Wot I Think: The Shivah

By Cassandra Khaw on December 16th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

There’s something haunting about The Shivah‘s opening sequence. It starts like a terrible joke: with a rabbi, a cantor, a near barren synagogue and an unconscious old woman. But it doesn’t end that way. Where you’d expect a pun, we see instead the slow, hypnotic dissolution of a man’s faith.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“How could God let this happen?”

Rabbi Russell Stone, our religious leader and main character, doesn’t finish his sermon. He gives up part way, not with a bang but with a whimper, dissuaded by a snore and the irony of asking if God possibly enjoys inflicting pain. Rather than spiral into overblown hysterics, Rabbi Stone stops, turns and walks away, away from his dilapidated, run-down house of worship, away from his two-man flock and his responsibilities. Away from… his God? The game doesn’t tell.

It’s a hallmark of the one-man adventure game studio-slash-publisher Wadjet Eye Games. Dave Gilbert’s creations exemplify minimalist storytelling. They hint and tease and joke but they never outright tell the audience that this is how and what you should think. Which is probably why Russell Stone’s mild-mannered breakdown stuck. This wasn’t an actor going through the motions. This was surrender, grubby and aching and familiar.

Loss of faith is seldom a comfortable process; possibly because it’s often synonymous with losing bits of yourself. Sure, the missing pieces might get replaced later or return stronger, augmented with steely conviction. But for a little while at least, a vacancy will exist and that hollowness, like a cavity in the dental work of life, sucks at you for closure. Which is probably why Rabbi Stone went about things the way he did.

Shortly after he evacuates into his office, someone knocks at his door. Your first act as Rabbi Stone is to answer it. True to Wadjet Eye Games tradition, The Shivah largely restricts you to selecting “emotional” responses, eschewing pre-written lines in favor of deciding their type. It’s a clever little flourish that The Shivah uses to considerable effect. Being able to present a ‘Rabbinical’ answer (pop-culture states that rabbis like answering questions with more questions) as an answer to everything is frequently delightful and sometimes heart-wrenching. But more on that later.

We get clued in on what’s going on. A former member of his congregation is dead and Rabbi Stone is suddenly, inexplicably $10, 000 richer. Our hero, now a murder suspect, is gobsmacked. He eventually ushers the visiting detective out and is left to his own devices. Driven, perhaps, by both narrative necessity and something more complex, Stone decides to participate in the investigation. Amusingly, the first act of business revolves around trying to navigate the computer your Cantor installed on the premises. Again, a small touch but an effective one. How else should a modern-day man go about learning about an investigation he isn’t authorized to assist with? By randomly clicking on every clickable surface you see in hopes of finding a clue? Pfft. No. In spite of its Sierra-like sensibilities, The Shivah is a point & click adventure for contemporary times.

While not a game that wastes time on red herrings, The Shivah doesn’t skimp on tacit exposition. Rabbi Stone’s mailbox is replete with the usual suspects: unpaid bills, advertisements, a jovial introduction from his ever-diligent cantor and unhappy e-mails. Though Rabbi Stone never actually comments on the last, it’s easy to picture the embittered clergyman sitting there, face pinched, as he unpacks the flurry of accusations and doubt. One can only imagine what it must have been like to get to the vignette captured in the Shivah, how a successful synagogue disassembled into a congregation of one.

At some point, depending on how quickly you solve the requisite puzzles, Rabbi Stone arrives at the Lauder residence. The hallway is a spartan place, empty of condolence bouquets or idle furnishings. It’s a precise-looking home, carefully absent of any real life. I suspect it might just have been a case of the developer looking to avoid unnecessary labor but the sterile, powder-blue environment adds to the atmosphere. Rajshree isn’t in a happy place, her husband Jack the murder victim, and she becomes even less cheerful once you make an appearance. Rabbi Stone threw both Jack and Rajshree from his synagogue years ago, you see, when they had the audacity to be asked to be married. This is the first time he’s met them since.

