The Shivah: Kosher Edition Review

Or, A Game of Firsts

The Shivah 01In many ways, Dave Gilbert’s adventure game The Shivah, now re-released and re-mastered under the “Kosher Edition” subtitle on Steam and on the iPad, is a game of firsts.

Released originally in 2006, it was Gilbert’s first commercial game1, and, in fact, one of the first commercial Adventure Game Studio games on the whole. It’s also where his publishing studio, Wadjet Eye Games, got kickstarted (in a time before Kickstarter). Though the developer had already released other games, for free, like The Repossesser (2001), and Bestowers of Eternity (2003), the game that later became The Blackwell Legacy, it was this game that would become his calling card.

After all, The Shivah was the first AGS game to receive any real mainstream coverage, perhaps in large part due to its mundane, real-world setting, and Gilbert’s writing chops. Some readers may still recall, for instance, Boing Boing’s early snippet of an article on the game. Imagine: This miniature mention was - by far! - the most coverage that the AGS platform had received since its inception in 1999!

And as far as firsts go, it was - quite probably - the first game with a rabbi as its lead.

The Original

What is The Shivah, then? Apart from being Hebrew, for “seven days,” and denoting the Jewish mourning period observed by Jews for the dead, it is a Gabriel Knight -style modern, hard-boiled, murder mystery. It is not, as they’d say, a “religious” game, but a game with religious content. To cite:

Rabbi Russell Stone has grown cynical and bitter as his synagogue’s funds and membership dwindle. He’s on the verge of packing it in when a congregation member dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving him a large sum of money. Can he accept the windfall and move on? His conscience says no. Step into Rabbi Stone’s shoes as he travels all over Manhattan to uncover the truth.2

The 2006 version

The 2006 version

Indeed, Rabbi Stone - the playable character - is a bitter, despondent man, and in some sense, very much responsible for the acidic atmosphere at his failing synagogue. When detective Durkin brings news of the murder, and of the sizeable sum now in the synagogue’s possession, Stone springs into action with almost suicidal zeal, clearly grasping for straws, and in some ways, for salvation.

The game’s plot unravels quickly, and swiftly, and over almost as soon as it had started. I’d last played through The Shivah in the previous decade, and the first thing of note was how utterly familiar it felt. The one thing that Gilbert’s commercial products had very, very right, right from the get-go, was this intangible baseline quality that made people associate them, almost instantaneously, with the so-called “golden years” of adventure gaming. It’s as if these new Wadjet Eye games, like the Blackwell Series, were part of that selfsame continuum - the sequels that never were.

The Shivah 04Looking back, in 2006, The Shivah was great precisely because it felt like a ’90s game. While this indeterminable feeling, of quality, made people take to them very easily, and no doubt took Gilbert over the most immediate hurdle, it’s clear that the game is equally fine in other areas: The no-nonsense controls, the solid puzzles, everything in the service of the story, and the writing.

There’s another sense in which The Shivah is a child of the 1990s: It requires focus and patience on behalf of the player. Although the game also introduced Gilbert’s general flair and style of puzzling, like the combination of journal entries, and solving computer-based puzzles, you also found yourself forced to jot down names, and words, and actually sitting down to think.

(I had forgotten how infernal this is, or rather, can be. Thinking. Ptsch.)

The Do-Over

But these are all words to say of the original. What of the remake, then? The first thing that draws obvious attention in the “Kosher Edition” is a curious - seemingly technical - limitation that prevents voices from playing concurrently over music, interrupting the background ambience every time a line is voiced. The end effect is more than a little bit jarring.

The Shivah 05Ben Chandler’s new sprites are an improvement, certainly. The compulsory, oh-so-compulsory Steam achievements are silly, and good for a giggle or two, but feel tacked-on in such a serious game. The best new addition to the remake, by far, is Ivan Ulyanov’s portraiture, which is evocative and striking (on the right).

The voice acting, then? Dave Gilbert himself, as a cantor boy, grates, simply grates horribly, and Abe Goldfarb as Rabbi Stone at this point is the Nolan North of adventure games; no matter how good he is, he’s been in too many Wadjet games at this juncture.

The Shivah 03Don’t get me wrong; this is not a sloppy remaster. New features have been introduced, like the ability to reveal all hotspots on the screen (on the left). The Shivah: Kosher Edition is a well-made game - and in fact, remade from scratch3, but let’s be honest: This is no giant leap. As Gilbert himself says, “[The Shivah is] short, and reasonably straightforward.”3

For me to state how everything has now been marginally improved is certainly true, and while the improvements quite clearly target the lesser features of the original, it’s not as if they dragged the game down in any substantial way. It was never the audiovisuals, or art direction, that really mattered; it was the freshness of the thematics, the enthusiasm perspiring from the energetic writing, and the fantastic style and pace with which the game’s narrative proceeded.

It’s as if Gilbert attacked the topic with great passion. In fact, I bet that’s exactly it. Passion. The Shivah, as it was - and as it is now, remade - is still a kind of a landmark title in adventure gaming history, for the reasons mentioned above. But now, it stands before us more as a relic, one that showed the indie gaming world that real-world narratives, real-world desires, and real-world motivations could sustain a video game.

That’s pretty damn kosher to me.

The Shivah: Kosher Edition is available now, for $4.99, on the Wadjet Eye Store, Steam, and GOG. It is also available on the App Store for $1.99. A demo is available on the PC.

  1. Curiously, the game was not a commercially-minded title at first; the original version was in fact a MAGS contest submission that was then reworked - much like the Kosher Edition! []
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