Everything we do, be it in real life or in social media, leaves a digital finger print – whether we want it or not. In today’s world, the powers that be collect huge amounts of data without us even realizing it. Superficially, this data is used for commercial purposes, with your smartphone popping up ads precisely targeted at you. Pass a computer store and poof! There’s an ad on your smartphone urging you to go after their special sale, only for today! But what if all this collected data could be used to create artificial life, a next step in evolution for mankind? A cyberpunk thriller State of Mind by German adventure game developer Daedalic Entertainment plays with this very thought. It’s a grim double vision of a near future dystopia and a virtual utopia, dressed up in disquieting low poly aesthetics.
It’s the year 2048 in a dark, rainy Berlin. The western and eastern powers are at each other throats, unemployment is rising, and riots and terrorist attacks are everyday symptoms of a society feeling ill. A Mars colony is power-advertised as the means to escape the dreary life. It’s in this world a journalist Richard Nolan wakes up in the hospital after an apparent accident. He has lost parts of his memory and when returning home, he finds that his wife and son have walked away. It’s perhaps not that big a surprise as Richard isn’t the nicest person out there. To make matters worse, once a star writer for the leading newspaper The Voice, he gets fired.
Elsewhere, Adam Newman is recuperating from an apparent accident in a luminous and impossibly perfect City5. Unlike Richard, Adam is a well-liked man in his community, a valued co-worker, a good husband and a loving father to his son. While Richard and Adam are complete opposites, they lead an uncannily parallel life. It’s almost if they are two sides of a same person. The game shifts between these two men, with Richard trying to track down his family and Adam getting adjusted back to his family life.
Before long, their lives meet and when they start sharing information between each other, a sinister conspiracy begins taking shape. In Richard’s world, an influential scientist Dr. Kurtz (an evil Steven Jobs-type) visions a new life for mankind he deems too sick to be cured. To create its tangled web of promise and deceit, State of Mind draws ashamedly elements from the movies within same genre, from Metropolis to I, Robot and Gattaca, and from both Blade Runners to Ex_Machina (the best movie of the last few years, I might add). The game throws every genre cliché to a blender and spews them all out to form its derivative world. You’d be forgiven to mistake the near future Berlin to Los Angeles in 2049, if it weren't for some frame-setting landmarks.
At first, the low poly visuals evoke low-budget vibes, making you wonder if it’s just to make up for the lack of resources. Whether that’s the reason or not, you get to used to if without even realizing it. So much so that when after a long session of playing I took a look at newly-unveiled, supposedly photorealistic gameplay footage of Red Dead Redemption 2, it appeared so passé in comparison. State of Mind basks in a sublime architectural design, giving its neo-Berlin cinematic depth and a feel of grandiose desolation. There are some striking picture compositions and tracking shots, making the game look more expensive than it has probably been to produce. Overall, State of Mind could pass for a spiritual follow-up to Flashback and its sequel Fade to Black from the mid-90’s. Likewise, the music is cinematic, with a low-key piano contrasting a throbbing electronic score.
The gameplay takes its cue from Quantic Dream’s interactive movies. There’s even a scene that is a direct homage to Jodie getting ready for a dinner date in Beyond: Two Souls. A coincidence or not, the near future the game envisions has many similarities to Detroit: Become Human, with its similar state of the world and takes on augmented reality and home appliances. State of Mind is less gimmicky, though, and plays a majority of its course much like a narrative experience. The characters are seen from a third-person view, doing their thing via only a seeming interactivity and dialogue choices. Oftentimes the story is simply progressed by following green triangles showcasing the next interactive element, leaving very little need for thought or exploration. In addition to Richard and Adam, there are four other playable characters mostly through flashback scenes. Characters’ controls are fidgety as they all move with coltish steps. The camera swings nauseatingly and I can imagine people with motion sickness could be in trouble here.
I’ll be honest, for the longest time I had troubles with relating to Richard. He comes off as a bastard, with no one else’s but his own interests in mind – and even then, his intuition is often like shooting in the dark. He’s rude and impatient and making it worse, he’s cheating on his wife. Flat and raspy delivery of his lines makes him only more awkward. On the other hand, Richard is voiced by Doug Cockle, best known as none other than Geralt of Rivia. So, with a competent actor in the role, Richard is really intended to sound like that; a jerk. Usually, protagonists are supposed to be bridges between the player and the game to dive into the story and feel it through them. Only a few people in the game's world like Richard so why should we invest in his plight? Then again, why shouldn't we? If we think the resolution is always reserved for the best of us, it would be no different to eugenics practiced by Dr. Kurtz. Indeed, it's through Richard's imperfection as the hero that the story gains its mature credibility.
To avoid further spoilers, I can't reveal more about but the plot and its twists, other that you probably can see them miles ahead. There are some severe pacing issues. It takes far too long to juggle between just Richard and Adam, making their chores ultimately mind-numbing. The dialogue between them is sloppy, with Adam feeding non-relevant information to Richard about his memory fragments (making the player uneasily know more than the main protagonist) and Richard reacting with his abrupt manner. Then again, maybe it’s not bad scripting after all but deliberately written so to reflect their personas. Richard simply lacks resources (or wits) to be discreet, and Adam is too short-sighted in his perfect world.
At the midway point, State of Mind finally start to gain its bearings when the secrets begin to unfold (even if you have guessed them by now). It's against Richard's indiscretion that two supporting characters stand out. Nolan family’s household robot Simon and Richard’s secret lover, cybersex hostess Lydia, are both tragic for different reasons. Through the short bursts we get to play as them, they show more humanity than anything else in the game. Lydia’s cybersex session with one of her customers is disturbingly fascinating. It’s such a powerful scene, played to an alarmingly escalating beat, that it feels almost out of context.
In the last third of the story, when ailing Lydia joins Richard in his odyssey against both the conspiracy and the resistance, State of Mind also gains more functionality as a game. There are even a few graphic adventure-like puzzles, simple as such, but still a welcome break to just walking through the scenes. Some basic action sequences, like flying a drone or controlling a gun turret, are thankfully kept short. The game lasts eerily exactly those 15 hours the developers promised. There are inconsistencies and plot holes in the story, and a few plot lines fall flat, as if the writers just forgot them. Some scenes are handled via spoken lines instead of actually showing them. Understandable, as you can only to do so much with a limited budget and a small development team. Still, despite its unevenness – or perhaps because of it – the story is fascinating and gets a satisfying conclusion through critical choices in the end.
State of Mind is a game of contradictions. It’s as ambitious and monumental as it’s problematic and jagged. However, it’s from this discord the game’s intrigue springs. There's stubborn earnestness in its po-faced storytelling. The game doesn’t try to please every possible democracy and Richard’s actions aren’t needlessly moralized. He stays true to his persona and you can even back it, not forcing a chance in him (even though to some degree you could). Despite cracks in the story, there’s unaccented depth to it. The game doesn’t take sides in its view of transhumanism, whether it’s a threat or a blessing. It’s up to players to form their own opinions.
From the gameplay point of view, State of Mind may stagger but for cyberpunk lovers its story and clean-cut visual design demand to be experienced. Sure, it’s derivative and predictable too, but it’s there where the game gets its strong footing. Also, we need more protagonists like Richard. His imperfection makes him more realistic than typical squeaky-clean heroes who are never wrong and act always in an altruistic manner. True to European branch of fiction, State of Mind doesn't feel like underlining or sugarcoating matters. Either you get them or don't, and the game gives a damn if you don’t.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.