Martha Is Dead Proves Itself Worthy

Martha Is Dead Proves Itself Worthy

Martha Is Dead Proves Itself Worthy

Posted by Lawrence Rennie

24 Feb, 2022


Even before release Martha Is Dead had conjured up some controversy on account of its reported graphic brutality and intensive themes which circle around all manner of psychological traumas and the dark machinations of abuse and harm, prompting Sony to step in and require a censoring on certain images and ideas for their console versions of the new psychological horror game.   

For LKA’s founder, and the writer and director of Martha Is Dead, Luca Dalcò, this type of response might have been exactly what he and his team of ten in Florence were hoping for when penning a title that sunk itself into the darkened, bloodied aspects of gratuitous provocation through shock and awe gore and traumatic imagery. “The only feedback I hope to never see is indifference,” the Italian director states of his recent opus. “I like strong feelings, and strong feelings are what we put into our work.” 

But to cast off Martha Is Dead as little more than an act of provocation, the likes of which the Italian film horror scene is historically no stranger too, would be unfair and wouldn’t tell the whole story of a game that, underneath its skin peeling gruesomeness and bone-chilling aura, possesses a particular sensitivity and respect for the complexities of some of the harshest aspects of the world, of history, and of this twisted and difficult ride that we call the human experience. 

The Slow, Controlled Gameplay of Martha Is Dead

In the summer of 1944 Giulia, living in the quiet countryside of Tuscany with her spiteful mother and her German military officer father, finds her twin sister Martha floating dead in the nearby lake. The official line is that Martha’s death was the result of an attack by Italian separatists seeking to strike at one of the Axis’ high-ranking officers. Giulia, however, knows her twin sister far better than that and suspects far more devious foul play. It is up to you to explore around the Tuscan countryside and uncover the true mystery of your sister’s death, though that mystery doesn’t come without its many twists and turns, and the nature of truth turns out to be an ever-shifting beast. 

Horror in video games is very rarely just horror; our biggest and most successful horror titles in gaming are more typically described as survival or action horror, simply because the nature of games necessitates that the horror is somehow active – that it is somehow involving you directly as a participant. Martha is Dead is neither of those; it is horror simply through its imagery, its topic and themes, its tone, its narrative. There are no monsters to be fought here, no ghosts to flee, no sanity meters to regulate or resources to manage. There is only the horror of a story in which trauma, death, and grief exert their gruesome force upon a family and a nation in the throes of one of the deadliest wars the world has ever witnessed. 

This is what makes Martha is Dead so entirely unique, and by the same coin is what will likely be the decisive point between whether it strikes a chord with audiences or not – a point which Dalcò and LKA are all too aware of, but one which, to their credit, they have stuck to their guns on and continued through in the pursuit of an artistic project that at the very least means something to them. The gameplay of Martha is Dead is slower and more deliberate, opting more for realism than action, but that realism often becomes key to the game’s tension and gives it the certain peculiar magic that Martha Is Dead exudes. When the game early on begins describing the intricacies of how to set up and take a photo – how to set up your aperture, your focus, shutter speeds, which camera attachments are needed for low light versus natural light settings and so on – or when it later takes you through the monotonous process of developing photos in a darkroom – describing how each bath works, how long the printer paper should be submerged for, etc – or when one optional objective asks you to learn, translate, and transmit Morse Code messages for real some players will be ready to give the whole thing up immediately. It’s not exactly thrilling action-per-minute gameplay, but there is something oddly magnetic and enjoyable to it once you are in tune with its wavelength. 

You are encouraged to explore the game’s setting as much as possible, carrying out small side objectives that together might help you to form the pieces of the mystery. Some objectives will force you into cutscenes and time skips however which can be annoying if you are trying to complete everything, so it is sometimes handy to have a regular save that you can jump back to. 

For a team of ten with more than enough technical limitations, the scope of exploration is actually somewhat impressive, and the look of the world, powered through Unreal, is simply beautiful. You don’t move very fast through it, which can be frustrating when trying to track back to an objective, but it does at the very least allow you to take in the idyllic Tuscan scene created by LKA. You’re not getting the graphic intensity of a next gen beast, but Martha Is Dead gives plenty to enjoy from its environment. 

