It’s not every day that I get to play a rabbi wandering the streets of Manhattan, trying to solve a murder mystery, but who am I to judge?
Puzzle games are often a treat for me and this one got my attention because it was the product of a game developer called Wadjet Eye Studios. They’ve produced one point-and-click game that I still hold near and dear to my heart, Primordia, where two robots wander the desert and into a major city to track down their stolen power source. It’s fascinating how both of these games share common elements, such as avenging a fallen comrade and trying to make sense of the world through the lens of religion.
The Shivah is the story of Rabbi Russell Stone, whose congregation of Conservative Jews has dwindled because of his bleak and uninspiring sermons. When he learns that a former member of his congregation, Jack Lauder, was murdered and left him several thousand dollars in his will, Rabbi Stone decides to pay a shivah call to Lauder’s widow. From there, the quest is on to find Lauder’s killer and make amends for driving the young couple out of his congregation eight years prior.
While there are some similarities between this game and Primordia, such as 2D animation, clues to collect, and dialogue trees with multiple game endings, The Shivah is far more cerebral. Rather than test the player on how many parts they collect and what secrets they unlock with new combinations, you’re required to think more like a rabbi and see which responses get the best results from the people you question. You can be sarcastic, defensive, accusatory, consoling, polite, or straightforward. Most dialogues even include a “Rabbinical” option, which lets you ask probing questions to drive you toward the truth. These can be useful, but they can also infuriate, which can make for a poor course of action depending on which character you talk to.
Abe Goldfarb does a good job of voicing the world-weary Rabbi Stone; he sounds like your typical hardboiled detective, were it not for the occasional bit of Yiddish slang and the yarmulke on his head. Most of his lines are laden with sincere feeling, although I didn’t feel like I got to know this character as well as I did Horatio from Primordia. Rabbi Stone’s journey is less about self-discovery and more about making amends for a decision from the past.
As for the style and ethos of the game, it’s definitely steeped in Jewish lore, with plenty of Jewish humor, a klezmer soundtrack, and even a Talmudic duel at the end. Even the achievements—which are based on the decisions and dialogue options you choose in-game—are all based on common Yiddish phrases. The game brings Judaism to the fore without necessarily becoming a caricature. It’s an attempt to use elements of Jewish and rabbinical culture to tell a mystery story and build a puzzle game.
At the end, I’d say it’s an alright game. You care about Rabbi Stone and the plot, but the dry recreation of Manhattan doesn’t thrill me the way seeing the world of Primordia did and I felt the ending wasn’t as strong. Still, what could be better than a chance to learn a bit of Torah while playing a video game?
Bibliography: The Shivah: Kosher Edition. Designed by Dave Gilbert. Developed by Wadjet Eye Games. Adventure Game Studios (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux iOS, Android. Original release date: September 2006. Kosher Edition release date: November 13, 2013.