The term "game" is rapidly becoming more and more reductive. It implies something frivolous, something inseparable from play, and although so much of what this industry does is provide us with ways to play, to relax, to unwind, and to otherwise entertain ourselves, the term ignores the fact that this interactive medium is better equipped than most to deal with serious subject matter in a profoundly affecting manner.
The term "game" is ill at ease with the first-person exploration titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home, with the experiential delights of Journey and Proteus, and its a term that I apply loosely to MIND: Path to Thalamus simply because we've failed to collectively come up with a better one as an industry. If you were looking for a different description, though, I might tell you it was an interactive narrative journey, or the gamified manifestation of a protagonist's guilty psyche, or a mind-bending first-person puzzler that's heavy on psychological reflection and magical realism.
The elevator pitch is ambitious, and MIND is certainly a game that feels a bit unique, a little bit special at times. When its elements all come together, Path to Thalamus has the capability to really engage and engross. Unfortunately, it's a shame that there are a few things here that conspire to make the game something of an uneven experience.
Let's start with the good news, though -- the visual aspects of the game are fantastic. The level of detail to the graphics themselves isn't perhaps on a par with the most impressive triple-A titles out there, but that's compensated for by filling environments with lush detail, and by making everything that you can see important in terms of the context of the story.
I don't want to give too much away, but the premise of Path to Thalamus revolves around the internal thoughts of a coma patient named Nick -- an obsessive meteorologist (the family business it would seem) whose single-minded preoccupation with chasing storms has resulted in several personal tragedies. We, as players, have to pick our way through Nick's subconscious as his mind hunts for a road to redemption and a way back to wakefulness.
This makes for environments heavy on allegory and symbolism, placing greater detail on one's surroundings and the art style. Every frame of the game is laden with visual significance, from the clusters of synaptic tissue that make up the spherical keys to the games puzzles, to the levels and locations shaped by Nick's memories. Being a meteorologist, the issues and obstacles in his mind that Nick must overcome are related to the elements as well as the nature of time. The puzzles in the game typically involve placing the previously mentioned nervous cluster balls into environmental trigger spots. A patch of flowers, for example, will turn day into night, illuminating stone portals as well as certain nervous clusters that can only be seen in the dark. A stone circle leads to the heavens opening and a downpour on cue that can cause wooden platforms in the area to rise. Placing one in small area strewn with cogs can restore the ruins in a level to structural completion once again, opening up new pathways.
Sometimes you have to mix and match to reach the places you need to reach. Sometimes you have to assess your surroundings a little differently to see the truth of what lies ahead. To be honest, I found most of the puzzles to be a little oversimplistic, extended by the slow pace of the protagonist's steps more than anything else. If MIND can be described as a mix of Myst and Portal, it could perhaps have taken a few more cues from the latter in terms of tight puzzle management -- that is to say, the puzzles in Portal never felt laborious, and because of that they never felt like a chore, even when situations descended a little into trial-and-error. Early on in MIND, however, there's a fantastic level involving seemingly invisible platforms that really proves an instruction in how to read the environment for clues to the solution. It's the best puzzle in the game, one in which the context, the environment, the art style and the level design all come together in perfect harmony. Had I not been on my own, I probably would have applauded.
The thing is, in all of the games I mentioned at the start -- outstanding titles each of them -- the player is tasked with rooting out the story for themselves, piecing together the narrative from bits and bobs ferreted out through exploration and discovery, and ultimately making the whole experience that much more personal because of it. You feel like you've achieved something.
Had MIND taken this approach, and kicked on from those first puzzles to lead you into further allegorical scenarios where the symbolism and the aesthetics are bound up in the puzzles, that would have been amazing. Unfortunately, though, the game abandons this in favour of simple puzzling and heavy-handed narration, dished out in a manner that, after less than an hour, had me wanting to tear my hair out. Part of that is down to the voice acting behind "normal" Nick, which seemed so flat that I wanted to scream. It's a shame, really, because towards the end of the game, the actor gets to cut loose a little bit as Nick comes face to face with himself, and that level is so much stronger and more impactful than anything that comes before it.
Part of the blame, too, falls with the words that make up his monologues. Too much of it is overwritten and needlessly verbose, removing the impact of the emotional narrative and dispelling immersion rather than letting the levels speak for themselves. Less spoken narration and more environmental storytelling (to be fair, the game still works as an art piece if you turn off the subtitles and turn the speech way down) and MIND could have been a modern classic. One wonders as well, given the success of the game's final scenes, if working in other personifications of Nick's psyche might have also helped, asking questions of you rather than dumping blocks of convoluted exposition every five minutes.
It's a shame because MIND is a really interesting game, and the fact that it was made predominantly by one person makes it even more impressive. It's a game that I want to talk about in depth, and Coronado is certainly a developer that I want to see more from, given the strength of vision at work here. The final few scenes, as I've said above are really well-worked, but it's unfortunate that the story feels too forced. As it is, I don't feel much incentive to play the game again. In many ways, MIND reminds me of Alice: Madness Returns. The latter also has a visually engaging world, rife with symbolism and captivating imagery, but all of that is made redundant by the game's rigid linearity and repetitive combat. Here, the visual significance of the world Coronado has created is rendered superfluous by overblown monologuing, and that makes the emotional beats at the game's conclusion pats rather than punches.
- Visually stimulating
- Outstanding, ambitious premise
- Well-worked finale
- Puzzles that incorporate all of the game's elements are brilliant
- ...It's just a shame there aren't that many of them
- Most puzzles a little too simple
- Heavy-handed exposition utterly disrupts balance
- Questionable voice acting
The Short Version: MIND: Path to Thalamus is an engaging game for the most part, rife with thought-provoking themes and motifs, beautiful settings, and plenty of allegorical symbolism to aid its emotionally-charged narrative. It's just a shame that instead of entrusting the game's narrative to those elements, Coronado opts to spell things out with overwrought exposition and questionable monologues that ultimately serve to remove the game's emotional impact. It's a striking, ambitious game, and one that's certainly not lacking in vision, but unfortunately its one major flaw is a big one.
Developers: Carlos Coronado