[2 September 2014]
MIND: Path to Thalamus has ambitions of being a deeply personal and dreamy metaphor for loss and life, but its amazing dream imagery overshadows its poor narrative.
MIND cares deeply about its story, but you won’t. The protagonist/narrator seems to know what all the symbolism means, but he doesn’t let us in on those meanings. Instead, he teases future revelations, briefly mentioning things likes “the caves” or “the ice fields” long before we ever see them, and by the time we do see them, we’ve forgotten what we were supposed to be expecting. The narration seems to exist outside the game. The voice over is omniscient, yet it’s you who’s talking. Having a protagonist narrate his own story is fine, but MIND doesn’t make this clear up front, so you’ll spend much of the early game lost and confused within the vague story.
The one upside to this vagueness is that while it contributes an overall sense of confusion, the puzzles are designed to be a life raft amid that confusion. They’re built around dream logic and that dream logic helps us make sense of the world. This may be a strange place, but it’s not an illogical place.
Exploration is central to most of the puzzles because there are key locations that act as buttons: a dome of dead trees control the fog, a circle of stones control the rain, a patch of flowers determine day and night, and more. We can’t even begin to solve a puzzle until we find these key locations, and they can be rather well hidden within some of the environments, but the brilliant level design ensures that we always stay on track as long as we simply trust the game to lead us.
The smallest of clues often mark the proper path. Footprints in the sand, the sound of music, a vague outline within the fog, these are all things so subtle that at first you might think that you’re imagining them. But you’re not. Over time MIND trains us to follow these minor visual cues, to trust that their circuitous path will take us to the one important location we need to solve a puzzle. The game earns a trust that allows you to let go of your worries and to just let the mood wash over you, vagaries and all.
Partway through the game there’s a “boss” fight. MIND is not the kind of game that should have anything even resembling a boss fight, but it works. It strikes the perfect balance between thoughtfulness and excitement. This moment is a slow puzzle of timing and spatial awareness as well as a thrilling chase, and it even evokes a surreal beauty. It represents MIND at its best.
Yet despite all these good things, MIND ends on a low note. There’s another boss fight with a more traditional structure and pacing, which is immediately disappointing, but to make matters worse you fight an enemy that yells at you and mocks everything that was good about the game. Up until this point MIND embraced the idea of subtle, surreal beauty, so this loud and obnoxious ending is the antithesis to everything that made the game compelling and immersive.
It’s particularly sad because this boss is presented as a voice of brutal truth, so when he mocks the game’s art, imagery, surrealism, and puzzle design (all the things that make it special), it feels like the game is betraying itself—and you. All those good things ease you into a state of unquestioning acceptance, and then the final boss insults you for letting yourself be duped. It’s as if the game doesn’t understand what makes it good, and it’s a sad, sour point to end on.
It also doesn’t help that the game continually crashed as soon as I “hit” the boss for the last time. I technically beat the game three times, yet I had to watch the final cut scene on YouTube.
MIND: Path to Thalamus is at its best when it’s not trying to say anything, when it just is, when the world is just allowed to exist and you have to figure out the how of this place. Those are the moments when the art and design do the talking, and they create a better, more interesting world than the narrator does when he speaks and turns the abstract imagery into a metaphor for personal trauma. MIND wants to be a story about death and memory and obsession and how to let go of the past, but all of these themes get muddled and lost in the vague narration. You won’t care about this protagonist or his past or any of his introspective thoughts, yet the game ends highlighting these lackluster points.
It’s an ending in which it’s clear that developers and myself care about very different things. They care about the story, but it left me bored and annoyed. I adored the art and scenery, but to them it was clichéd. Thankfully we’re able to meet in the middle for 90% of the game, and a poor ending isn’t enough to ruin those good memories.