Sense of Adventure: Dave Gilbert, Wadjet Eye Games and The Shivah

Real-world religions are oddly absent from games. Whether it’s through fear or complacency, the mainstream part of our industry careful sidesteps controversy. If religion enters at all, it’s used as in God of War or El Shaddai, as a theme to be mined. Similarly, the liberal bent of most indies means that religion isn’t a huge part of their lives and hence rarely enters into their games.

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This article originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into GamesRadar. I post it for archive purposes. I first wrote about the Shivah back in 2006.

Real-world religions are oddly absent from games. Whether it’s through fear or complacency, the mainstream part of our industry careful sidesteps controversy. If religion enters at all, it’s used as in God of War or El Shaddai, as a theme to be mined. Similarly, the liberal bent of most indies means that religion isn’t a huge part of their lives and hence rarely enters into their games.

When Dave Gilbert released The Shivah back in 2006, he dealt with religion head-on, and not in a crass way. His Rabbi Russell Stone is a believably bitter priest with a declining congregation, who stumbles into a nasty noir plot. Despite winning the 2006 Adventure Game Studio (AGS) competition, the nascent state of digital distribution and online media meant that the game wasn’t widely played back then.

Now, seven years on, Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Games has released The Shiva: Kosher Edition, with improved graphics, music and voices, making the game feel like an unreleased LucasArts adventure title. We caught up with him to find out how the scene has changed since his first successful title.

The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.
The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.

“Success is relative.” Gilbert says. “I had no idea what I was doing back then, and my launch plan consisted of playing it once to make sure it worked, uploading it to a store server my brother-in-law set up, and then going to bed. Shockingly, this did not turn me into an overnight success story.”

Interestingly, despite the religious title (‘Shivah’ is the Jewish mourning period) Gilbert doesn’t think of the Shivah as a religious game. “It’s a murder mystery which happens to star a rabbi, and takes place in his world. So I didn’t shy from it so much as wanted to tell this specific story.  There’s no attempt to preach or convert or even teach anyone. In fact, despite being Jewish myself I got a LOT of facts wrong. For example, in the game Rabbi Stone is considering closing down the synagogue. In real life, there would be a whole board of people who would decide that kind of thing, and the rabbi wouldn’t be involved. So anyone looking to the Shivah as a way to learn about Jewish culture should probably look somewhere else.”

Indeed, he seems to have chosen a Rabbi as his lead because the characters in his previous game, Two of a Kind, were criticised as lacking motivation. “They were detectives, and it was their job, and that was it. So when I wanted to write another game, I wanted to create a detective (or detective-like character) who was really driven to get to the bottom of a mystery.”

Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.
Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.

In these days dominated by pixel art, it’s not unbelievable to see the pixel-heavy AGS games again rising to the surface. Richard Hofmeier’s IGF winning Cart Life is a heavily-modded AGS title, after all. “Tons of games are still being made with (AGS), and there are more commercial ventures than ever before. It also went open source a year ago, and significant headway has gone into making it cross-compatible. We used the iOS port to release an iOS version of Gemini Rue back in April, and the Shivah remake will also be on iOS.”

And Gilbert’s Wadjet Games is making a lot of AGS games, including the award-winning Blackwell series. “Back in the dark ages of 2006, it seemed like a ridiculous idea to make small point-and-click adventure games and earn a living at it. It still kind of is, but somehow we’ve made it work… I can’t say it’s always been easy, but I can’t think of many things that are as rewarding.”

“People have been saying “the adventure game is dead” for… twenty years, now? We’re not trying to do anything so lofty as to “bring the genre back” or whathaveyou. If people didn’t like adventure games in the first place, we wouldn’t be in business. We just make the games we want to play, and that seems to be enough.”

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