On the most basic level, the exchange that follows between the two is, regardless of the dialogue choices you make, a good one that impresses on the player why we shouldn’t be assholes to one another. But it can, depending on your cultural background, also be an uncomfortable sequence. Malaysia, the tiny tropical country in which I was born, is a multi-racial landscape still tangled in its traditions. For all of the urbanization and the modernity of its general populace, Malaysia’s still a place where religion can amputate a relationship. I’ve seen a dozen friends warned against love with someone of another faith, a hundred more rebuked for even considering it. The more old-fashioned of parents still outright forbid it, declaring it a slight against thousands of years of unbroken tradition.

“Could you just tell me… why?” Rajshree asks, her glacial facade melting away, as Rabbi Stone moves for the door.

He pauses. I pause too. My breath catches. Moments like this make me wish The Shivah was a franchise, not a one-off experiment.

A beat later, Stone replies, “Were you and Jack happy?”

“Yes. Yes, we were.”

“Then my reasons don’t matter.”

It’s a moment that hits too close to home. In my lifetime, I’ve met so many Jacks and Rajshrees, so many people who chose love over decorum. But I’ve never spoken to the ones who stood in their way. I’ve always wondered what happened next. Twenty years down the road, do those people still hold onto the belief they were right? Do they regret?

Belief, or the lack of belief as the case may be, is potent. Whether we’re talking about the fearlessness that comes with accepting that the life you have now is the only life you’ll ever have or that trust in something bigger than you, a person’s worldview can be instrumental in providing strength and direction. But what we see as right isn’t always correct for everyone else. Choosing to forcibly dismantle someone else, to dictate what happiness is for another party, to fix or diminish or to cure another human being because they don’t subscribe to the same ideology — it’s not something we should generally be doing. Rajshree and Jack chose to be happy in spite of the opposition but many, unfortunately, cave in to pressure. And it’s always a shame because we only have so many years to be happy.

There’s a lot of talk about how The Shivah is a game about morality. It’s true. Without ever actually plunging into a dissection of the concept, The Shivah continuously provides opportunities to evaluate the impact of decisions and whether the ends justify the means. It’s also a game about culpability, about owning up to mistakes that have been made and, more importantly, living with the consequences of your errors. Most crucially, the Shivah is a game that features a brilliant twist on Monkey Island’s Insult Sword-Fighting gimmick.

The best part about The Shivah, though, is that it doesn’t provide Rabbi Stone with a stereotypical happy ending. Even if you do succeed at unlocking the best possible outcome, he doesn’t come out a changed man. Things do not automatically become better. Rabbi Stone doesn’t experience an immediate, Disney-tinted renewal of spirit. Instead, he simply gives God another chance. It could still go belly-up between those two. That’s a good thing because anything more would have felt like a cop-out. No one ever gets a free pass in life. We just make do with what we have.

The Shivah: Kosher Edition was released last month with updated graphics and new music. There’s a demo available.

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51 Comments »

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  1. aliksy says:

    I don’t understand why people subscribe to religions that make them unhappy. It’s like playing a MMO you don’t enjoy anymore. Wait. Shit. Maybe I do get it..?

    • kalirion says:

      I might be going out on a limb here, but it might be because they believe their religions to be true?

      You don’t stop believing something is true just because you don’t like it.

      • ExpendablePanda says:

        Why would you say such a ludicrously crazy ridiculous statement? ;-)

      • Syra says:

        Nope, I always stop believing in things when I no longer like them.

        • Ross Angus says:

          I don’t like cauliflower, but by Christ, I believe it exists.

          • yuri999 says:

            Oh my god…. lol.

          • 2Ben says:

            Well, the old testament is so chock-full of horrors the huge majority of so-called christians conveniently seem to forget it exists…

      • sandineyes says:

        Yes, exactly. I’d argue that beliefs can change, but they can’t be chosen.

        As for the game, showing up on RPS earlier was enough for me to wishlist it, but now I’m really tempted to get it.

