Martha Is Dead Review

March 15, 2022
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Gory kill

About an hour into Martha is Dead, you’re forced to cut someone’s face off with an identification tag. To complete the mutilation, you need to look at your screen to make sure that you’re pressing the right buttons for about thirty seconds, and after you’re done, you need to tap another few keys to put the skin onto your own head and look through it. While technically, the entire ordeal is part of a dream sequence, it lasts just long enough to become permanently etched in your memory, and it's one of the most gory and traumatizing sequences that’s ever been put into a video game. The same can be said for much of Martha is Dead, and that’s what makes it one of the most unique, if distressing, video games to ever release. 

To be clear, Martha is Dead isn’t just a game about gore. As its title doesn’t necessarily suggest, you play as Giulia, a 20-something year old Italian girl who’s living with her family in Italy at the tail end of World War Two. However, when her twin sister Martha is killed under mysterious circumstances, Guilia trades places with her more well-liked sibling and starts to go crazy. Over the course of the 6-hour-long campaign, you get to experience Guilia’s descent into madness while trying to uncover who killed your sister and some of the mysteries of Guilia’s traumatic childhood. 

To do this, you use a mixture of traditional walking simulator-esque gameplay mechanics and photography. The first tool you’re given in Martha is Dead is a 1930s-style manual camera, and the bulk of the game involves you walking somewhere on your family’s Italian estate, taking a photo of something and then going back to a darkroom to develop it. The photos you take tie in with the game’s story, and this overall gameplay loop provides a surprisingly engaging base that keeps the game grounded in its stranger moments. 

Look at this photographhhhhhh

However, the gameplay is hardly worth noting, because it quickly becomes irrelevant when the plot of Martha is Dead reaches its second act. The story isn’t even that good; it’s an often-confusing combination of a classic supernatural who-dun-it mixed with an abundance of psychological horror elements and an unreliable narrator. While the dialogue and characters are both strong, it quickly becomes almost impossible to figure out what’s real and what’s not, and the game’s final chapters and ending don’t clarify things at all. 

And while this is all frustrating, the story is still engaging to sit through because of its underlying themes. The subjects that Martha is Dead touches on are the typical ones for a wartime setting; the psychological effects of conflict, mental health in general, the role of family and the nature of quasi-modern warfare are all discussed in a deeply personal tale that’s told from the point of view from someone who’s not just a soldier or a civilian. While the developer’s commentary on mental health specifically is almost patronising, the rest of the motifs are thought provoking to say the least. 

…I should probably put a joke here, but it just feels wrong to do that

Unfortunately or otherwise, though, the story is also engaging because of its borderline exploitative violence. Throughout the game, there’s a handful of moments that are just as horrifying as the Face/Off sequence at the start of the game. The insanely vivid bodily mutilations don’t necessarily add to the game’s plot, but assuming you can stomach them, they do help you stay engaged in a sickening way, and also ensure that you’ll remember and think about the game in years to come. 

It’s worth noting that this is mainly true because, from a technical perspective, Martha is Dead is an absurdly good game. The graphics are borderline lifelike, it runs surprisingly well and the music is fantastic. It also has some amazing animations and great voice actors, which all ensure that the game is immersive and almost uncanny.

Wow thanks, the developers just solved the world’s mental problems

And, at the end of the day, that’s what video games are all about. Martha is Dead’s story is often confusing, the developer’s commentary on various themes is hit-or-miss and its absurdly detailed violence is effectively exploitative. But with its scenes of bodily mutilation and its approach to discussing serious topics about conflict and psychology, it’s a title that advances the gaming industry by pushing the boundary of what’s acceptable. If you can stomach the game’s gore and depictions of one person’s descent into insanity, you owe it to yourself to experience the game. But if you can’t, there are titles that don’t force you to cut someone’s face off to showcase why war sucks.

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Martha is Dead is confusing, exploitative and troubling, but it pushes the limits of the medium in ways that few games have.
Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.