“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” – Anais Nin
Content Warning: Martha is Dead contains mature and potentially unsettling scenes and covers a number of sensitive topics that may cause distress to some players.
Martha is Dead is a brand new psychological horror from LKA, developers of Town of Light. Set in Italy in 1944, it follows Giulia, the daughter of a German soldier, as she attempts to come to terms with her twin sister’s death. It is an emotive and disturbing story that spans genres and blurs the lines of reality.
Released: 24th February 2022
Price: £24.99 (£32.99 PS4/PS5)
Engine: Unreal Engine 4
Note that in a recent announcement, the publisher Wired Productions informed players that certain content has had to be cut from the PS4 and PS5 versions of the title.
Martha is Dead primarily plays like a walking simulator, with a pretty slow walking pace I might add, however, there are other gameplay elements and mechanics that elevate it beyond what is expected of that genre. The main method of progressing the story is by exploring, inspecting items and completing small tasks that can be as simple as getting dressed or as involved and deciphering morse code. There are isolated events that involve running through the woods or playing with puppets but the most prominent mechanic beyond exploration is photography.
Taking photos in the game is a task in itself, and it is essential to get things such as focus and exposure correct. The film can then be taken to a dark room and processed, this involves a number of steps and failure is possible. The various processes are simplified for the purposes of the game but information is provided about how such things would be done in real life, which is a nice touch. Photos can be taken at any time, but taking pictures of certain objects or areas can reveal story elements required to progress. There are also a plethora of camera accessories to collect and use and it is easy to get caught up in this aspect of the game.
Set in Italy during World War II, Martha is Dead has players take on the role of Giulia, her twin sister has been found dead by the lake and the conflict around her is intensifying. In order to come to terms with the loss, she must discover what happened, however, the truth is much bigger and darker than she anticipated. Troubled, she persists desperately and the lines of reality begin to become blurred.
The game has a multi-faceted narrative that is full of twists and turns and despite the slow-paced playstyle the story and characters are more than enough to keep the player engaged. It touches on a variety of hard-hitting themes in a very assertive and explicit way and is incredibly evocative.
The story is delivered through exploration of the environments and various items as well as Giulia’s journal, narration and puppet shows that she puts on for herself as well as interactions with other characters and through the more noteworthy gameplay mechanics such as photography. The combination of the WWII setting and the hint of mysticism, alongside the fantastically surreal and the horror elements, is somewhat reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
Aesthetically, Martha is Dead is stunning, it primarily utilises a highly detailed 3D art style depicting environments and scenes ranging from really quite charming through to dark and deeply unsettling with some of the most visceral gore I have seen in a video game. Indeed there is some very graphic imagery shown even early on in the game. However, there is some visual variety in that a different art style is used for the art during the loading screens, there are also puppet show style interludes, Giulia’s hand-drawn journal illustrations and tarot cards, as well as environmental art such as paintings on the walls.
The audio is an absolute highlight of the game and the soundtrack is mesmerising and varied. Styles range from soft melancholy piano and eerie vocals to tuneless strings being obnoxiously plucked creating a disturbing and anxious atmosphere. The diegetic music is somewhat contrary and tends to be jollier, slightly jazzy tunes that suit the era in which the game is set, this provides a nice contrast and adds to the uncertain sense of reality that envelops Giulia. There are a variety of realistic and well-implemented sound effects that complement the environments and narrative well and help create a highly immersive experience.
Overall, Martha is Dead is a fantastic example of a psychological thriller. It achieves horror in clever and sinister ways that linger in the player’s mind, avoiding tropes such as jump scares. The narrative is dark and layered and there is a kind of disturbed pleasure afforded by exploring it that is not found in many other games. Similarly, the visual and audio elements are beautiful and immersive, even in the most unsettling and gory parts.
The game comes with a PEGI 18 rating and a lot of content warnings, including one in-game that asks players if they’d like to censor a particular scene. There is absolutely the potential for some people to find this game too disturbing or upsetting but players are informed in detail of this multiple times and there are plenty of opportunities to understand the upcoming content and choose not to play. Additionally, there is a link provided that lists support and crisis lines in a number of locations worldwide (https://safeinourworld.org/find-help/).
Spanning a range of gameplay and narrative genres, Martha is Dead has wide appeal, it is stunning and horrific and will haunt players long after they finish playing. It will take around 6-8 hours to complete but has some replayability in terms of choices made in-game, missable quests and achievements. As the content warnings suggest, this game may not be for everyone but I heartily recommend this game to fans of dark emotional interactive fiction and cleverly scary horror games.