The Shivah - Windows (2006)
Rabbi Russel Stone is in a bad place. As the leader of the B'Nai Ben-Zion synagogue in Manhattan, he's become bitter and morose, delivering gloom and doom sermons that have scared away most of his followers. The temple is falling apart, bills are piling up, and there seems to be no escape. Feeling overwhelmed in his loss of faith, Stone quits mid-sermon, unceremoniously dumping his only attendee. But then the unexpected happens - a police offer pays a visit, and questions the Rabbi about a man named Lauder, who has been brutally murdered. The bright side, Lauder has left Stone's synagogue with a sizable sum of money, more than enough to fancy up the place. On the not-so-bright side, this has also implicated Stone as a possible murder suspect. Stone is quite confused - Lauder had long departed from the temple, and their relationship did not end on good terms. Deeply unsettled and unwilling to take money tainted with blood, Stone decides to investigate the murder for himself. His first step is to visit Lauder's widow under the guise of a Shivah call, the Jewish ritual of mourning. And thus begins a tale of death and betrayal that brings Stone up against members of his own faith, as he continues to question his own.
The whole "rabbi as a film noir detective" thing might sound like a setup for a lousy joke, or at least a Jewish variation of the old TV series Father Dowling Mysteries, but it's actually played straight here, and due to some really bang-up writing, tells a story that's not only gripping but fantastically unique, thanks to its blending with Jewish culture. Rabbi Stone is a remarkably convincing character, wise yet bitter, and easy to anger.
There's almost no real inventory and only a handful of "clues", which can be used during questioning. Any of the real puzzle solving comes from hacking into computers by guessing passwords, not exactly something you'd expect a technologically impaired rabbi to do, but it's effective nonetheless. It's pretty unsettling going through Stone's accounts and reading all of the cold letters directed to him, each and every one of them having left the synagogue due to his depressing demeanor. Even though it's technically adressing Stone, they're all written in the second person, addressing "you" directly, and it's pretty cold. Then you hack into another rabbi's account and read all of the glowing adulations, and it stings that much more.
The Shivah was developed using Adventure Game Studio and features a single icon interface. It was originally released free of charge, but after winning the Monthly Adventure Game Studio 5th Anniversary Competition in 2006, was slightly revamped as a "Deluxe" edition. This version includes a few minor changes, as well as voice acting for all of the dialogue. It also includes a "Kibbitz Mode", where designer Dave Gilbert will pop up at various times to discuss elements of the game's design. This version is sold on the Wadjet Eye Games site for a mere $5.
This being an independently developed game, largely done by three people, it's obviously not the best looking game on the planet. The sprite and background work is simple and would look dated even back in the early 90s, but it works. The jazzy soundtrack is remarkably classy, emulating the film noir movies it pins after, and the excellent voice acting in the Deluxe version is leagues beyond what you'd expect from an amateur effort.
The only time the cracks start to show are with some of the inconsistent puzzle design. At one point, you obtain two sets of clues - a set of initials, and a name. You need to combine these two clues in your inventory to logically deduce that they're referring to the same person, and thus open up a new line of questioning. That makes sense. Later on there's a similar situation where you find two names: a first name and a last initial, and a first initial and a last name. Again, it's obvious that they're referring to the same thing, but you can't combine the clues this way - instead, you're supposed to type the full name in the computer search engine, which then unlocks the next topic of questioning.
During conversations, there are three responses - two options that change depending on the situation, and a "Rabbinical Response", which answers a question with a question. There are two fight scenes which play off this kind of logic, although you're never actually told it, and it's only ever implied after you've lost. It doesn't really make sense how this somehow invokes some kind of mysterious Rabbi strength, but it's still a slightly clever take on the insult swordfighting scenes from Monkey Island.
The Shivah is a short game. The storyline is simplistic enough to fit in a typical hour long crime drama, there are only about a half dozen locations, and it can be beaten in about an hour or so. There are a few different endings though, depending on a few decisions made late in the game, and all are worth experiencing. It's remarkable how well this works given the format - it never overstays its welcome, and it develops its characters enough to invoke quite a bit of sympathy in the short time we spend with them. Despite some design issues, it's still a well-written, remarkably strong little game, definitely one of the better ones to come out of the independent develoment scene, and worthy to stand up next to the classics.