MIND: Path to Thalamus is a first-person puzzle game with a lot going for it. The art and environments are gorgeous, the puzzles are great, and the entire game has an air of confidence to it. This is an exceedingly surreal trip through a dream world, but the game works quietly and effectively to break down your defenses until you’re willing to let go of your demand for rationality, until you’re willing to let its mood wash over you without questioning it, until you’re willing to experience it as if it really were a dream. MIND is a clever, beautiful, well designed game that sadly seems to hate itself for being clever, beautiful, and well designed.
MIND is about a search for internal peace. The protagonist and narrator blames himself for the death of his sister during a tsunami when they were young, as well as for putting his daughter in danger when he was chasing a tornado. The latter disaster puts him in a coma where he puzzles through a metaphoric dream world looking for forgiveness and redemption. That’s the gist of the story. It’s worth noting that story is not the game’s strong suit. It wants to be an introspective and emotional journey, but this basic information is doled out so haphazardly it fails on both fronts. MIND succeeds because its art and design transcends its poor narrative.
The opening world has you walking across an endless shallow sea that mirrors the sky. Then there’s the forest that changes seasons before your eyes, an icy cavern filled with bridges linked together like brain neurons, and a beach frozen in time just before a tsunami, the waves curling around and above you. They’re all impossible spaces, but that’s what makes them so mesmerizing. They are well realized impossible spaces. They aren’t logical, but they feel logical. One of the wonderful things about MIND is how it gets us to accept its dream logic.
One of the best parts of the game is the “boss” fight against the Colossus — the dream version of the father you hate. You don’t actually see the whole Colossus, just its legs that stretch into the sky and then disappear behind the clouds. The legs lift and drop, trying to step on you, and the only way to win in to run through an invisible door. It’s a wonderful “boss” in that it’s slow and puzzle-based, but also tense and scary as you dodge these falling skyscraper legs. Through all of this, the game still retains its surreal art and dreamy logic. This is also the one place in the game where the metaphor works, perhaps better than intended. This “fight” is supposed to represent you confronting your father, yet its an oddly one-sided and emotionless fight. The Colossus simply walks around. For as towering and terrifying as it appears to us, we appear as nothing to it. It may as well be indifferent to our struggle. For us, the son, this is a battle of life and death. For the father, it’s just something else to ignore. It’s a great image because it describes how both sides see each other.
But then there’s the final boss: A reflection of yourself that supposedly speaks the brutal truth and proceeds to mock everything about the game that makes it good. Your doppelganger mocks the dream world for being linear, even though some spaces are large and evoke a feeling of being lost. He mocks every puzzle for having a solution, essentially insulting the game for being well designed. He mocks its “clichéd’ and “unoriginal” imagery, even though MIND has some of the most striking imagery of any game this year.
It’s tempting to dismiss the boss as an arrogant character who misses the point of your journey, except that the game agrees with him. The ultimate message of MIND is that you can’t get forgiveness from the dead. Your surreal search for your sister was in vain. You need to forgive yourself. That’s a fine theme and twist to the story, but MIND makes this point through the boss, and he makes sure to emphasize the pointlessness of our journey so far, how wrong and foolish and blind we were to believe that our sister was somehow guiding us through our dream.
The vast majority of MIND is designed to immerse us in its surrealism. Puzzle solutions are subtle, but also right in front of us at all times. We’re encouraged not to aimlessly explore these wide environments, but to follow the subtlest of clues to our destination. The game trains us to be observant but not obsessive, to give up some of our control and just trust that the game will lead us in the right direction. Then it mocks us for that trust, for believing in the things that it itself taught us to believe in.