State of Mind Review
State of Mind wants to ask the big questions of tomorrow: what does it mean to be human in the age of the machine? What is reality? What makes you you? It sets out its manifesto early on, an examination of transhumanism — the belief that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and intellectual limitations — through the story of Richard Nolan, a journalist who has not only lost his memories but whose wife and son are missing. The year is 2048, the setting Berlin. Technology has advanced to such a degree that robots are employed in most industries and the destitute of Berlin are encouraged to scan their bodies to assess their suitability to travel to Mars. The dystopian-esque future is rounded out with a shady billionaire scientist, Dr Kurtz and a renegade band of extremists fighting on the side of ‘biological humans’ called Breakpoint. The story that follows, sadly, is a mess. A ramshackle collection of unsympathetic characters, disjointed plot points, dull gameplay and infuriating cliched narrative choices. I doubt the state of mind publisher and developer Daedalic Entertainment were going for was boredom, tinged with annoyance and confusion.
The main thrust of the story (once you get to it, after a long introductory side-plot involving Richard being fired from his job) plays out in a back and forth between Richard and - SPOILERS - a virtual copy version of himself, the cunningly named Adam Newman. It’s a twist that comes too early in the plot to have any real impact and has little bearing on how Adam relates to himself and others as a digital being. Richard is eventually tasked by the leader of Breakpoint to recover his lost memories which are hidden as data fragments in Adam’s virtual world. How this links to Adam finding his family is frustratingly obtuse until later in the story, leaving you often undertaking tasks that feel purposeless. You’ll go to a new location, talk to a few people, play a dull mini-game that won’t come up again and move on. The closest thing to a puzzle can be found in the data fragments that must be matched up to make a cohesive ‘memory’ but there’s little complexity or dexterity required past switching through the images a few times.
Occasionally more logic is needed to connect clues on a pin board, but voice prompts leave little room for error, so it again becomes an exercise in clicking around until you stumble on the right combination of information. You’ll do all this not to further the story or to deepen your understanding of the world but because doing so unlocks the next portion of the game. It’s a critical failure for something so narrative driven. You are so often at a loss as to what the story is, where you need to go, and more crucially, why you should bother.
Direction is a major problem then, both in theme and mechanics. There’s no consistency in objectives, sometimes they’ll appear on screen but more often it’s a passing comment or a prompt to make a phone call. The clunky UI and hideous neon yellow text pop ups that denote interactive objects do little to aid navigation. Doubly frustrating then, when moving around the world is a chore. The characters themselves steer like tanks with ridiculously wide turning circles that require careful manoeuvring even to go through wide doorways. A shame since the environments and setting are the strongest part of the game, demonstrating an architectural imagination and sense of scale that is refreshing. More could have be made of Berlin, odd given Daedalic’s German roots, its best shown off in a nightclub (which is hilariously absent of people) but some of the underground Berliner style comes through in the graffiti and cyberpunk aesthetic. It’s a stark contrast to Adam’s world which is bright, white and full of clean lines. There’s a fully fleshed out landscape here that’s never given space to shine outside of the obtuse jumps from location to location to aid the plot.
The strong environmental visuals fall down when applied to character models, however. The low-polygon look is functional but lacking in any true style or expression, it’s not the polygon’s fault, since games like Virginia have employed it with aplomb. In State of Mind the problem lies with the animation which so often appears clunky and stitled, facial expressions that become unintentional robotic masks that do little to augment the awkward dialogue. There’s an odd inconsistency too in the dialogue scenes; sometimes you’ll be left staring at a character’s back while they speak, other times it will whip back and forth with next to no rhythm.
None of this helps you connect to Richard Nolan, as a protagonist he’s one-note, constantly angry, grumpy and annoyed. He displays little real regard for his wife or son, has no personality beside hating everyone — especially robots — and conducts an affair. He often appears unmoved (aside from anger) by the shadowy forces using him for their own gain and for a journalist he is oddly incurious about the world. There’s no space for Richard to pause and reflect or share his feelings, to give you any insight into his own emotions. There is an interesting theme of disconnection and father-son relationships, echoed in Adam, that is never fully developed or explored. Always with State of Mind there is a sense of wasted potential.
The rest of the cast is filled out with almost every science-fiction trope you can think of: a robot on the brink of self-awareness, a wheelchair bound Steve Jobs lookalike running an evil corporation out to steal people’s data, a disillusioned former scientist seeking revenge, a freakishly intelligent young boy. The female characters are flat and painted with broad strokes, a drug user, a party girl, a sex worker, a mistress, never given much dialogue or motivation. A drab scene in a strip-club complete with scantily clad robots gyrating badly to music is one you’ve seen a million times before.
Perhaps the most interesting character, Tracy, Richard’s wife and recovering drug addict turned television presenter and potential catalyst to Richard’s lost memories, is pushed off to the sidelines. She is painted as selfish and vain. There is an uncomfortable storyline around her facial scar as motivation to enter the virtual world and reclaim her ‘perfect’ body, facilitated by Dr Kurtz (he of the failed Steve Jobs’s impersonator). The concept of transcending the self into a digital space to escape trauma is an interesting one that could have been explored thoughtfully and with nuance. Instead it’s boorishly ableist in its assumptions, ignoring the lived experience of people with disabilities and visible differences, concluding they are problems to be fixed and their intentions always suspect. There’s hardly anything radical to be found here. Berlin itself is a whitewash of bodies that all look the same: white, mostly thin, able-bodied. In State of Mind the future seems to offer very few ways to be human.
Transhumanism, virtual worlds and technology should be the perfect topic to explore within a video game: how does the physical body and the physical world intersect with digital space? Is a digital copy of you still you, or something else? To play a game in real life where you control a digital avatar who is aware they are a digital avatar should be exciting and alive with possibility, but there is no self-awareness here, no subtlety. Instead State of Mind takes a sledgehammer to the philosophical and troubling questions of transhumanism and tries to make a story from the rubble. It skims along the surface without depth and with an ironic lack of acknowledgement of the humanity at the very core of these ideas. The ending builds up to an interesting final choice but whether you’ll stick around long enough to see it is another matter. The questions posed are good questions, but flat characters, unimaginative gameplay and a muddled, slow plot snuff out any gleam of an interesting answer.
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