If you were making a game with the goal of being censored, you’d probably go with something like Martha is Dead. This historical horror indie shovels child abuse, self-harm, torture, and Nazis into its short playtime and then leaves you bloodied and dazed by the end, not really sure what the hell happened.
Fast facts: Martha is Dead
Release date: February 24, 2022
Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X, and PS5, PS4 (censored version)
Publisher: Wired Productions
Martha is Dead – which is either a minimally interactive adventure game or a very interactive walking simulator – puts you in the shoes of Italian teenager Giulia, dealing with the death of her twin and the building tensions of WW2. Carrying her camera, snooping through the rooms of her home, and exploring the woods, Giulia tries to figure out exactly what happened. That’s the plan, but this is one of those games where tugging on one thread quickly unravels the whole story, and it all starts to follow nightmare logic. Suddenly you’re photographing your dead sister, dealing with the effects of catastrophic menstruation, and calling asylums pretending to be your abusive mother.
Shocks and locks
There’s a lot in the ideas of Martha Is Dead for the horror fanatic to love – female body horror presented in a non-exploitative way, creepy puppets, truly shocking set-pieces – but it’s all caged by gameplay that feels like an afterthought. There’s that ‘just a bit too slow to be fun’ plodding back and forth between the same locations to do this or that menial task. You get a bicycle early on but using it is worse than walking, and there are some old sins like finding a pair of bolt cutters but not being allowed to pick them up until you trudge over to the door that is, surprise, locked with a padlock. Likewise, an initially effective way of showing past events – a creepy puppet theater – drags on for too long, like an idea that was so in love with itself it didn’t quite know when to end the show.
One section, where you use a telegraph system to communicate with the resistance, genuinely made me wonder how many of the characters in this game failed to stand up to the Nazis because they just couldn’t be bothered. After laboriously translating coded messages, then coding my own, and then tapping out the dots and dashes, I just couldn’t face any more of it. In the final moments of the game, this seemed to have been interpreted as a sign of allegiance to my Nazi father, but it was actually just irritation with the equipment. The rotary phone was another delight of the olden days for Gen-Z to discover. I actually really enjoyed the story glimpses that this phone interaction delivered, but damn it was fiddly on a controller. Also, finding a manual for it in an old shed felt less like a nice nod to history and more like insurance against the fact that a large part of the audience might just stare at the dial aghast.
That said, photography is a really interesting mechanic that the game could have leaned into more. Think Life Is Strange but with slaughtered pigs and haunted graves. Certain items you stumble on in the world are marked with a subtle little camera icon, and photographing them will reveal more stories, but you can take pictures of whatever you want. The game also scatters new lenses and film to find throughout, more than are required by the objectives in the game, and I often found myself experimenting and cataloging things in the environment just because I liked it. I didn’t even mind that each photo had to be developed in the darkroom with a short sequence of framing, exposure, and chemical immersion that was repetitive but also satisfying.
The horror gets grislier as you make your way through the game, not unlike a body decomposing. Sinister vibes become brutal violence, questionable mental health becomes raging psychosis, and something really, really bad happens to a wiener dog. I can see why PlayStation censored it – the only platform to do so; you’ll get the full experience on Xbox and PC – because there are few sentient beings that won’t find at least some part of the game truly upsetting. Even the developer bookends the game with trigger warnings and links to a mental health charity, and the final scenes get their own special option to play a version censored by the developer itself.
My screenshot folder looks like an accident at an abattoir, and one scene had my trigger fingers stop in their tracks as I realized what was about to happen. Don’t go thinking I’m some shivering horror virgin, either. I’ll devour the stuff like Fruit Loops, and I think Pascal Laugier’s version of Martyrs is a work of art. But there’s a moment when you’re sticking scissors into a corpse, surrounded by Nazi swastika flags, where it all just feels a bit extra.
It’s definitely the sort of game you want to be careful who you recommend it to, but if horror films like Haute Tension get your pulse racing rather than your stomach churning, and you can bear the patchy gameplay, Martha is Dead is definitely an experience you should seek out. It’s the sort of game people are going to be talking about, debating, and reacting to for years. Just don’t say I, and PlayStation, and the developer, didn’t warn you.
We played the uncensored version of Martha is Dead on PC, with a code provided by the publisher.
3.5 out of 5
Martha is Dead review: “Leaves you bloodied and dazed by the end”
Martha is Dead will leave you psychologically scarred. Whether you enjoy the process depends on your constitution and hatred of bicycles.