by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
It’s Inside Out, but with brain damage and dead bodies. Comparisons to Pixar’s lovely 2015 animated movie are likely to be commonplace for Headspun, a game that has you running a business inside someone’s head. Armed with an interesting premise and some well-intentioned themes, it’s never quite able to pull everything together into an experience as fun as it’s premise sounds.
As the game opens, Ted awakens from a multi-week stint of unconsciousness to see his office in shambles. Unable to remember what happened to his coworkers or why he’s been out for as long as he has, he’s welcomed by damaged hallways, crumbling rooms, and dozens of bloody bodies that used to be his coworkers. Only two other people are present at Cortex, the company Ted runs, and they’ve got bad news. See, Cortex isn’t just any company, it’s the control center inside the brain of 25-year-old Theo, a white-collar Englishman who’s just been involved in a terrible vehicle accident. The crash bashed his noggin pretty significantly, and, like Ted, he’s been in a coma for quite some time.
This being the setup, your objectives as the player are twofold. The main goal is to get Theo’s life back in order. He has a web of interpersonal relationships and a budding career that have all been affected by the accident and in order to get him back in the game, he’ll need a great bit of physical and mental recovery. Unfortunately for the Cortex crew, that’s much easier said than done. The Cortex office is divided into numerous departments, some which function for the benefit of Theo (memory) and some which keep Cortex’s employees happy and productive (bars, theaters, etc.). In order to get Theo back on his A-game, new staff needs to be hired, managed, and used to get the “company” back up and in tip-top shape. It’s a great premise that provides opportunities for resource management, dual narrative intrigue, decision making, and other sorts of things that should add up to a, pardon my pun, knockout experience.
The Promise of the Premise
The late author and Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder, in his excellent instructional book Kill the Cat, coined the term “Promise of the Premise” to describe one of the middle sections of most successful stories. In this section, he explains, the “selling point” of a story’s concept gets time to shine before the big final showdown is set into motion. We watch Batman creep around following clues and fighting crooks. The Fast and the Furious crew pull of wild races and stunts. Video games don’t follow the same narrative as film, but the promise of the premise is still very much what sells narrative games. Good games promise to put players in interesting situations, then they keep that promise by letting them live out whatever fictional fantasy they’ve signed up for. The promise of the premise in Headspun is awesome. I want to know what it’s like to run a human being! I want to follow the twists and turns of discovering someone’s past that they’ve themselves forgotten! I want to be there for the trials and triumphs of trying to repair both a body and a mind. Unfortunately, that promise isn’t kept, as what could have been interesting, unique, and engaging devolves into repetitive minigames and pointless management.
Though it doesn’t take up as much game time as I would have liked, the narrative segments in which you get to speak and interact as Theo are the best parts of the game. Represented with live-action video, it’s here that you’ll get to see the fruits of your labors. You’ll navigate conversations with visitors and hospital staff, and everything works fairly well. While the acting and production values aren’t as high as some other full-motion video titles from the last few years (Late Shift is still the bar to be reached), it’s all serviceable and moves the narrative forward. These segments are all too brief though, only taking up a few minutes on certain days. The rest of the time is spent managing Cortex, which contrasts the outside world with its colorful hand-drawn visuals.
A lot of your time playing Headspun is going to take place managing Theo’s mind, and there are a few different things that’ll keep you occupied. Each day you’ll have a number of hours to participate in different activities to “heal” Theo like reading, napping, doing crossword puzzles, etc. The better you do in the associated mini-game, the more currency you’ll receive, which would be a decent enough system if the mini-games were in the least bit engaging, challenging, or fun. Lifting weights, for example, just has you click your mouse as fast as you can for 30 seconds or so. Crossword puzzles give you two words and ask which vowel is missing. Sudoku, which you’d think could just be a game of sudoku, asks you to add two numbers together. To be frank, they’re mind-numbing, and after doing each a few times (more get added as you progress through the story) I found myself taking as many naps as possible and going to bed early, which gave me more money than I ever needed.
After Theo goes to bed you’ll be able to play a more managerial role, spending your accrued currency to buy upgrades, repair rooms, and hire more staff. The promise here seemed great at first as well. There are a number of rooms that each seem to be tied to meaningful elements of either the company or Theo, and as you fix the first few the game opens up a bit. Memory, for example, is one of the first new rooms you’ll be able to deal with, and you’ll be tasked with re-organizing jumbled memories that give insights into Theo’s past and what exactly happened with his accident. Most rooms after that lack the same importance, often not really contributing much beyond raising the progress number for Theo’s brain recovery or allowing workers to work slightly more efficiently.
You can pick and choose which order to repair things in, but I never got the impression that those decisions mattered much, and the economy is so generous with currency (even with me napping as much as possible) that I never had to actually weigh pros and cons of any currency-related decisions. Furthermore, assigning employees to tasks was laden with bugs. Every shift I’d call in an employee and give them a task, only to either have it be assigned to someone else or not get assigned at all. Given that repair is the central goal of the game, these bugs were frustrating and difficult to forgive.
I happen to be a big fan of FMV games, so I’m always happy to see another entry join the genre’s catalog. It may be unfortunate that too much of the game is focused on its least interesting parts, but the story is able to bring up questions of happiness, work, friendship, and mental health that I give it credit for trying to tackle. Your time is probably best spent elsewhere, but here’s to hoping the crew over at Superstring can learn from their mistakes and come back for a stronger sophomore effort.
Interesting premise, the story deals with meaningful themes.
Mini-games are dull, job assignment is bugged, and management is hampered by an overly generous economy.