'Martha Is Dead': How an Idyllic Italian Backdrop Was Turned Into the Stuff of Nightmares

The creative team behind Martha Is Dead is determined to make the game's beautiful Italian setting as terrifying as possible. This was revealed to Newsweek in an exclusive interview with narrative director, Luca Dalcò.

'Martha Is Dead' Is a Psychological Thriller

Martha Is Dead revolves around a young woman in '40s era Tuscany, named Giulia, who is investigating the strange death of her twin sister.

On the surface, this upcoming indie release seems to be an out-and-out horror experience, complete with ghostly apparitions, visceral imagery, and an enthralling murder mystery subplot. Yet Dalcò does not agree with this classification and suggests that it would be more appropriate to label the game as a "psychological thriller."

Elaborating upon this point, he said via a translator: "This is not just about being disgusting for the sake of being disgusting. The aim is completely different. It's about the things you don't see, the immaterial things. It's about creating a sense of discomfort that [invites] the player into the subconscious of our protagonist.

"There are definitely some horror elements, and these are very effective tools for describing the inner torment of these characters, but I would say the goal here is [primarily] to tell an engaging story." Our 30-minute preview slice certainly fit that description, as nothing overtly frightening happened for its duration (at least not until the very end) yet we were gripped nonetheless.

As Dalcò pointed out, his team at LKA were not focused on creating obvious jump scares or in-your-face gore here. Instead, they concentrated their efforts on building a subtly creepy atmosphere and an engrossing narrative that players will be eager to unravel.

Finding the Beauty in Horror

Martha Is Dead Screenshots
"Martha Is Dead" manages to transform the picturesque location of rural Tuscany into a perfect horror setting. Wired Productions

While the two chapters we previewed were not especially intense, there was a general feeling of unease that presided over every second of our time with Martha Is Dead. This is particularly impressive when you consider that the game largely takes place in broad daylight, in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable: rural Tuscany.

Indeed, when Giulia awakes from her slumber at the beginning of the taster reel, it is hard to imagine that anything bad could possibly happen in such an idyllic place. Golden beams of sunlight are leaking in through the window blinds, a soothing bird song eases us into the peaceful morning, a gentle breeze can be heard rustling the branches of nearby citrus trees, and, when we glimpse outside the window, there is nothing but lush greenery in sight for miles on end.

The interior of the house does not look too shabby either. Giulia's bedroom is warm, cozy and decorated with all manner of family heirlooms. In short, this place feels like paradise on earth. Somewhere that you would choose to visit on the vacation of a lifetime and not the basis for a grisly horror (or psychological thriller) story.

Explaining the unconventional choice, Dalcò said: "It is definitely more appealing than your average horror setting. I really love to use the environment as a mirror of the main character's soul. So [here] we have a young female protagonist, and the countryside setting is a way to reflect her youth and beauty."

Most horror games are situated in desolate asylums or overcast European villages, so this is certainly a breath of fresh air. Even movies rarely take the genre out into the daylight, with only a handful of examples coming to mind, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Ari Aster's Midsommar.

The Italian developer continued: "I was inspired to use our own native landscapes. Places that I recognize from my own life. Not because I am an especially patriotic person, but because I believe that drawing upon our own experiences will increase the fidelity. It is important to use something real when telling your story. It makes it more authentic."

Photoreal Visuals on an Indie Budget

Martha Is Dead Screenshot
The character models in "Martha Is Dead" are incredibly impressive when viewed up close. Wired Productions

On that note, there is a painstaking attention to detail when it comes to the graphics in Martha Is Dead, lending the environments a really tactile quality. The walls are cracked, glass textures are covered in tiny specs of dust, and the window glazing has finger smudges that can only be detected when you examine them under the right lighting.

You can envisage what it would be like to run your hands over the surface of the ceramic floor tiles here, due to all the microscopic imperfections that the developers have taken the time to include.