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        mineshaft says:

        “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” — Philip K Dick

        • altum videtur says:

          No sirree. We, as humans, are completely imprisoned in our fantasy worlds of thought. All of our understanding is just an interpretation of a maybe-reality that we postulate to be existing because it has been agreed upon to be so in order to ground ourselves in something.
          The Hashashins of old killed in the hopes of reaching paradise. Their masters knew a secret: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. But they applied it only to such simple constructs as the human mind, or society, or morality.

          Once you pass the event horizon of a black hole, every direction leads towards the center, and at the center, time simply stops existing because reality itself has been reworked into something (nothing?) altogether different (diffident?).

          … if any of that was relevant to you then you should pull your ass out of your head.

    • mechabuddha says:

      Community, a sense of belonging, a sense of worth. Why does anyone do anything?

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      Napalm Sushi says:

      My parents’ recent disillusionment with their church – and Catholicism in general – after 60+ years did a lot to answer that question for me.

      The tribalism of religion is without doubt its most prominent and powerful trait. Our congregation rarely chose to actually live by the teachings of their faith. Their actions during services were drilled and automatic; the words they both heard and uttered devoid of conviction or even comprehension. It was a room full of people performing what was essentially an hour-long OCD ritual. Nobody ever discussed what they’d just heard afterward, and even the priest seemed more concerned about the financial health of his enterprise than the spiritual health of his flock.

      But the instant my parents questioned it and voiced their decision to stay home on Sunday? Suddenly: fanatics, all of them. My parents’ actions were unthinkable and their choice unfathomable. “How could you?” “Well, I never.” “I thought better of you.” Decades long ties severed in a single sentence. People they’d known for twice as long as me, washing their hands of them.

      Everyone sinned, but that was OK. There were rules for dealing with that; it was part of the ritual. But my parents hadn’t merely sinned: they’d broken the laws of the tribe. They’d placed themselves beyond the context of it, so as far as the rest of them were concerned, they weren’t people anymore.

      My own apostasy occurred much earlier and to much less fanfare, but few things have affirmed it more than my parents’ experience.

      • altum videtur says:

        And you think that all religious experience has to be necessarily social?
        Come off it.
        One’s own god can be their own fucking business. Everybody wants to have something beyond the infinite cruelty of the real world to hold on to.

        • brickstool says:

          I don’t think he was saying it was “necessarily social” as such (correct me if I’m wrong Napalm), more that the social aspect plays into a large part of whether or not someone is more inclined to a particular religious group or experience. At least that’s how I read it.

          Also I think that one’s own god can indeed be their own business, but when one has beliefs as strongly held as those about a religion or religions, they inevitably show up in the person’s day to day life and in the decision making process. I don’t think I worded that as well as I could have. Oh and I agree with your final point. Though I think regardless of how nice the idea is or could be, the niceness does not equate to the idea being true. Just my two cents!

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          Napalm Sushi says:

          Indeed it can be their own fucking business. I don’t think all spirituality is necessarily social, and I fully acknowledge the vast spectrum of personal expressions of it.

          Organised religion, however (at least of the Abrahamic variety of my experience), is rarely personal, and inclination has little to do with it. It’s usually imposed on you by others at a very impressionable age and the shared experience of it sustains it against conflicts with your actual nature, the expectations of your fellows discouraging you from real self-analysis. As I touched on above, most of the people in every congregation I’ve stood in or served for – myself and my family included – were just robotically following a sequence of speech and motion that briefly settled their minds simply because they’d agreed with each other that it should, without spending any conscious thought on it whatsoever. The link I made with OCD was not a frivolous one.

          You’re right that there are many exceptions, but there are also definite patterns. My underlying point, as a reply to the OP, was that the hardest part of apostasy isn’t usually changing your worldview; it’s abandoning your tribe.

          • Hmm-Hmm. says:

            I would argue that this isn’t necessarily an aspect of religions alone. I suspect it’s mostly to do with habits, rituals and groupthink. People get used to things and ideas and concepts. Aside from that things like social cohesion, a religion (or other grouping/organisation) being a centre of ‘the’ community.

            This can make for a great deal of resistance to change and a growth in importance of things which in the faith itself are minor, unimportant or even contrary to ideas part of said faith.

