Mind: Path to Thalamus and the phrase “And Yet”

Mind: Path to Thalamus is a difficult game to talk about. Not for the usual reasons – a complex subject matter, say, or because its terms of appreciation are unique. Rather, Thalamus is difficult to talk about because it’s an example of a game that demands qualified praise with every breath: in each gesture, there is simultaneously something to commend and something to criticize. There is nothing new in this conclusion. Granted, The Telegraph gave it an unjustifiably sterling review by simply leaving out all of the game’s problems:

The game’s . . . a deconstruction of the usual ‘salvation’ narrative. It’s exceptionally smart. And not what you’d be expecting if you read a blurb on paper. It does some terrific things with how it explores the way the mind works, what we convince ourselves of and how we view the external world. It’s a story about redemption and salvation, sure, but in unexpected and emotive ways.

But most of the more on-point criticism has laid out how the game fails at doing what The Telegraph’s Nina White says it did. Gamespot’s review (written by Kevin VanOrd) justly reckons with the game’s amateur script and voice acting by noting:

This is a heavy-handed story; it takes itself so incredibly seriously in the way it slathers on the pedantic metaphors, and in the narrator’s own wistful recollections, some of which are difficult to listen to. This is due in part to the voice acting, which doesn’t communicate the solemnity the writing calls for, and in part to the lead’s self-pity, which made me wish the narrative canvas had been painted upon by a subtler brush.

While Gamecritics.com’s treatment (written by Sparky Clarkson) of the game aptly points out that the game, like the final battle, “has some clever puzzles, but most of them seem disconnected from the rest of the world.” In short, there are many problems with Thalamus, but the game does demand that qualifying, semi-redemptive phrase “and yet:” and yet it is of a quality that makes it impossible to simply dismiss the work as a whole.

Mind: Path to Thalamus has a simple story: it is a narrative of redemption, taking place solely in the psychic landscape of the game’s nameless protagonist. After a harrowing opening, the game takes you through a series of beautiful landscapes, demanding that the player complete a series of increasingly complex puzzles in order to proceed. All the while, the player is treated to the protagonist’s history: his tense relationship with his father, the loss of his sister Sophia to a tsunami when she was young, and the presumed loss of his own daughter, also named Sophia, to a cyclone. The titular path to Thalamus (originally Ancient Greek, meaning “chamber,” now the term for the part of the brain that regulates consciousness) is then a path of literal self-exploration (we are travelling through his own mind) and a quest for forgiveness for, in his youth, failing to save his sister. It is a straightforward and well-executed journey – if only it weren’t for the many flaws therein.

On the one hand, these reviews (pace, Telegraph) are quite right to criticize the amateur quality of the script, or the lackluster, two-dimensional quality of the puzzles. But despite these two details, the game shows more promise than the average fare of straightforward mediocrity on our digital platter. Yes, the script has howlers like “I wish that I could. But I don’t.” But at the same time that line comes at the plot’s great turnaround, after a puzzle set amidst the static waves of a visually magnificent beach, frozen in the moment that the waves overwhelm the fragile shore, and meant to recall the loss of the first Sophia, who died in a similar storm.

The game simultaneously shows a sense of awareness of its own themes – the moment you enter the waves to fix everything is the combinatory climax of the mechanics and the narrative – along with its perennial clumsiness. On the one hand, the narrative takes a clever and subversive turn: the emotional catharsis that has been promised and hoped for is revealed as merely the dark nexus of the main character’s guilty obsession with his sister’s death. The confrontation with his sister’s shade reinforces this realization: instead of her voice, the shade uses that of the main character as he has forgotten what she sounded like. What is a clever use of limited resources (i.e., voice acting can be expensive) becomes a reveal of the protagonist’s naked solipsism, the real psychological hang-up that has motivated this quest for redemption. But the moment is hamstrung by the mediocre voice acting and the problems in the writing: when the protagonist, reluctant to give up his delusion, asks for forgiveness from his sister’s shade, the shade responds – in a sniveling voice as sinister as Snidely Whiplash: “I wish that I could. But I don’t.”

These two scenes are emblematic of Thalamus’ problems. On the one hand, the game is aware of the character’s emotional arc and what its fulfillment demands: his guilt, regret, and obsession are developed, toyed with, and then resolved in this moment. But on the other hand, it is but one of many potholes that litter this path: the slipshod script of both shade and the crackling specter of his self-hatred irretrievably sour what should be a brilliant moment of naked, searing, shattering honesty. Even the penultimate puzzle at the seashore meets this kind of cognitive dissonance: the setting is perfect, but the puzzles are just more of the same. It is almost as though the left hand is muddying what the right hand has skillfully crafted, or as though the mouth is too dumb to give voice to the mind’s brilliance.

