Wot I Think: Mind – Path To Thalamus

By John Walker on August 11th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Spanish-born Mind: Path To Thalamus is a first-person puzzler with some really astonishingly pretty levels. Is it a cerebral experience, a sensory delight? (Jokes for neurologists, there!) Here’s wot I think:

Mind: Path Of Thalamus is a really intriguing puzzle game, astonishingly pretty, enormously creative, yet comes extremely close to be being buried by its own sophomoric storyline. Built of a combination of esoteric and surrealist levels, and elaborate, smart puzzles, it’s often incredibly impressive. Solving challenges in the first-person peculiar world can be thrilling. Being rewarded by more of the clumsy, poorly delivered story, is a millstone around its otherwise fantastic neck.

I wish it were simpler to divorce the two. Narrative puzzle games often keep the two far enough apart that you can ignore one while enjoying the other. But in Mind, the two are intricately woven together, no matter how cognitively dissonant they may be. One begets the other. You play as Moany McMoanpants, a man trapped in a coma, trying to deal with the long-past death of his sister, and the possible recent death of his own daughter. Both called Sophia. Both harmed during storm-chasing incidents. Dude.

What you sit and play are really superbly constructed levels, whether in deliberate corridors or wide open spaces, offering an evolving variety of puzzle styles. The opening moments see some Stanley Parable-style reality-bending cleverness, which then leads to phantasmal negotiations of impossible pathways, and eventually into the game’s core of reality-manipulating puzzles. These are primarily based around moving neuron-knitted spheres around landscapes, to change the weather, the time of day, and the season. Each change affects the environment in particular ways, perhaps restoring ruined bridges, or causing pathways to rearrange themselves. Night time also brings with it portals appearing in gateways, which further elaborates the complexity, as does the fact that spheres, well, they roll downhill. Here’s an example:

Piecing these challenges together, working out the potential of what you can do and then executing plans, is superbly rewarding. And the nature of these challenges throughout prevents the concept from growing stale. They’re not simple either, but the level design has an almost Valve-like ability to subtly point your head in the right direction, prompt you without letting you feel prompted, and ensure you always get to feel like you deserve a golden certificate of cleverness for succeeding.

This is helped enormously by just how damned gorgeous the whole game is. It’s my job to take screenshots when playing a game, but here I was taking screenshots because I couldn’t not capture what I was seeing – it was the constant equivalent of snatching my phone from my pocket to not let a sunset get away from me. (The main man behind its creation, Spaniard Carlos Coronado, should be instantly inundated with job offers from major teams who want their games to look stunning.) Of course, as you’d imagine, static images really can’t do it justice – the rapid transitions from day to night, gradual onset of thunderstorms, or seamless morphing from Spring to Autumn, are all spellbinding. And splendidly, the sound effects match the quality. The thunderstorms are sonically beautiful, along with every crackle, rain shower and bluster.

But then there’s the ever-present voiceover. Oh, bugger. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it fails quite so significantly, but it’s certainly to do with just what a bone-headedly dumb concept it begins with. Your dad was a storm-chaser, and his obsession led him to endanger you and your little sister, Sophie. Sophie died, and the guilt remains with you, obsesses you. But doesn’t stop you from also becoming a storm-chaser, and having a daughter you call Sophie, whom you then endanger because of your obsession with chasing storms. It could be the plot of the next Syfy Channel Sharknado sequel.

But unfortunately, what could still perhaps be rescued with a delicate hand, is smashed into a million stupid pieces by an ogre wielding a sledgehammer. Where subtlety, poise and pathos could have communicated identifiable feelings of loss or pain, instead we have a script that just incessantly shouts, almost literally, “I AM ARTICULATING MY SENSE OF LOSS AND PAIN THROUGH METAPHORICAL PUZZLES.” Meta was really not called for here, and it becomes an inarticulate fist beating against your head throughout, culminating in a sequence where it unambiguously explains anything it had so far left as even partially ambiguous.

This is made much worse by some woeful miscasting for the character’s voice, a monotone surf-dude who drones away any vestige of nuance that was ever there. Maddeningly, no voice-over at all could have left the game open to interpretation, while still containing the motifs of children’s drawings, frozen memories (the swells of tide being absolutely breathtaking), and a surprisingly satisfying and coherent “boss” battle against the largest enemy I’ve ever seen in a game. You could have pieced something together, and almost inevitably something a fraction as daft as its own.

It’s such a colossal shame, but I am certain not one that should put you off playing Mind. The puzzles are genuinely great, and it’s just so unrelentingly eye-warmingly beautiful, that it wins out. As visual, explorable art, it’s masterful. As a puzzle game, it’s rewarding and taxing. As a narrative, it’s a car driving into a lake. But in this case, two out of three is really rather good.

Mind: Path To Thalamus is available via Steam, currently for just £8.50. Goes up to a still extremely reasonable £10 on Tuesday.

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39 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge LTK says:

    So… are there separate volume sliders for sound and dialogue?

    • rpsKman says:

      Maybe you can delete the files.

    • All is Well says:

      From a review of the game on Twinfinite:

      “It isn’t necessarily the talking itself that is the problem, but rather it’s the poorly written and painfully on-the-nose text which comes across like a 14 year old’s diary. Thankfully, you can turn off subtitles, turn down the volume, and pretend it’s not there, and it doesn’t take away from the experience at all.”

  2. DanMan says:

    It sure is pretty. What a shame.