        • angelstouch92 says:

          altum videtur : Napalm did not at any point say that all religious experience is social but is drawing on experience. It is clear that especially in today’s society religion is becoming a more at home practice. However there is this sense of belonging created by religious or even spiritual beliefs; when you meet someone with the same beliefs as you there is this sense of “well you know where I am coming from then”. Just so you know also the OCD ritualistic behaviour of religious people has been discovered through brain scans where those of people praying matched those doing an OCD ritual.

          aliksy ~ In reply to your comment “I don’t understand why people subscribe to religions that make them unhappy. It’s like playing a MMO you don’t enjoy anymore” all I can do is draw from my own experience and say sometimes it is hard to let go of something when faced with uncertainty. I stopped believing in God when I was 8 because my sister dying made me confused and the Bible could no longer answer the questions I was asking well; but for a good year I still tried to believe. I didn’t want to let go. The idea of an afterlife when death is so unknown is reassuring and although it didn’t make sense to me I desperately clung to it until I could no longer. Having a sense of belonging to a being higher than you is the reason I give for this; we are often told in christian religions to think of God as Father or a parent like figure, even as we get older sometimes all we want is reassurance from our parents. Losing your religion is often like losing a parent. It hurts, it leaves you hollow and lost with no one to turn to. Ties to the people you once shared the love of your ‘parent’ with are cut. Without the parent figure they don’t really know you and so won’t talk to you.
          As the article states “Loss of faith is seldom a comfortable process; possibly because it’s often synonymous with losing bits of yourself. Sure, the missing pieces might get replaced later or return stronger, augmented with steely conviction. But for a little while at least, a vacancy will exist and that hollowness, like a cavity in the dental work of life, sucks at you for closure.”

          Other than it being ritualistic in many senses I think people continue to subscribe to religions that make them unhappy because to a lot of religious families coming out as agnostic or even atheist is like coming out as gay to a homophobic family, another reason could be that without their church they believe they will feel isolated, hence a sense of community, and finally another reason I propose is simply this; losing your religion is like being told your whole world is a lie. If you base your worldview on religion, which quite a few people do, then to lose it is to lose your sense of stability and that is scary.

        • 2Ben says:

          Well that’s the main issue, isn’t it ? If only one’s god could actually *stay* one’s own fucking business, without having to try and convert the rest of the world…

      • SgtStens says:

        Napalm Sushi,
        First of all, I am sorry for the hurt you and your family have felt at the hands of people who call themselves followers of Christ. I wish I could say yours was the first instance I have encountered of such behavior, but your family is not alone. I know many people who have suffered similarly. Your parents were right in their decision to leave such a toxic and oppressive environment.
        On the other hand, however, is this God’s fault? Should stepping away from your home church mean a step away from God entirely? Allow me to respectfully take a closer look at some of your criticisms:

        Our congregation rarely chose to actually live by the teachings of their faith.

        We are all broken, messed up, selfish people. Christians believe that God calls us to a relationship with him, a lifelong process that involves taking our messed up beliefs, desires, and baggage and replacing it with new, better stuff. No one ever gets to perfection this side of Heaven, but if you know someone who says they’re a Christian and they’ve been a mean, nasty asshole for forty years, there’s probably some sort of problem going on there. Maybe they’re not really a Christian, maybe they’re holding on to some wound or sin that’s keeping them from growing closer to God, but something’s not right. If that person is in a leadership position in your church, you should probably find a new church.

        Their actions during services were drilled and automatic; the words they both heard and uttered devoid of conviction or even comprehension. It was a room full of people performing what was essentially an hour-long OCD ritual.

        This sounds horrible. I wouldn’t want to go there. We sing God’s praises because we genuinely love Him and want to demonstrate that love together as a community. If all you’re doing on Sunday is lip service you’re missing the point entirely.

        Nobody ever discussed what they’d just heard afterward

        Yeah, if nothing is actually said except the same thing you heard last week, I’m not surprised. We have a pastor who spends 30-40 hours a week preparing his weekly sermon with the goal of engaging us intellectually and spiritually. I have preached sermons to our youth group as a guest speaker and it takes not only time and effort, but conviction. If you don’t love Jesus and don’t think he is worth talking about, no one else will either.

