Content warning: Central to Martha is Dead are themes of child abuse, mutilation of dead bodies, self-harm, torture, and mental distress. By extension, this review touches on those same topics.
Martha is Dead is a tricky game to review, at least on Xbox One, because there are two very different games here. One is a potent, haunting psychological thriller, deeply uncomfortable because it deals with deeply uncomfortable topics, but handled with a degree of finesse and care, building to a raw and powerful exploration of mental distress. The other is a game that is riddled with bugs and performance troubles, to the point of sometimes being barely functional. How does one approach a masterful piece of art painted onto a canvas that’s falling apart?
When it does all work properly, Martha is Dead really is a powerful piece. Coming from the same developers as The Town of Light, it should come as no surprise that it’s dark, confronting, and downright upsetting—not for shock factor or to push boundaries for the sake of it, but as part of a raw, honest exploration of some of the darkest corners of human existence. It’s shocking, but grounded in humanity and empathy; the story of a young woman who’s been let down by everyone around her and, through no fault of her own, pushed beyond the brink.
Set in Italy in 1944, against the backdrop of World War II, Martha is Dead is the story of a young woman called Giulia. Her memories of her childhood are fragmented and her relationship with her parents troubled (to say the least), but she finds solace in photography and the close bond she shares with her twin sister, Martha. But when Martha turns up dead one morning (on the shore of a lake that local folklore says is haunted, no less), and Giulia’s parents get the pair mixed up and think it’s their beloved Martha who still lives, her whole world starts to crumble.
What follows is a delve into the depths of Giulia’s increasingly fractured psyche, as childhood traumas rise to the surface and the guilt of having unwittingly stolen her sister’s identity eats away at her. Her nights are plagued with horrific nightmares, and the seeds of doubt sown by an already fickle memory fester within her, to the point that it becomes hard to tell what’s real from what isn’t. How did Martha die? Did Giulia kill her out of jealousy? Her desperate need to find answers and a rapidly deteriorating mental state and sense of self drive Giulia to some gruesome ends.
Make no mistake: Martha is Dead is an uncomfortable game with some shocking, grotesque moments that—at least in the uncensored Xbox and PC versions—players are made complicit in. Much has been made of one particular scene involving the mutilation of a dead body, requiring player input to complete; it’s not the only one, and they sit alongside (non-interactive) depictions and descriptions of suicide, self-harm, torture, and child abuse. It’s a game that is, by design, extremely confronting.
But it’s not gratuitous. It pushes boundaries and deliberately creates discomfort, but never just for shock value. Even at—especially at—its most extreme, Martha is Dead is considered and careful, even empathetic. It’s about putting players into Giulia’s frame of mind and seeing the world through her distorted perspective. It’s about understanding her pain and her trauma, not as some sort of voyeuristic “trauma survivor simulator”, but in search of catharsis. The extremity, the discomfort, and even the player interaction are all crucial pieces of that: without them, Martha is Dead wouldn’t just be less impactful, but less meaningful, less empathetic.
(This is also why I’d suggest avoiding the PlayStation versions, if you have a choice. The alterations required for those versions do fundamentally interfere with the artistic intent and the point that Martha is Dead is making. Having said all that, all versions of the game do have the option of skipping the particularly graphic scenes, to the developers’ credit. They can be a lot to take in, and thematically justified as they are, giving players the option to control how they interact with or bow out of them is important.)
Indeed, the most troubling parts of Martha is Dead aren’t those graphic moments; they’re when you play with dolls. Building off the well-established technique of using dolls to help children process psychological distress, there are a few key scenes toward the end of the game unfold through Giulia reliving her childhood memories using string puppets. These moments are nothing short of heart-rending, and the layer of abstraction that the dollhouse framing brings drives the point home more powerfully than the most graphic depictions ever could.
Affecting as they are in their own right, these moments also drive home everything that the rest of the game has been building to, putting all those grisly scenes into important context. I won’t say they make everything make sense, because by necessity they don’t—Giulia is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, and the mysteries that remain about what actually happened are an important aspect of the story that Martha is Dead tells—but they shed some light on Giulia’s traumatic childhood. It’s a raw, horrific, sometimes a little messy, but most of all honest look at the impact of child abuse and the societal factors that often drive it. In this, Martha is Dead is an extremely uncomfortable game about issues that should cause immense discomfort, but more than that, it’s a desperate plea to create a better world.
But it’s not all shadows. Martha is Dead also finds moments for quiet, even hopeful reflection, primarily through a meticulous photography simulation. Photography is Giulia’s passion, and beyond being an important means through which the story develops, it’s also something that the game encourages you to take time out to just explore. I’m no expert on 1940s cameras, but the various settings, different lenses, and different types of film certainly come across as authentic. There’s even a slightly simplified, truncated version of the process of developing your photographs (along with notes explaining just how the game’s version differs from the real process).
Being able to just stop, take a break from hall the horror and the distress and just take some photos of the beautiful forest that surrounds Giulia’s Tuscany home is a powerful statement of its own: a moment of defiance against Giulia’s demons, and a moment of peace for someone for whom that’s a precious rarity.
Were that the full extent of Martha is Dead, you’d be reading some closing comments right now before gazing upon a score of at least 4½ stars. Hopefully, sometime in the not too distant future, patches will mean the following paragraphs are no longer relevant—and if that’s the case when you’re reading this review, feel free to ignore the score at the bottom and imagine those 4½ stars in its place.
But, at least for now, we can’t not talk about the bugs. Beyond frame rate instability and texture pop-in so severe that actually made playing hurt my eyes—and I’m not normally one to take much issue with such things—the Xbox One version suffers from various issues that make actually playing it all the way through an ordeal. Mid-chapter save files frequently get corrupted, forcing you to go back to the last functioning save file you can find: the most recent start-of-chapter autosave if you’re lucky, a few chapters back or even the beginning of the game if you’re not.
That’s made worse by a tendency for the whole game to crash, especially when resuming from the console’s sleep mode (ruling out that as a workaround to the save issues). I often encountered a strange bug that rendered all shadows in complete black at full opacity, meaning anything even slightly in shade became completely invisible—a nuisance enough outdoors, but navigating indoor locations when this happens becomes practically impossible.
Those are the real game-breakers, but there are a whole lot of minor annoyances, too, like extremely finicky controls for interacting with objects—you have to stand in just the right spot and position the camera in just the right way to get the button prompt. There’s a (thankfully optional) bike for getting around, but it’s such a nightmare to control that walking is always going to be quicker.
So I’m torn. Martha is Dead is a remarkable game, in the story that it tells, the way it tells it, and the ideas it explores in the process—a potent, powerful exploration of some of the darkest corners of human existence. It’s deliberately uncomfortable and confronting, but that’s part of what makes it work, and it’s underscored by a genuine sense of empathy, humanity, and a call for the world to be a better place. But, at least for now, game-breaking bugs and technical struggles that go far beyond mild inconvenience mean the Xbox One version should be a last resort.