact with objects and characters, a radial menu to chose from the nearest hotspots is opened by holding the right trigger. The game appears to try to arrange the entries so it makes sense with the actual hot spots' locations, but given that there are only 16 slots available at fixed angles, more often than not this doesn't work out at all. As hotspot titles suffer from the same delay as they do on the PC, for one second it is impossible to know at which object the pointer is. All this is made even more ridiculous by the many close-up screens for drawings, letters and the like, which use perfectly working ordinary point & click controls, which of course are unavailable for the core gameplay. Way to go to unnecessarily mess up a game's handling. When given the choice between the two platforms, the PC is strongly recommended.

Controls on the 360 are worse than just uncomfortable.

Unlike the Xbox 360, the PC was also graced with a special Collector's Edition, which contains in a steel book the excellent soundtrack on an extra CD, a poster which is unfortunately folded in a way that makes it pretty much worthless, a deck of 55 Gray Matter-themed playing cards and a few post cards with motives from the game and concept art. Not the most bombastic special edition ever, even less so since the manual is still ugly greyscale, but the soundtrack alone is enough to make the package worthwhile. Granted, that is also available separately via digital distribution for less than the price difference.

Unfortunately, the special package was only published in Germany, but the disc contains full English text and voiceover, so there's always importing. For whatever reason, the cover for the regular version underwent some hilarious censorship in the US, with a rather silly edit to Sam's cleavage.

Really, USA?

To say it upfront: Contrary to what some may have secretly wished for, Gray Matter is not a Gabriel Knight 4 in disguise by any means. Its story sets quite a different tone, and the puzzles take a more accessible approach than the one people were accustomed to in the golden age of graphic adventures. Those who dared hoping for the perfect adventure game will also be disappointed, as the title is not without its fair share of rough edges. (Anyone who claims different from Gabriel Knight in this respect is blinded by nostalgia, anyway.) Asking for a truly great game, maybe even the adventure of the decade, would not be too much, though. Although more driven through its fascinating plot and vivid writing than any genius puzzles, Gray Matter is nonetheless far above par among its contemporaries in either discipline. At any rate, while there have been quite a few adventure games with decent puzzles over the last couple of years, what the genre was really starving for was a new excellently written game, and that's exactly what is delivered here. Everyone who's into adventure games for that is in for a real treat, finally.

What's left is to hope that we won't have to wait another 11 years for the next full-blown adventure by Jane Jensen. The ending of Gray Matter does indeed hint at a possible sequel and leaves enough open ends to follow up on the story. The author herself has proclaimed interest to make this the start of a new series. If what this game achieves is any indication of the things to come and its commercial success does enough to secure more follow-ups, the future of the genre might look a little brighter than it ever did in the past ten years.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • WizarBox

Publisher:

  • dtp Entertainment

Designer:

  • Jane Jensen

Genre:

Themes:


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A sketch from 2006 showing Sam and Houdini

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Concept Art of Carfax Tower

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Tonuzaba's Gray Matter Preview (2007)

Tonuzaba's Gray Matter Preview (2007)

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An old sketch for David Styles

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Dread Hill House entrance hall



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