There’s more than initially meets the eye to Martha Is Dead. Set in Italy in 1944, World War 2 is raging through parts of the country, but it’s a conflict that feels very distant for twin sisters Martha and Giulia. Daughters to a German general, their lives are almost idyllic as they move down to Tuscany and a lakeside home that they stayed at years prior.
The game opens with memories of those childhood days in Tuscany, having spent three years living there with your nanny. You loved to get her to tell you creepy stories before bed, such as the tale of the White Lady, a spirit that haunts the nearby lake. Her partner killed her in a fit of jealousy before confessing to the murder and being hung on the lake’s central island as punishment. To this day, the legend goes, her spirit roams at night in search of her lover… but it’s surely just a story, right? Right?
Skipping ahead to 1944, as you’re out one night setting up cameras to take pictures on a timer in the hopes of capturing photos of the local wildlife at the lake, you spot a body out in the water. Rushing down the twisting path, diving in and pulling them out, it’s with horror that you discover that it’s your sister. Drowned. Dead.
It’s a death that will surely haunt the family for years, but it’s also one that reaches the local papers and radio stations, cutting through the reporting of the war to announce the death and the suspicion of murder. Who would have done this? Resistance fighters striking out at the German military? A spurned lover, perhaps?
Yet, the overriding emotion felt through the opening hour is one of mourning. With your sister’s body kept in an open casket as you and your parents prepare for her burial and all the ceremony of her funeral, your father sleeping in the room to spend as much time as possible with his deceased daughter.
You, however, are largely left to your own devices, and it’s here that the game indulges an intriguing fascination with photography. Picking up a classically styled camera, you can wander around the home, around the serene estate and into the wooded paths that lead to the lake and take photos of whatever you see.
As with LKA’s first game, The Town of Light, the setting is taken from the real world. The house in Tuscany actually exists, and knowing that helps to provide a feeling of authenticity to the tale. Even just from how the building feels like a real Italian villa on the top of a hill with the woods surrounding it. LKA has gone further with their attempts at authenticity, with all of the dialogue spoken in Italian with subtitles, though there is an oddity in that newspapers you pick up and can read are written in English.
Using the camera blends together the aesthetic of classic film cameras of the era with some of the more modern niceties of digital photography. You don’t seem to have to worry about running out of film, and while you have to manually adjust the focal length, shutter speed and exposure, you can clearly see how this is affecting the photo that you’re about to snap. Later in the game, you might find camera attachments to add a flash, zoom lens and more.
The most analogue element, however, is the need to then take your camera down to a dark room in order to develop the photos. The process has been shortened and automated compared to reality, but you still have to line up, focus and project the snapshot onto a square of photo paper, carefully time how long it sits in the solution as it develops and then hang it up to dry as you inspect it.
Photography is going to be a key part of the way that the story unfolds, potentially revealing hidden details in the background like (for example) spooky ghosts.
It feels as though your character isn’t just in mourning, but is actively haunted by her sister’s death. There are grim nightmares that blend together dark imagery as you relive a murder that you never witnessed, blended together with sequences that have you sprinting through the woods and choosing between different paths that feature words and phrases. In this way, you get to (literally) run through some of the emotions and feelings that linger in her mind, of loss, of guilt, or sadness.
Those nightmares become something of a reality as you remember the cameras left by the lake. Perhaps they have evidence of the murder on the film? Sneaking out late at night so that your father doesn’t hear you trying to get to the lake and the scene of the murder, it’s immediately dark and foreboding walking through the woods. It’s creepy as you get to the lake and find one or two little clues, and then it’s startling as you turn to head back, but find yourself unable to move… you’re being grasped and held back by the White Lady herself. Run. Run through the woods and race back to the house as the path seems to descend into the dirt, the trees and ground rising up around you.
From the opening hour of Martha Is Dead, there’s a lot to like about LKA’s second game. The setting and tone are compelling, the photography a fresh take on a horror staple, and there’s plenty of twists to the narrative that are best experienced first hand. Horror fans will be able to do so a little later this year.