If you scrutinize a screenshot from Martha is Dead, it could almost be mistaken for a genuine photograph. Given that the development team is comprised of just 10 people, only six of whom are 3D artists, this is a truly remarkable feat and so we had to ask Dalcò how it was achieved.

His reaction was to chuckle, before explaining: "It was obviously a lot of hard work, but I think it distinguishes our game from a lot of other indie titles out there. Not many games on our [budget] go for such a realistic style."

On a related note, when Martha Is Dead launches in October it will come with all the next-gen bells and whistles. Raytracing will be supported, alongside 4K visuals. The title also incorporates metahuman technology, which enables the team to render astonishingly lifelike character models.

A Murder Mystery Storyline

Martha Is Dead Screenshot
In "Martha Is Dead" you will be investigating the mysterious death of your twin sister. Wired Productions

While Martha Is Dead uses its Italian setting to undeniably gorgeous effect, this only belies a hidden darkness.

Speaking about this, Dalcò said: "Of course, there is a nastier side to our story and when that shadow finally emerges, I believe that it will be more impactful because of how beautiful everything else is."

Our preview slice gave us a hint of this sinister undercurrent right away, as we quickly began to piece together more about the game's narrative. Without a great deal of context for how far into the story we were, there is only so much we can infer.

What we do know for certain is that you will play as Giulia, the twin sibling of the eponymous Martha, who is inexplicably masquerading as her sister to cover up her recent demise. Giulia's parents are subsequently under the impression that the wrong child was killed, and you will have to keep up appearances so that they do not figure out the truth.

Speaking of which, the circumstances of Martha's death at a nearby lake are disconcertingly vague and Giulia's memories of the event are fuzzy. However, she is convinced that something evil is lurking beneath the depths of the water and is determined to find out more.

The Real-life Horrors of War

Martha Is Dead Screenshot
"Martha Is Dead" is set against the backdrop of World War 2. Wired Productions

As if that was not unsettling enough, a radio broadcast emanating from the kitchen reveals that we are currently at the tail end of WW2, adding to Giulia's list of worries.

At first glance, the surrounding countryside might seem tranquil and serene, but the harsh realities of war are on her doorstep. Local towns are subjected to regular bombing campaigns, people are killed on a daily basis, and there is a desperate shortage of food. Giulia's family have only managed to get by unscathed (as evidenced by the house's overflowing pantry) because her father is serving in the occupying German army but otherwise, they would be in the same boat as everybody else.

Incidentally, this part of the game is loosely based on true events. The developers have faithfully reconstructed the commune of San Casciano in Val di Pesa (circa 1944), just before it was devastated by an allied bombardment. Not only that, but they have taken direct inspiration from local records to provide an authentic historical backdrop for Giulia's story.

Talking about this, Dalcò said: "When you use a real location as a basis for your game, and you start researching it, you open the door to millions of interesting stories. It's fascinating as a narrative director to find all these things that actually happened and [weave] them into your game. We have included real fliers and newspaper reports that tell stories of what happened in Italy during the war. We hope that this will deepen your immersion into our world."

When pressed for examples of this, the creative director mentioned that he came across a local radio bulletin during his research that he knew would be perfect for the game. The recording in question is a public service broadcast that instructed civilians to stay indoors so that they would not be mistaken for allied forces and risk getting shot.

Dalcò felt that this chilling message—which is made even more intense by the announcer's blunt delivery—created an oppressive atmosphere. He said: "It communicated that you were always in danger back then. That if you so much as poked your head out the window, then you could have been killed.

"And obviously, your investigation into Martha's death is going to [force] you outdoors a lot of the time. So, we just had to include it in the game to create even more tension."

'Martha Is Dead' Is More Than Just a Walking Simulator

'Martha Is Dead' Funeral
Image shows the dead body of the titular Martha, whose murder players must solve. Wired Productions

Speaking of which, our preview eventually takes us alfresco so that we can admire more of the magnificent Tuscany environs. It is at this point that we realize just how expansive the level design is here which, again, is quite unusual for an indie horror game.