        Everyone sinned, but that was OK. There were rules for dealing with that; it was part of the ritual.

        This is the toughest pill to swallow for me. ‘Dealing’ with sin isn’t about rules, it’s about forgiveness. God doesn’t say that sin is OK, but he is patient and he forgives.
        Sometimes my kids do bad things. They get angry and lose their tempers with me, or they do dumb stuff I told them not to do. I forgive them (meaning I don’t hold a grudge forever) because I love them, not because they deserve it. That’s what God does for us. It doesn’t make what we do OK, it means God makes it as if that stuff never happened.
        But God is just (meaning he has a sense of justice) as well as merciful. So in order to have justice and still forgive our sins he became a man and took the punishment on himself. He did not deserve it, but endured the life of a pauper and the death of a criminal so that we could be reconciled.
        If your church or your religiosity reduces the love, sacrifice, and power of the Cross into a bunch of empty rituals, run. Run fast and don’t look back.

        My own apostasy occurred much earlier and to much less fanfare, but few things have affirmed it more than my parents’ experience.

        The fanfare of a bunch of nasty idiots is a mouse’s fart in God’s ear. What he cares about is you. If you disregard everything I’ve said, please know that God desires to have a personal relationship with you, not mediated by someone else. He loves you and is waiting with open arms for you.

        TL;DR: Sorry for your family’s lousy experiences. Your church sounds like shite; I wouldn’t go there. It’s not God’s fault. He is still good even when some of his supposed followers make Him look bad. He wants you back.

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          Napalm Sushi says:

          Thank you muchly for your concern, but my own exit from the fold was for philosophical and intellectual reasons, occurred at an entirely personal level after leaving my familial home and is something in which the last 10 years of learning and experience have only cemented my confidence, and to a much deeper level than my faith ever reached.

          I was never fully comfortable reconciling my faith with my growing knowledge of philosophy, logic, history and – not least of all – the hundreds of other gods and creeds I wasn’t following through what I knew to be sheer accident of my birth, but for years, I tried. The maintenance of my theism throughout my teens required the twisting and eventual shedding of an ever greater number of its tenets to fit my blossoming worldview and I gradually came to wonder why I was trying. It was a slow process that I didn’t realise was complete until, one unremarkable day, I was filling out a government form and concluded that it was no longer accurate to tick the “Christian” box. And that was that.

          My parents’ experience simply revealed to me, in the tribal attitudes of those who exiled them and whose attitudes I once shared, why I hadn’t done it sooner. Had I been raised in a less spiritually toxic environment, I’d probably have stopped ticking that box at a much earlier date.

        • 2Ben says:

          Was god merciful in the old testament or he just became so after a while ? Maybe the all-knowing, all-mighty one suddenly grew up a little ? Well, just a little, after all slaves are still OK in the new one, as well as absolute misogyny (say hello to Timothy, for example).
          What a load of tripe.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Strong review, though a little weird that you talk about “Wadjet Eye tradition” when this is the first Wadjet Eye game (AFAIK, no content has been changed in this release other than updated graphics/music, make this the third release of The Shivah).

    • Cassandra Khaw says:

      … You know, I completely forgot about that. o_o I am going to go commit seppuku now. ._.

      • The Random One says:

        Clearly you meant that this is where that tradition started!

      • altum videtur says:

        You might be surprised to know that you can actually survive that.
        Especially if you try it with a really tiny folding knife.

        Explaining afterwards is always really awkward though.

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        Aerothorn says:

        Don’t sweat it, minor quibble. As I said, very strong piece! Not that you need a random commenter to tell you You Done Good.

    • Ross Angus says:

      I agree: Cassandra’s done a lovely piece here.

  3. markside says:

    Sounds awesome and like it might make me cry.

  4. ExpendablePanda says:

    This game sort of gives me the vibes of titles like Richard and Alice. Maybe not so much in the gameplay itself per se, but…well I’m not sure.. it’s what comes to my mind at least. Sounds like it’d be worth a shot though. Nice review.

