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.