Still Life I


Victoria McPherson, Gustav’s granddaughter, makes her first appearance in the second installment of the series. Victoria, an FBI special agent, is investigating the fifth victim of a serial killer whose calling card bears a disturbing resemblance to a killer hunted by her grandfather many years ago. The game is simultaneously set in two different eras – 1920s Prague, with Gustav McPherson trying to track down a prostitute killer, and Chicago in 2004. Still Life received tremendous press acclaim around the world, and there are still countless theories among its legions of fans as to the identity of the infamous Mr. X, who was last seen slipping from view in the murky waters of a Chicago canal.

Still Life revolves around the brutal, serial murders of prostitutes in two different cities during different eras. You start the game in modern-day Chicago as FBI field agent Victoria McPherson, who is young and darkly energetic, with a certain disaffected cool and penchant for crackin’ wise that is almost a mandatory trait for adventure game protagonists. Victoria’s inability to stop the killer starts getting the better of her, and she finds herself collecting her thoughts while sifting through her dead grandfather’s belongings in her childhood home. This brings us to Gustav McPherson, Victoria’s grandfather, who is a private detective in Prague in the late 1920s. Gus is more personally haunted by his case than Victoria, and the story arc in Prague carries more weight and feels creepier because of his emotional involvement.

The game cuts back and forth between the two stories, treating the murders in both eras with the same grim professionalism of a forensic procedural like CSI, though with less flash and thicker atmosphere. The biting cold of Chicago in the winter is nearly palpable, and it is reinforced by the sagging structures of abandoned buildings and empty municipal offices. The game does an equally good job of presenting the aged feel of Prague, with crumbling old-world architecture, murky waters, and some heavy fog effects.

It’s the atmosphere that carries the experience in Still Life, so it’s unfortunate that the mood is undermined by clunky visuals. The characters themselves look fine when they’re standing still, but they move rather mechanically and have awkward mouth animations that make them look like ventriloquist’s dummies. More care was taken with the backdrops, which are all prerendered, but much of the detail and overall fidelity is lost to what appears to be overzealous image compression. You don’t really get a sense of the scale of either of the cities, and each location you visit feels less like a place firmly rooted in reality and more like a painstakingly arranged set.

The whole game goes about its business with a certain efficiency, giving room for enough expository and incidental dialogue for the benefit of the mood and the narrative, but rarely dawdling. All of the dialogue is spoken, usually with detectable traces of Canadian mannerisms. It’s not too bad during the parts of the story set in Chicago, but when you’re chatting up Turkish beat cops who sound like they grew up in Ottawa, it’s distracting and breaks the mood. But, aside from the occasionally mismatched accents and some odd inflections, the voice acting is competent. Nice background music further complements the game’s mood, and it ranges from a jarringly schizophrenic industrial theme to a more low-key noir vibe.