  3. Danley says:

    Did John Walker just give a 2/3 rating? I knew it; RPS had an out-of-three scale this whole time.

  4. dE says:

    It sure is telling about the narration when one of the first posts for this game, was about how to remove subtitles and narration from it (done by deactivating subtitles and deleting all localization files from the bowels of the game, within the maps/mind subfolder).

  5. sub-program 32 says:

    I really like the puzzles and scenery of the game, but two things crippled my ability to enjoy it: 1:my laptop gets incredibly framey from the third “world” onwards, making even basic movement and platforming too difficult to tolerate. This is only a problem for low-performance things of course and is not really the game’s fault much, but it increases the problem of 2: The goddamn ball things fall out of your hands SO EASILY. Like a third of the game I managed to play up to was trying to control the darn thing. I wish the game had made it a simple click = pick up or drop and nothing else (such as wall collisions) affected that, because merely picking up the ball could send it flying off an edge sometimes. The narrative was eh. Certainly not great. (but once I get a better comp I will almost certainly try and play it again anyway)

  6. Freud says:

    I see these pictures and wonder why it would need a story at all. As long as the sense of place is there, gamers will fill the gaps by themselves.

    I prefer Dark Souls over games with thousands of lines of spoken text.

  7. Kein says:

    >The puzzles are genuinely great

    I’m sorry but what. Puzzles were ABSOLUTELY boring and uninspiring. Comparing to Antichamber or even Naisannce – it was utter disappointment. Shallow attempt to cover it with some “deep philosophical story” and pretentious visuals left a cheap and bad aftertaste.

    • Polifemo says:

      Care to articulate with actual examples? Or is the “its bad cuz its bad” bile and buzzwords your only means of comunication?

      • Gog Magog says:

        Buzz, buzz! The word of the day of the postworld!
        No, seriously. They made their point pretty clearly and even gave examples as to what they considered good puzzle design in opposition of this game’s. Not even a single “facetime” or “restructuring” or “cockthrottling” in there.

  8. sinister agent says:

    I really hope there is a demo comprising a small section of the game because then you could call it a Hypothalamus.

  9. CookPassBabtridge says:

    This review and the pictures put me in mind of the Half Life Mod, “Mistake of Pythagoras”, except I think the mod did the idea better. It was by a guy called Koumei Satou. The thing that stays with me to this day is the feeling it gave me throughout – uneasy, yet almost trance-like state, similar to the obviously-an-influence 2001: A Space Odyssey (some of the rooms he created perfectly capture that “dying man in bedroom” feeling in 2001), and captured that disturbing yet numbing sense of hallcuinogenic dissociation.

    He created some devious boss fights, with bizarre robots that alternately seemed modelled on an evil version of the liquorice allsort guy, and Kubrick’s rotating, docking vessels. The puzzles were genuinely maddening and cryptic, but had a logic to them within the game, and there was a stroke of genius when you got to the “end”, which … wasn’t. WAY better than an epilogue, and again inducing a weird twilight sense of detachment by a clever 4th wall breaking move. Its all in the HL2 engine so at first glance its easy to write it off, but if you let the eclectic mix of orchestral and bizarro music pull you in, and start asking what those numbers mean, its a dark but joyous trip into insanity and genius.

    • valourfrog says:

      Hey thanks for reminding me of this intriguing mod! I remember playing it back then but I didn’t manage to make much progress. I should try it again, since those monuments spinning in air made a lasting impression on me.

  10. Geebs says:

    I cannot believe that nobody has pointed out yet that one of the greatest games ever had a plot which involved driving a car into a lake. You lot need to hand back your gaming licenses right now.

    • Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

      Mario Kart?

    • Polifemo says:

      To be fair, that was only one of many possible endings and hardly the main plot point of the story.

      I mean pillow + sick wife / male urges / converging personal limbos.

      Man that was a good game.

    • Premium User Badge Oozo says:

      And let’s not forget that the plot of Carnival of Souls, one of the most accidentally great movies, is triggered by a car driving into a river. (As is the plot in the equally great lose adaption, Yella.) So, basically no excuse there.

  11. Gabe McGrath says:

    I’m disappointed.

    This is not a ‘Gone Home’ style game, set in 1987,
    about trying to load “Armalyte” onto your Commodore 64 via cassette.

    Path to Thalamus?
    I don’t think so.

    • GameOverMan says:

      At least Armalyte had an Amiga remake in 1991 and a PC one a few years ago, no loading screens there. Sanxion, on the other hand, failed to load more often than not, but it didn’t matter because you could hear again the fantastic Rob Hubbard loading tune.

  12. Alien426 says:

    So, I guess this is what Coma: A Mind Adventure turned into. I thought they were separate games, but after a little research it turns out that Mind is the spiritual successor to Coma.

  13. sebim says:

    Volume needs to be cranked up on video

  14. Sian says:

    I don’t get the whole “It’s my fault” thing in this game. Sure, the protagonist is a storm chaser, but from what I’ve seen it’s not like he brings his daughter out with him to chase storms, the tornado hits his house. Now, he may have moved to an area that was prone to tornadoes, but unless he was stupid enough to buy a house without some kind of shelter and didn’t teach his kid to go there, her (potential?) death has nothing to do with his obsession.

  15. NonCavemanDan says:

    and a surprisingly satisfying and coherent “boss” battle against the largest enemy I’ve ever seen in a game.

    Bigger than Malus in Shadow of the Colossus?

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