State of Mind review
Daedalic Entertainment has taken us to some memorable places, from a comical alien junk planet to a decaying fantasy world and, more recently, to 12th century England. Now, after years of development with writer/designer Martin Ganteföhr, State of Mind has arrived to transport players to a dystopian future. With obvious parallels to such science fiction heavies as Blade Runner and Total Recall, this transhumanist adventure has some lofty expectations to live up to. Unfortunately, although its praiseworthy elements certainly do shine through, the overall result misses the mark it was clearly aiming for, due in large part to a lack of compelling gameplay and a narrative that’s just too unfocused to remain invested in.
On a purely conceptual level, there are some fascinating ideas at play in State of Mind. At its simplest, the game tells the story of a journalist living in the Berlin of 2048 who must attempt to unravel the mystery behind his wife and son’s sudden disappearance following an accident that he can’t clearly remember. This is set against the backdrop of a technologically advanced society in which robotic artificial lifeforms have been integrated into many sectors of daily life, holding corporate positions alongside their human counterparts, assisting in daily households, and even patrolling the streets as armed police squads.
To contrast a dreary and depressing real-world setting that seems perpetually bogged down in darkness, the action frequently shifts to the clean and idyllic City5, a utopian virtual reality counterpart to Richard Nolan’s Berlin. Here, players take on the role of Adam Newman, a man whose life and circumstances seem to closely mirror Richard’s in many ways. It soon becomes clear that the similarities between the two men’s lives are no mere coincidence, and their paths inevitably cross when Richard’s investigation leads him to seek out Adam’s help in locating his missing family.
So far, so good; the narrative certainly sets up an intriguing web of interconnected characters and situations. However, as events unfold more and more, the story becomes at times muddled and unclear, at other times just plain uninteresting. Through occasional playable flashback scenes, you’ll learn some history about the game’s supporting cast, like Richard’s wife Tracy, and Lydia, the woman he’s having an affair with. The trouble is, these don’t add a whole lot to the central mystery already in progress.
Meanwhile, Richard and Adam’s investigations occasionally make unsettling leaps in logic, jumping across murky facts to conclusions seemingly drawn out of thin air. Richard becomes involved with Breakpoint, an underground resistance movement, though I found determining the group’s intentions or how Richard’s association with them furthered the hunt for his wife to be more trouble than it was worth. Similarly, Adam is tasked with looking for strange glitches in his world’s programming – apparent memory fragments of Richard’s that the two must send back and forth between each other to let Adam experience one of Richard’s past recollections – but this too is unclear in how it relates to the search at hand. Rather than the possibility that some things got lost in translation, State of Mind feels more like a case of a story that simply gets lost at times.
It doesn’t help matters that the principal cast of characters is sorely lacking a likeable protagonist to latch onto and root for during the game's ten-hour runtime. Richard, our main protagonist, is cheating on the wife he’s so determined to find, and his white-hot hatred for his domestic bot Simon (and apparently all artificial life) makes him somewhat abusive and ill-tempered during their interactions. There is little explanation offered for his dislike of bots, which is particularly confusing as he himself is outfitted with some digital enhancements, a clever way of integrating item descriptions and permanent hotspot highlights into the game’s interface. Richard’s long been at odds with his now-missing wife Tracy, whom we get to know in flashbacks as an addict who’s been cut off from her own family. Some characters, including Adam, come across as more benign, but still lack any friendly or endearing traits. Adam's own son, who plays a major role in the climax, may as well just be a shapeless void of personality, leading to several wooden and awkward interactions between father and child.
One of the game’s lynchpins is the concept of transhumanism, the idea of the human race utilizing technological means to evolve past their biological limitations. Humans enhancing their physical capabilities via mechanical implants, machines showing emotion and thinking for themselves, members of society looking for the means to escape their surroundings – there are some intriguing ethical implications at play here, and this aspect of State of Mind is by far its strongest, easily eclipsing the mystery of Richard’s missing family. While pursuing the latter, we discover more of the former, and I wish there had been an even greater emphasis on this area in the game’s design. A particularly memorable scene that plays out between Richard’s mistress Lydia and one of her online johns poses many questions about the implications of cyber sexuality and its effects on the human psyche, yet it is a completely standalone vignette not relating to the main plot.