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    daphne says:

    Moments like this make me wish The Shivah was a franchise, not a one-off experiment.

    A remarkable and frank way of saying you want more, but not necessarily of the same. I agree — complaints aganist franchises and sequels collapse as long as that “more” is provided. Pity so many turn out to be just the same.

    • Slinkusss says:

      I think ‘more’ is fantastic and we are often robbed of sequels and full expansions I think because game developers are under much pressure to get bigger better stronger harder faster with each new game. I suppose it drives innovation (debatable I know), but it also robs us of having more Far Cry 2 (instead we get far cry 3), more dragon age origins (instead: dragon age 2).

      Or perhaps we feel like we are beta testing for a franchise ala Assassin’s creed? Either way sometimes when I am mourning the end of an awesome game, I just want more of it. Don’t make it better, don’t change that one little thing you couldn’t get in before release…. just make another one just like the other one please.

  6. Phasma Felis says:

    I see this version has fully-voiced dialogue. How is it? Bad or even so-so voice acting can do so much damage to a story that I often prefer simple text.

    • Cassandra Khaw says:

      I loved Rabbi Stone. Rajshree sounded a bit off, imo. But I liked the voice acting overall!

      • swiftshlock says:

        I have to agree full-heartedly, the voice actor of Rabbi Stone is pure gold and lends much credibility to the role. There are even some funny takeouts with him (and the other voice actors) included in a “special features” section of the game. Nice stuff. Not all of the other actors are that good, but there are no really bad performances either. If you are really unsure if the voice acting annoys you, you could always try the demo.

        • Emeraude says:

          Ah, voice acting.. my old nemesis… can it be turned off ?

          • swiftshlock says:

            There a separate volume sliders for music and speech. Just checked, and it turns out you can effectively disable speech altogether by using them.

          • Emeraude says:

            Tanks a lot for taking the time to check and reply.

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    Graves says:

    This is an insightful piece, and it has convinced me to pick up the game and give it a try. Thanks Cassandra.

  8. Emeraude says:

    You know, I immediately came to dislike that one image and its framing of the situation… as if being selfish was the only logical alternative to making amends; or at least as if those were on the same spectrum.
    Will need to see that in context. I guess.

    Weirdly, reading this article reminded me of Robert Bresson’s desire as a film director to “get rid of actors”, and I can’t but wonder what he would have thought of games as a narrative medium…

    • Charles de Goal says:

      Considering many games don’t get rid of actors, I’m not sure he would be impressed :) Bresson said most movies were “filmed theatre”, and you could consider many games are “interactive cinema” in that they copy the same tropes and situations (especially mainstream, Hollywoodian games, of course).

  9. mukuste says:

    This sounds interesting. Any hints of A Serious Man here?

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    Bluerps says:

    This is a lovely review. It shows what makes this game great. I already own The Shivah, but I would have bought it based on this.

  11. Ergates_Antius says:

    Strange.

    This is a really nicely written WOT, but I can’t remember when I felt less interested in playing a game I read about on RPS (leaving aside the piss-take things on Man-Shooter 443).

  12. Frank says:

    Nice to see a good game still getting attention after so many years, and from a new (to me) angle, too. More of this, please.

    This is my favorite of the Wadjet Eye Games, mostly because I haven’t finished any of the others yet (having only played this one last year). It is *really* old, though, isn’t it? Like Manifesto-Games old. Like before-RPS old.

  13. alms says:

    Sorry Cassandra, sorry RPS, I have to link to this one:

    http://www.pcgamer.com/2013/11/23/saturday-crapshoot-the-shivah/

    Cobbett FTW!

    • Cassandra Khaw says:

      Lord help me, that’s totally fine. I’m a Corbett fan girl. When I have enough money, I’ll pay him to write the ongoing biography for my life. ‘Cause. He rocks.

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    phuzz says:

    So, would I have to know much about Judaism in order to play this?

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    heretic says:

    Thanks Cassandra, nice WIT!