by Christopher Coke
reviewed on PC
An Inward Journey
Mind: Path to Thalamus is the type of game that defines the indie revolution. It is a small experience of only a few hours, but one packed with more creativity than most AAA games deliver in twice that. It is a journey into a man’s mind and through the surrealist environments of his unconscious. It’s frequently beautiful, almost stunningly so as it eschews the current retro vogue for painterly and inspired environments. Taken by looks alone, one could easily write Mind off as “yet another art game.” Playing through, it is clear that while it does make a case for games as art, it is also a puzzler where clever ability use and thinking outside the box are requisites for success. All is not perfect, but this is certainly a game that you should be playing.
Into the Center of the Mind
The game opens with a resonance. “How many times will I kill her?” the narrator asks, before fading into the middle of the road in a coastal down on the brink of calamity. You turn and cry out a little girl’s name. Who is she? Where is she? You run, noting the way the wind whips up around you, and turn the corner of a beachfront home to see what must be your doom: a twister, huge and looming, towers over you in the not-so-far distance. It creeps closer every second you stop to look at it. Making a break for the open door of the beach home, you run in, crying out for the girl in an ever more panicked and guilt-ridden voice. She isn’t there but the tornado is. “Don’t do this to me,” you say nearly in tears. You slam the door to the upstairs bedroom where you find yourself as the twister hits, returning your world to black.
This is how the world ends, or in the case of Mind: Path to Thalamus, how the game world begins. From that perilous moment onward, you trace a path through the narrator’s mind, experiencing his guilt and the regret of poorly made choices through the twisting, unreliable levels of his unconscious. It is incredibly creative and opens the door from some spectacular scene-setting. Had the story come together a little better, Mind could easily have rivaled exploratory contemporaries like Gone Home, even setting itself apart for its dual emphasis on puzzle solving.
I wish I could say that the story is something to behold. I can’t. The truth is that, while serviceable, it never really becomes interesting. It acts as a sort of mystery-bait, tempting you to know more through cryptic delivery rather than interesting characters. The delivery also comes off flat at times, which keeps with the melancholic narrator but doesn’t do much to keep the monologue consistently interesting.
Still, it would be unfair to say it doesn’t work. In a game set inside a man’s subconscious mind, unfolding the mystery of that man is more than enough motivation to continue exploring. And let’s be clear here, exploration is really what this game is all about.
Uncovering the Mind’s Puzzles
Saying the game is about exploration may be a little reductive but it’s also true. It wasn’t the allure of puzzle solving that drew me in Mind. It wasn’t the developing powers over night and day, fog, clarity, or even time that are used to solve them. These elements deepened the gameplay in a necessary enjoyable way, but my ‘path to thalamus’ was characterized by soaking in each of the game’s environments. Puzzle solving, as tricky and inventive (and sometimes frustrating) as the puzzles often were, was a means to an end: they were the reason to slow down and notice all that was around me. And that is why I will remember Mind.
Developer Carlos Coronado has quite an imagination. From the very beginning, in the scene with the tornado, to the still-life beach about to be eclipsed by a rogue wave, Path to Thalamus is an experience. Fields of grass and stairways to nowhere, pillars in the sand, and shattered monuments rising above the autumnal forest floor, each rich in saturation, the mindscape Coronado has created feels totally unique. Because of this, there is a persistent sense of wonder always itching at the back of your mind. It compels you to know more, to see more, and to use the first-person perspective to its very fullest, immersing in the game world. When so many games fall into sameness and get mired in old ideas and the never-ending march sequels, Mind stands apart.
Even if the puzzles had fallen flat, the world surrounding them would have been worth the price of admission.
Mind: Path to Thalamus would never have existed ten years ago. Its abstract, high-minded premise isn’t one we would have seen from a big publisher. Instead, a single man and his small band of compatriots deliver on one of the most creative ideas of this year, and arguably more than that. Mind is beautiful and its surreal environments will linger on with me longer after the story has faded. Exploration is its defining quality, even as the puzzle solving elevates above other exploratory games. For this reason, Mind: Path to Thalamus is an easy recommendation, even if its story falls a little short. This is a game that should be experienced.
Creative setting and environments, often beautiful, begs to be explored.
Story and voice acting fall short, occasionally frustrating puzzles.