The city itself exhibits some tantalizing design nuggets, teasing at a larger world begging to share its story. News bulletins call upon citizens to sign up as pioneers for colonial missions to Mars. Reports tell of terrorist bombings and civil unrest around the globe. Violence, homelessness and drug abuse are rampant. It’s a shame that we don’t get to experience more of it all. Both the real Berlin and virtual City5 exist solely as a number of distinct locations connected by a small hub area, generally a section of street or plaza between the buildings Richard or Adam must visit. There’s also a somewhat hazy sense of geography hinting at either major changes in geopolitical systems or advanced modes of transportation by the year 2048. For instance, characters travel between Berlin and New York by train, seemingly in a short amount of time. These things absolutely fit the picture of a futuristic society, but it’s a pity that they aren't expanded upon in any way.
Traversing State of Mind’s map and taking in its sights and sounds makes up the majority of its gameplay, at least until much later on. The experience really is more of an interactive thriller than a traditional adventure, which sadly means that most of the puzzles, frankly, are a joke. There are a few sequences in which you must assemble a 360-degree visual display by cycling through picture panels until they assemble into a single image. An overly simplistic hacking game requires lining up two on-screen spheres to overlay each other for a few seconds, while a task that asks you to correlate matching clues on a pin board to reach a certain conclusion turns out to be neither intuitive nor fun. At least the game remembers it is a game a bit more toward the final act, when redirecting a train car along several railroad switches and alternating between several VR building layouts to advance through a series of corridors make better use of your puzzle-solving ability.
Whether by keyboard or gamepad (the mouse is used to interact, but no point-and-click travel option is available), as I moved between the different areas of downtown Berlin and City5, including a nightclub, strip joint and hi-tech medical clinic, along with Richard and Adam’s homes and offices, I found navigating them to be rather clunky. Initiating character movement felt more like plotting a ship onto its naval course than maneuvering a person, moving in sweeping arcs rather than precise turns. I sometimes ended up bumping into furniture and objects as I wrestled both my character and the camera. It became much easier to simply move in a straight line and just make small left/right adjustments to steer towards my eventual destination.
Given its dual settings, State of Mind won’t surprise anybody with its stark visuals and drastic shifts between the grim dystopian and bright utopian color palettes. What does lend it a more unique – and perhaps divisive – look is the choice to model all of its characters in low-poly “shards”, representing the fractured nature of the human psyche and personality both in the world of 2048 in general and our protagonists specifically. While all of this sounds nifty in theory, I found the aesthetic choice to be, at best, less than pleasing to the eye, and at times even fully off-putting. The reasoning behind this approach is a bit too much of a stretch to be effective, instead resulting in models whose appearance impedes immersion when compared to the nicely detailed environments. It might have been reasonable for the inhabitants of the virtual reality world to be depicted in such a stylized manner, but the effect is applied to both worlds, human and robot alike.
In the case of Richard, the combination of character design and voice-over contributed to making him a difficult protagonist to embrace. Doug Cockle, perfectly cast as the gruff, gravelly Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher series, sounds out of place here; while the acting is fine, his throaty whispers seem to go too much against the grain of the character. However, after a while it became easier to put this off as a minor nitpick, particularly when considering the overall high quality of the remaining cast. The music didn’t manage to put forth any particularly memorable tracks for me, but never became unpleasant or irritating either. During moments of cinematic tension, it steps up and elevates the on-screen action with stirring moments to underscore the thrills.
Playing a pre-release review version, I encountered a bug unlike any I’ve ever seen before, causing most or even all of my autosaves to disappear upon exiting the game. During my first few play sessions, this led to several complete restarts, until I eventually figured out that it could be fixed by closing and reopening the game, sometimes up to three or four times in a row. Eventually, the save files would mysteriously show back up again on the load screen, letting me continue playing properly. This doesn’t seem to be a widespread problem but it never stopped being an issue for me, so fingers crossed that this has been addressed for the final public release.
There are certainly individual elements of State of Mind that pass muster on their own merits. The game features several intriguing ideas that build up its dystopian, transhumanist setting, even if the world itself isn’t always realized as fully as it could have been. Taste is variable, so my complaints about the look of the character models and how well the protagonist’s voice actor fits are relatively personal issues that some will not mind at all. The greater problem here, unfortunately, is the dearth of actual gameplay and the story itself, which doesn’t manage to sustain either a logical investigative thread or a real sense of interest, meaning the state of mind I too frequently experienced myself was boredom.
Many of State of Mind’s ideas sound great on paper, but as an interactive thriller it fails to establish proper stakes, with virtually no challenge, a world with few likeable characters, and a story sparse on purposeful events.