When Luca Dalco visited Tuscany in the summer as a child, he found himself utterly terrified. Whisked away from the bustling city of Rome once a year, the ominously silent Tuscan hills filled him with dread. Peering out of his bedroom window, he’d stare in horror as trees in the graveyard opposite swayed like demonic hands in the wind. Try as Luca might to calm himself, panic coursed through his veins like blood, and every night he’d wake in a cold sweat.
It’s fair to say that this experience stayed with Luca, as 40 years later, that same house is the setting for his psychological horror game, Martha Is Dead. “You’re making me think now that this probably caused me a little trauma,” Luca Dalco, creative director at LKA games reflects with a laugh, “The game’s beauty in the days and the horrors at night is probably connected to my experience as a child sleeping there – It’s actually the first time I’ve ever thought about it…”
Set in Tuscany during the second World War, Martha Is Dead aims to show the picturesque region in an entirely new light. Sharing the forgotten realities and stories of people who lived there, this skin-crawling first-person tale explores the contrast between the idyllic Tuscany the world sees, and the darker reality lurking beneath the surface. While we all know that childhood imagination can run rampant, it turns out, there was some truth to young Luca’s fearful instincts.
“Globally, Tuscany is famous for its beauty – its tourism,” explains Luca, “Yet in Italy, Tuscany is also famous for its unorthodox dark stories. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we had one of the most infamous serial killers in the whole of Italy – if not the whole of Europe. When you are a local and you walk in those beautiful forests it’s very difficult not to remember that a lot of people died in those same woods.”
Martha Is Dead’s creeping tale of identity, murder and malevolent spirits lets the player experience both the sun-soaked Tuscany and the chilling woods of Luca’s nightmares. Part slow-burn linear horror, part intricately detailed Tuscan walking simulator, my two hours with Martha Is Dead were a mix of unbelievably beautiful environments and shocking violence.
Despite my demo featuring a scene where a razor blade peels off a woman’s face like a pastry cutter, other sections of Martha Is Dead are absurdly serene. Following that aforementioned hair-raising intro, the terrors of the night give way to one of the most impressive recreations of a landscape I’ve seen in a video game. Guiding protagonist Giulia outside of her 1940s villa, I was stunned by just how realistic these computer-rendered Tuscan hills looked. From the brittle grass adorning its rolling hills to the villa’s convincingly weathered stone, Luca and his colleagues have created a jarringly authentic virtual vista. Wandering around the vast grounds of the idyllic country home, these sections instantly transported me back to carefree summer days spent in southern Italy.
What makes it feel so lived in? This polygonal Tuscany, isn’t a rough estimation of an environment recreated by a game developer on a two-week reccy, this is an intricate re-mapping of Luca’s home. Conquering his childhood fears and moving to Tuscany, Luca regularly visits the villa that haunted him all those years ago. “Now whenever I want to check things, I can take the car, get out of the studio, go to where you want to be in the game and verify that everything’s been recreated in the right way with the right tone, colours, objects and details,” says Luca.
“The location and general setting of a game is even more important than the one that you see normally in movies,” he continues, “Because unlike in a movie, players actually live in the environment – they explore and ask questions of the environment. So, it’s very important that there is a lot of fidelity here.”
While Luca has forbidden the press from revealing the finer details of the game’s story, Martha Is Dead offers an interesting mix on an old Hollywood trope. Playing as a teenage girl whose father is a general in the German army, its story is drip fed in fragments, with players comprehending the world as a daydreaming teenager would. There’s more than an element of an unreliable narrator to protagonist Giulia, and thanks to Martha Is Dead’s blend of slice-of-Italian-life and harrowing horror, I left my demo keen to experience more.
“We wanted to keep the psychology of the main character as a central element to the whole game,” Luca adds, “This is a story where not everything is absolutely clear – so, I use the environment as a mirror to explain the psychology of the main character.” Interestingly, my time with Martha Is Dead showed a blend of incredibly scripted linear storytelling, and more freeform exploration. For Luca, that was the hardest thing to balance. Yet it was critical that while he told the tale he wanted, the gameplay didn’t simply fall into the tropes of an already well-explored genre. “I love walking simulators. But I also think that we need to explore new methods to involve the player as a protagonist more than as a spectator.”
Based on what I’ve played so far, I’m intrigued to experience Martha Is Dead both as a psychological horror title, and a slice of virtual tourism. When I point out how opposed those two audiences are, Luca replies that that’s just the honest experience of people who’ve grown up in Tuscany.
“When I was a kid, it was against the law to take your girlfriend in the car and park in the woods. There was this concept that going into the woods was a dangerous place because of those killings happening at that time,” Luca reveals, “More recently, there was a big scandal about child abuse from a big charity organization in Tuscany… I understand from an outsider’s view how this darkness can look a bit strange, as Tuscany is known for tourism – but it’s less strange for the local people that know the horrible stories that happened here. We’re used to its abandoned buildings, and its difficulties. It’s why the game’s balance between darkness and the beauty of the region feels quite natural to implement. It’s something that we live.”
Martha Is Dead is planned for a 2021 release, and will be available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, and PC via Steam.