Martha is Dead opens with a refutation: “Martha is not dead.” Such are the words of Martha’s identical twin sister, Giulia, as whom we play. Sadly, evidence is mounting to the contrary. Giulia has just retrieved Martha’s body from a lake, hauling her ashore as though she had caught a mermaid. The scene has a surreal tone: the pre-dawn light matches Martha’s blued skin, and a thick fog clings to the shore, damp and dirty, like the dress that hangs off her limp form. Just then, three fighter planes hurtle, in formation, overhead, and thus the game’s prevailing themes are set: denial, doubleness, and the coupling of bodies with besieged lands.
The year is 1944, and the place is occupied Italy—specifically, the Tuscan town of Romola, in whose forests dwell members of the Italian resistance movement. Giulia, however, is quick to shoot down the notion that her sister’s death was a symptom of national strife; “Martha was not killed by politics or war! She was killed by something much closer and much less clear,” she says. On this last point I’m in agreement. I came away from Martha is Dead in a state of blurry bathos, which is doubly a shame when you consider the fine-grained clarity in which its opening hours are drawn. Giulia’s father is a German general, and her house is lapped in middle-class comfort; the pantry is stocked with fruit and vegetables, despite the rationing that reaves the country, and the hallways are nourished with art—Doré on the walls, Franz Lehár wafting from a wooden radio.
Giulia is a keen amateur photographer, in possession of a 1940 Rolleicord II, type 4, loaded with 120mm. film. It’s a handsome object: a dark chunk of metal and glass, brickish of bulk and shape, with a flip-up viewfinder that Giulia peers down into like a scryer. We are free to snap whatever we like, and there is much to lure our eye. Outside, there are lemon trees and ploughed fields, and credit must go to the developer, LKA, which is based in Chiantishire, near Florence, for supplying us with a zesty chronicle of home soil. The pleasures of Martha is Dead lie in its smellable vividness, and in the mystery-spiked languor of its early hours. Giulia’s hunt to find her sister’s killer is keyed to tactile objects: a rotary telephone, with numbers pencilled onto a pad beside it; a deck of tarot cards, for the daily forecast of her fate; and, best of all, film—that silken record of life, as frail and flammable as memory, curled into canisters and tucked into her bag.
These are to be developed in the family darkroom. “It’s always a thrill to develop a photo,” Giulia says, and, true enough, over the game’s five or so hours, I never tired of the process. There is something ominous and seductive about the red-bathed worktop and the papers, plucked out and laid beneath the plate, laved in sloshing fluid, and held aloft, as the image blots into view. “In real life, immersion in the developer is followed by a wash,” we are told. “These additional baths have been skipped for the sake of simplicity.” Why the need for extra information? If the writer and director, Luca Dalcò, comes across as a fusspot, it’s because he is eager to point up the importance of veracity.
His previous work, The Town of Light, focussed on a real—and abandoned—psychiatric hospital, the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, also based in Tuscany, and recreated it fastidiously. Players of that game followed Renée, a patient of the asylum in the nineteen-forties, who, later on, roamed its ruined corridors in search of herself. Both games get under your flesh, for the detail in which they render their subjects, and in the skein of nastiness that skewers that vision—electroconvulsive therapy, lobotomy, and, in Martha is Dead, spurts of savage violence. A weekend double bill of LKA’s games would leave you drained and stained; indeed, immersion in the developer ought to be followed by a wash.
It was difficult not to raise an eyebrow at the marketing of The Town of Light, at the trailer that bid us to “enter inside her mind,” and to “live her obsessions,” as if such ingress were not only possible but laudable—voyeurism dressed up as empathy. Likewise, the controversy that has trailed the release of Martha is Dead, concerning some of its more depraved acts (the interactivity of which has been removed on PlayStation consoles), feels carefully tuned to elicit a shock. “The only feedback I hope to never see is indifference,” says Dalcò, in the publicity notes. He needn’t worry. It’s tough to be indifferent in the face of a young woman’s face, as it is sliced, peeled from her head, and worn like a mask—accompanied, on the soundtrack, by someone taking a hacksaw to a mandolin. Still to come: autopsies performed with scissors, a beheading, and a bout of self-harm.
Whether you consider the brutality gratuitous, or a necessary part of Giulia’s story, the more pressing problem is the way that story resolves—or refuses to. The conceit that propels the plot is that the dress Martha died in was, in fact, Giulia’s; and when their mother—who, we learn, loved Martha but hated Giulia—rushes to comfort who she thinks is her favourite daughter, Giulia doesn’t have the heart to let her down. (Hence the face-snatching, a grisly metaphor that bedevils Giulia’s dreams.) I didn’t quite buy this switcheroo. “I can never understand why no one else can ever tell you apart, not even your own mother and father!” says one character, as though to preempt the sceptical wrinkling of our noses, and to save narrative face.
Still, it makes for an entertaining subterfuge, one that fuels the air of espionage that suffuses the tale. We get slashed phone lines, secret messages wrapped out in Morse, and dialogue of rarefied clunk: “Should I sabotage the cable and become a spy? I don’t know… my father is German,” says Giulia, re-briefing us on the moral, familial, and geopolitical parameters of her mission. So, who really killed Martha? A member of the local resistance? A German soldier? Someone closer to home? Did she even exist? Search me. It isn’t so much that our line of inquiry goes unanswered, rather that it ramifies into a maze of possible answers. “Once I crossed that threshold, I completely lost touch with reality,” says Giulia. And the plot cracks up in solidarity with her unmooring. If only Dalcò, rather than honouring his heroine by smothering her search for truth in confounding gloom, had abided by her love of illumination. “Something invisible is captured on the black film… a kind of ghost,” she says, waiting for a picture to emerge. “That invisible breath then returns to reveal the reality from which it was torn.”
Publisher: Wired Productions
Available on: Xbox Series X/S [reviewed on], Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date: February 24, 2022
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