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Post Mortem / Still Life

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by Jonathan Kaharl - May 11, 2016

French studio Microïds released numerous adventure games all the way through 2009, one of the most notable being the Still Life series (including Post Mortem, the game that built the series foundation). It was a bizarre series on release, and possibly even more bizarre when viewed today. These games cast you as a detective or investigator tracking down serial killers, mixing in mystic elements, psychic flashes, and utterly tone deaf comedy that somehow isn't entirely unwelcome. At the same time, the content of these games is shockingly horrific at times, with nudity, gore, and all sorts of nightmarish imagery plastered alongside quips that wouldn't be out of place in a bad action flick or an episode of CSI.

They're absolutely fascinating titles, and well worth remembering in the history of the graphic adventure genre. There have been few games like them before or since, or at least with the same notoriety.


Post Mortem - Windows (2002)

UK Cover

US Cover

Canadian Cover

The first entry in the Still Life series doesn't even hold the series name, but it does a good job at setting up the formula. Post Mortem casts you as Gustav McPherson, a struggling painter in Paris shortly after the war to end all wars, though he also used to be a New York detective. A mysterious woman named Sophia Blake hires you to look into the murder of her sister and her husband, the Whytes, who were slaughtered in their hotel room. Their murder also appeared very ritualistic, as their heads were removed with one swipe and coins were placed in their mouths. Like any gumshoe yarn, things are far more tan they seem, with everyone hiding secrets, and the most unexpected people being directly involved in the web of deceit and conspiracy.

You can tell the designers here were experimenting with different ideas and styles to try and make something that would catch people's attention, with little time to work those ideas in. The game was completed in ten months with a team of just over twenty people, and you can see the limitations from that development time here and there. The game's ending is satisfactory, but it feels like everything was leading up to a much more grand finale of some sort, and it never happens. It also becomes glaringly obvious who the killer is about halfway through the game, the rest of the time spent is on getting evidence and filling in details, like why certain items were involved or why certain people were killed. That's a bit of a disappointment. There's a real lack of structure in the story after you meet the first suspect in person, so it never feels like there's a proper climax. On top of this, many elements never get fleshed out, like McPherson's ability to see past events related to major crimes. That element really throws a wrench into the conclusion of the story that denies mysticism, despite the main character having mystic powers and possibly seeing a mystic event in one of these flashes.

The voice acting is also either well handled or hilariously silly. A major character in the game sounds like a French Bluto, while another starts to sound like an evil Nazi scientist, despite not being German at all. Thankfully, the most important characters are well handled (especially McPherson's reserved and charming personality), and the bad acting is immensely entertaining. Some of these minor NPCs are just early experienced VA anime dubbing levels of corny. You know, when the actor is good, but the direction is terrible and they just do whatever. That's the sort of voice acting on display, and it is glorious at points. The writing itself, despite the dark subject matter, even gets into the cheese at points, like a grown man's mother bringing him milk and cookies while he tells you a story. There was no reason for that scene to be there, it just is.

Making this more bizarre is how good the game looks. Nearly a third of the team were on graphic design, and it really shows. The entire game has some beautiful, almost painting like environments to explore, and the character models are well rendered and detailed. The actual animation leaves a lot to be desired (especially mouth movement), along with how some clothing is handled (dresses are just colored areas on some models), but they're otherwise very impressive for their day. The cutscenes have also aged very well, with a lot of cinematic flair and atmosphere. Really, the entire game is thick with mood and life, creating a lived-in world with age and splendor. It really does feel like Paris in the 20s, both beautiful and distressingly grimy.

Post Mortem (Windows)

The puzzles are also a nice change of pace for the genre, as they almost entirely work off of actual logic and not gluing together a banana and knife to make a fishing lure to catch a fish in a sewer to give to a cat that somehow earns you a blow torch. (By the by, that is an actual example from another adventure game.) The puzzles on display are actual puzzles and require you to think of realistic ways to get around limitations, like not being allowed into the crime scenes, and neat little segments where you have to figure out code and patterns. They're challenging, but they all use trains of thoughts actual human beings can follow. That already puts this way ahead of the curve in this genre, which was utterly littered with the ravings of a madman's D&D session that people thought made for good game design. Also, no lockout moments that involve items you had to get at the start of the game to succeed, because this game wasn't designed by sadists.

While there are issues with the story, the cast is a different thing entirely. All these characters instantly leave a mark, even the most unimportant NPC, and you can read a lot into their lives just from the short conversations you have with them. The bartender wants to live a more exciting life as a detective. The owner of the local artist hangout is a snake in the grass but good to his people. A local officer just hates his job and wants to indulge, yet loves the authority it gives him. Even the held-back McPherson sticks out, with his strong sense of morality and relationship with a local artist. It's surprising just how much you can learn about each and every character from just a line and the performance. As bad as the acting can get, the actors definitely understood who these characters were and how they should come off, and they got that nailed down.

The one odd thing about this game compared to the games that followed is the first person perspective. The game takes a page from Myst and has you seeing the world screen by screen from the eyes of the character you control. This is surprisingly limiting and probably decided as a cost cutting measure. There's very little in the world to actually interact with, so you never really feel like you're exploring after the initial hotel sequence. The lack of exploration also makes the game shorter than it could have been, easily finished in about six or seven hours (five if you know what you're doing). There's also not enough puzzle solving to really give the game time to shine much outside the dialogue sequences.

Those dialogue sequences are also a tad annoying, as they're puzzles themselves and require you to dance around certain topics when getting information, as the conversation can end early if you're not careful. On the topic of annoying puzzles, there are also two that really slow the game too much. Trying to get a sketch of the suspect is obnoxious because of how vague the descriptions you get are, while a painting puzzle later on is really just a way to pad the running time, as you have to slowly drag a candle around a picture to see symbols and letters hidden within it, and it takes forever. It's just busy work, requiring no real thought or engagement.

But despite the annoyances, it's a nice change in pace to most graphic adventure games, and its dark story manages to be pretty engaging mainly through the background details you dig up, even when it's obvious who the bad guy is. The title received very mixed reviews on release and is considered mostly average on the whole, and that is not without reason. The game does a lot right, but it feels like it's not fully formed. So, its sequel decided to mix things up, not only switching to a third person view, but also providing a new protagonist and a different time period to play in.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • Microïds

Publisher:

  • Microïds
  • The Adventure Company (US)

Designer:

  • Stéphane Brochu

Genre:

Themes:


Post Mortem (Windows)

Post Mortem (Windows)

Post Mortem (Windows)

Post Mortem (Windows)

Post Mortem (Windows)


Additional Screenshots


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