While Martha Is Dead is not an open-world title by any means, it will occasionally permit you to wander off the scripted path and explore the authentic recreation of San Casciano at your own pace. There are a handful of optional quests and side objectives for you to complete, and you can even go for a leisurely bike ride just to take in more of the alluring scenery.

However, given that this is a narrative game first and foremost, you will not be able to completely abandon the task at hand and will eventually have to return to the main questline.

Explaining how this design choice helped sustain narrative momentum, Dalcò said: "The side content is mainly [concentrated] in the second act. We have a more linear introduction to ease you into the setting and once you are invested, we give you a little more freedom. Then, as we near the end of the game and start building towards our [climax], we reel you back onto the linear path."

Among the available side distractions here, there is an in-depth photography mechanic and a dark room simulation where you can learn how to develop rolls of film. Talking about this, Dalcò said: "We implemented these as solutions to move away from the concept of the walking simulator. We want to evolve that genre and give you something more tangible to do."

Martha Is Dead Puppet Show
Using marionettes, you will be able to stage puppet shows that reveal more of the story. Wired Productions

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a "walking simulator" is a type of game in which player interaction is very minimal. You typically wander a virtual world as a passive observer, while a narrative unfolds around you. Examples of titles belonging to this genre include Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Dear Esther and Layers of Fear.

Martha Is Dead certainly has a lot in common with those games, given that there is not much in the way of overt challenge or peril. Dalcò himself has admitted as much, stating that the emphasis here is mainly on storytelling and exploration instead.

Yet he has given the player a little more agency than you would normally expect from a walking simulator. For a start, there are the aforementioned side quests that you can choose to ignore entirely if you want. Meanwhile, you will also need to come to grips with how to operate period-appropriate technology, like the telegraph, find clues to deduce what happened to Martha, and solve the occasional puzzle.

For instance, there are a number of puppet shows scattered throughout the world. Using the marionettes here, you will have to stage performances that reconstruct past events and repressed memories. Think of it like a therapeutic exercise crossed with a CSI investigation.

Dalcò explained this aspect in more detail, saying: "The puppet shows allow you to recover memories of the main characters. You can fail these sections, and if you get them wrong it will have an impact on your progress."

A Terrifying Encounter

'Martha Is Dead' Ghost
Although it is described as a psychological thriller, "Martha Is Dead" has overtly horrific moments. Wired Productions

The preview footage we watched indicated that our journey might also be hindered by a few enemy encounters.

The second chapter that we saw involved Giulia sneaking out to the lake in the dead of night, to try and uncover the truth behind her sister's murder. Encircled by impenetrable darkness and a thick fog bank, this is a far less comforting scenario than what came before it.

Distorted noises can be heard emanating from the treeline, shadowy figures scurry by in the distance, and ominous synth music accentuates our general feeling of dread.

This period of sustained tension then culminates with a startling chase sequence in which an undead girl pursues Giulia through the woods, eventually cornering her in some kind of hellish version of a war trench filled with skeletons. Although it is difficult to tell from a hands-off preview, it seemed like there was an element of player agency here, as you had to dodge obstacles and perform contextual actions to avoid being caught.

Clarifying this, Dalcò said: "We do have elements of challenge in Martha Is Dead, but we do not want this to interrupt the flow of the story. We do not want people to get stuck when the ghost attacks."

Presumably, this means that the title will have a similar "death" mechanic to the recent Amnesia: Rebirth, in which you could fail enemy encounters without having to repeat the whole section as a punishment. In that game, when you were caught by monsters your character would simply pass out in fright and then awaken in the next area.

'Martha Is Dead' Release Date and Platforms

Fortunately, we will not have to wait long to find out how the ghost will factor into gameplay, as Martha Is Dead will be out in just a couple of months.

The title's is currently scheduled for release in 2021, and it will launch on the Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PC, PS4 and PS5.

Correction 08/14/21, 9:50 a.m. ET: This article originally listed an October release date for Martha Is Dead.