When a game comes along that features a rabbi as the lead character, you can’t help but do a double-take. In The Shivah, a point-and-click adventure game from Wadjet Eye Games, that’s just what you’ll do.
You play as Rabbi Russell Stone, a man whose faith is dwindling almost as fast as his congregation. One evening after services, Stone is visited by a policeman, who tells him that a former member of his synagogue, Jack Lauder, has been killed. Apparently, Lauder left Stone a large sum of money, but Stone doesn’t understand why Lauder would have left anything to him after the falling out they had years ago. Thus begins the mystery.
As a whole, the game is simply designed. The sprite graphics are crude compared to most games of today, yet retain a certain charm. The soundtrack is very well-done, and played with real instruments. The tone is set by dark jazz and solo violin lines that have the right blend of drama and klezmer. All the characters are voiced well, with real actors as opposed to the "volunteer" performances often heard in these kinds of games.
The gameplay itself is rudimentary. You never have any inventory to speak of, and the cast of characters isn’t very large. There aren’t many places to visit on the map of Manhattan. There are no real brain twisters here, apart from piecing together the information given to you by the few folks you do speak to.
Rather, what makes this game interesting is its take on Jewish culture and humor. For example, the name "shivah" refers to the seven-day period of mourning after the death of a loved one, and helps to set the somewhat serious tone of the game. The Shivah even starts with a cantor (a person who sings prayers at the synagogue) singing a traditional Sabbath prayer.
The game even begins with an old Jewish joke of a person who asks a rabbi why every question asked of the rabbi is met with another question (the answer is, "Why not?"). The Shivah also tackles some real heavy issues, not all of which will appeal to everyone.
But central to the story is the crisis of faith and Jewish identity that haunts the main character. Throughout the game, Rabbi Stone constantly asks himself why he’s doing what he’s doing, and is God really there? These kinds of deep, spiritual issues are rarely seen in any video game, let alone one in the casual space.
Imagine the surprise, though, that the crisis is then taken into the absurd. In fact, Rabbi Stone gets involved with some serious violence, which would seem to run counter to his belief system as the game portrays it. By the end, Rabbi Stone seems less a man on a spiritual mission and more of a rogue military man. And with the game being very short (it should take about two hours at most to clear) the journey Stone takes feels at times disjointed and rushed.
Developer Dave Gilbert has added some interesting extras, including a "kibbitz" (meaning gossip) mode, which has a sprite of Gilbert’s head pop up and give extensive behind-the-scenes commentary on the game. It’s definitely a great addition, helping to give insight into this unusual title.
Taken on its own, The Shivah is a fairly short, esthetically bland adventure title. Granted, it’s not as fleshed out as the Wadjet Eye games that came after (like Emerald City Confidential and the Blackwell series), but to take on this kind of mature and difficult subject matter elevates The Shivah to something greater than the sum of its parts.