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Review of The Shivah November 2, 2006

Posted by joshg in indie games, Judaism, retro games.
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About a month ago, I mentioned The Shivah, an adventure game that deals strongly with issues of Judaism, and faith in general. (“deals strongly with issues”? Gah, I’ve written too many English essays lately!) To my surprise, Dave Gilbert left a comment offering a review copy, and I gladly took him up on it. The long and the short of it is that I got to play through the entirety of what is not only an excellent indie adventure game, but also one of the best examples of portraying faith through a game that I’ve ever seen.

So, a review (after the break)!

To recap a bit from my previous post: The Shivah is an “old-fashioned” adventure game, in a visual style similar to the old Lucasarts adventure games. Conversation options are chosen from a menu, and the interaction options are handled by the two mouse buttons – either right-click to look, or left-click to take / interact / talk to.

Conversation choices are usually, but not always, given abstractly, rather than quoting exactly what you’ll say. For example, you might give an “incredulous response”, a “confrontational response”, or the ever-popular “rabbinical response” (which amounts to responding in the form of a question). Being familiar with adventure games, I thought it worked quite well. There are also some excellent conversation-based “puzzles” along the way, but to say anything more would be spoilers.

Interestingly, The Shivah uses a clue-based inventory as well as a more standard physical inventory, and the clue inventory is usually the much more useful of the two. Bits of information or outstanding questions about someone are kept in the clues list as a name or phrase, and can be referred to during conversations with key characters. You can also click on one bit of information to pick it up, and then click on another clue to try and “put the pieces together”, so to speak.

Overall, I thought the gameplay was pretty solid as an adventure game goes. There was one moment in the game’s plot where the clue system hadn’t seemed to have caught up with what I had learned, and the next plot action seemed to be waiting for me to revisit a specific scene arbitrarily before it would trigger. However, aside from that one glitch, everything flowed and the clue system and puzzles were great.

Now that I’ve got the gameplay talk aside, let me say that this game is hands-down the best example of putting sincere faith into a game that I’ve seen yet. Rabbi Stone presents a character of faith going through a time of doubt, and his struggle of faith isn’t brushed off or viewed as some cliche of backsliding. He presents to us a real-world faith: broken, fighting disillusionment in a painful world, but refusing to let go of the questions that matter.

Judaism is both theme and setting for The Shivah as Rabbi Stone digs into his past actions as a stubborn, conservative rabbi, and as he interacts with a less hard-line rabbi at a much wealthier temple. Stone’s history with the murder victim is revealed gradually as the story progresses, and draws you into who Stone is and why he’s so bitter. By the end of the story, I wondered if some of the issues Stone chose to stand so firmly on are plausible in modern Judaism, but since Dave Gilbert is a lot more Jewish than I am, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

There are a few variations on the ending, two of which seem “complete” and not like you’ve lost the game, but only one of which feels to me like the right one. I’ll leave it to you to discover them, but I will say that the overall message when you get that “right” ending is a great finish to both the story, and to the deeper questions raised from the beginning.

The game’s voice acting also deserves credit for bringing the characters to life.  The script alone is excellent, but bad voice overs have shattered many a script in an indie game.  The Shivah, on the other hand, has voice work which brings out the characters’ personalities and emotions powerfully.

So, to step back a little bit into what I feel this blog is really about: is this the perfect “faith-game”?  It’s certainly a good one, although it doesn’t necessarily answer the question of how to portray faith through gameplay itself.  The adventure game genre is often seen as more story, less game than most of the game genres that are popularized today.  It’s not surprising that an indie adventure game would be able to rise above most other game offerings to present a compelling story about faith.  The Shivah also does a fantastic treatment of a few key moral choices, played out in the ending, so that’s not to say that it doesn’t embody some portrayal of interactions involving faith.  But the moral or faith-based choice element, as far as anyone’s cataloging these things, isn’t anything groundbreaking.

Still, I have no problem in saying that you should head over to Manifesto Games and pick up a copy if this at all interests you.  There’s a demo, if you’re feeling timid about spending the $5 like I was.  (Hey, I grew up semi-Mennonite, I don’t need to be Jewish to be overly thrifty.)

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1. Happy Hannukah! « faithgames - December 15, 2006

[…] What better way to celebrate eight days of gift-giving goodness than with a free game? Manifesto Games is giving away a free copy of The Shivah (which I reviewed last month), one copy for every day of Hannukah. […]


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