In the style of many horror games these days the story will piece itself together through letters you find around the place, or through interactable objects that will prompt an idea or memory from Giulia. Some locations will also prompt you to take a photo which upon development may reveal some secret, a hint, or even a ghostly image. There are a surprising number of options at your disposal – things that could be entirely missed if you never try to experiment. For example, I passed a phone and a sheet of numbers a half dozen times before it occurred to me that I could try dialling some of them. Some of those numbers don’t do much, but others will provide little snippets of information that help paint the tapestry of what is really going on around you. You have to hold your patience and try out everything and try exploring everywhere, even when doing so can be a tad laborious and slow since even the unlikeliest avenue can sometimes drive you to something new.  

With my early access on a PS5 version there were however quite a few technical issues. These ranged from gameplay mechanics that wouldn’t quite work until reloaded, to areas not loading in, to full on freezes and crashes. The further into the game I got the more total game breaking crashes there were, but thankfully the game saves often enough that I never lost too much progress. Small technical glitches like clipping and VO lines repeating were also common, however there is a Day One patch that will hopefully smooth most of these problems over. The technical issues as I experienced them are enough to slow you down a little and frustrate, but rarely to prohibit you from completing the game entirely. 

The Provocative Style of Martha Is Dead

The reward for sticking through the novel quirks of Martha Is Dead is a story and mystery that is wonderfully presented. There are a variety of sequences that range from truly gruesome, to the more uncomfortably creepy, to the elegantly sentimental. Each however is presented through numerous gameplay and artistic styles, some of which are extremely novel in their approach. Martha Is Dead is a game that simply refuses to be nailed down as one thing; it switches up how it presents itself on a few occasions and each one is more surprising and more unique than the last. Case in point: Giulia has an affinity for stories, and at some point you’ll have to play out a version of her memories via a frankly haunting marionette puppet show. The absurdity and creepiness of it all leaves a chilling imprint and also reflects your character’s own declining mental state. It is impressively designed to never allow you to quite settle in before the next turn comes punching in with gruesome abandon. What the game lacks in technical power it more than makes up for in its artistic ambition and presentation – a triumph of which LKA can be expressly proud of. 

There is a point to be had over some of the overt gruesomeness. The game is explicitly dealing with difficult themes and does so in extreme ways, some of which players will find far too off-putting or upsetting to their own experiences. With the Sony intervention there are numerous warning messages, and some key scenes are cut down or altered (this is not the case on Xbox and PC, I believe). Particular scenes that were previously interactive are now not, and certain references are cut (again, not the case beyond PlayStation platforms). There is also a censor option which will remove some of these scenes entirely, or at the very least remove/blur certain aspects. Doing so does however inhibit the experience and discussion that LKA are trying to provide in Martha Is Dead, but it is entirely fair for players to make that judgement call for themselves. By their own admission it is a game of extremes, but those extremes are not without reason, and LKA evidently understand their responsibility as the artists of this particularly troubling tale (Dalco himself is a regarded patron of the mental health in gaming foundation Safe In Our World, and the game even directs players to their site both before and after the game). Mental health can so often be a crutch in horror games and horror stories, and with the extremities that Martha Is Dead goes to it could easily slide toward being one of many other bad faith arguments, but with the clear passion, confidence, and personal history and feeling driven into this game I do not believe that to be the case here. 

Results will certainly vary with Martha Is Dead, but, like the many perspectives of truth in the game, it is a complex judgement call for you to ruminate on. 

Final Score: 7.5/10

Martha Is Dead releases on February 24. Players that are affected by anything in the game should go to for support.


About Author

Lawrence Rennie

Lawrence is a Scottish-born writer with a love of games and films that he fortunately turned into a career grumbling about online. When not firing away the hours buried in a game or film he also co-writes 'Mechastopheles', an original comic series published by the UK’s leading comic magazine 2000AD as a naturally born-grumpy Scot; however, he asks that you don’t ask him too much about it though! Lawrence’s other musings include podcasts, fitness, his cat, and one day developing his own screenplay.

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