About a year ago, I wrote a brief piece on the Myst series and the way that it is at its best when the particulars of its worlds and puzzles reinforce the narrative. Myst IV: Revelations, specifically Achenar’s Age, Haven, best exemplifies this point:

The major puzzles – the totem puzzle and the monkey puzzle – are representative of [Achenar’s] moral redemption. The totems were both an act of penance for his bloodlust and a memorialization of his victims, while his befriending a tribe of monkeys is an act of redemption. Indeed, we can even look at the mechanics of the puzzle as further evidence for Achenar’s moral turnaround: the clues are all sketched images of the different monkeys, and therefore predicated on a familiarity with this little tribe, while the puzzle itself requires that the player mimic Achenar’s rapport with this tribe in order to subdue a predator. In effect, this gives Haven a neat, mirror-like structure: when Achenar enters the world, he is the hunter; when he leaves, he is trying to protect the hunted.

This careful construction is only halfway present in Thalamus. The four different tools the player uses to alter the world are the basis for all of the puzzles: fog barriers often act as walls or trampolines; rain serves to raise the wooden platforms needed to progress; night turns empty stone doorways into portals; time restores ruins, allowing them to act as additional pathways. Often these tools work in conjunction with others: a doorway must be activated atop a wall that can only be climbed in the past, and so on. Standing in each particular circle can activate its effects, but so can the presence of the game’s many balls of blue filigree. But this tends to lead to threadbare, repetitive puzzles, where almost every slope is a giveaway (hint: the ball needs to be rolled down the hill, giving you the chance to run to where you need to go before the magic ball arrives at each magic circle). The problem with these puzzles, however, is not merely that they are unsatisfyingly repetitive – they have the strange and frustrating quality of being simultaneously difficult, different, similar, and simple. It is that they do not signify anything.

Of the four mechanics, only two have an immediate and obvious connection to our stormchasing protagonist: fog and rain. The other two – time and night – are, as best as I can tell, utterly disconnected from anything of significance, just as the former two features – though they are both meteorological features – remain, at best, tangentially connected to any greater thematic point. To compare and contrast, the totem puzzle in Revelations makes it clear that Achenar is remorseful, while the monkey puzzle demonstrates his desire to reform; in Thalamus, the repeated play of day to night and rain to clear skies is beautiful, but only that. These mechanics do nothing to support the game’s overarching quest for redemption. There is, at first glance, an obvious connection between at least some of these mechanics and the protagonist, but that connection is never given any significance. Fog, night, rain, and time are merely perfunctory parts of the journey, obstacles to keep the player occupied – and nothing else.

But there are elements of the game that are well executed. For example, the stage upon which these puzzles play their insubstantial role is simply magnificent. The journey takes place across a fantastic tableau of sunlit, shallow seas, haunting caves, verdant forests, stark oceans of ice, and a final seashore rich with symbolic meaning. Similarly, one of the game’s high points – the confrontation with a colossus – hits all the notes it needs to: the terrible titan represents the protagonist’s father, and this character’s every step leaves a terrible imprint across the psychoscape of the protagonist’s mind much in the same way that his actions affected the life of his son. That the battle is won by impaling the colossus on the incandescent representations of neural connections – the literal embodiment of the mental realization that the memory of his father need not dominate his life any longer – is a clever resolution. Thalamus does contain brilliant moments of artistry, but the many instances of artistic incoherency mar the entire project.

As stated above, the final battle between the protagonist and the specter of his self-hatred is the climax of Thalamus’ marriage of the brilliant and the banal. On the one hand – talking about this game, it seems, demands a repeated use of this rhetorical tool – the boss fight is far larger and cleverer than it initially seems in that it launches a series of critiques against the game itself. For example, the colossus-as-father is, at once, a well executed image and utterly cliché, and the specter notes this:

“And how about that colossal metaphor for your daddy issues? What, you wanted to face something before the great revelation, so you pulled that nonsense out of a hat? Wasn’t it just a masterful piece of symbolism, by the way? An authoritarian parent you never faced in life, turned into a gargantuan effigy looking to stomp you. Truly masterful! You should dabble in symbology… or myth-making. I’m sure that pays better in the end.”

The audacity of a game tearing itself apart parallels the way in which the specter is simply another aspect of the protagonist’s psyche. In short, the game critiquing itself mirrors the nagging voice of self-doubt in everyone’s head that erodes, justifiably or not, their own ego. But the delivery of these lines is abysmal, more akin to schoolyard taunting than the demolishing basso profundo of naked truth, while the unironic use of ‘symbology’ just makes me mad.

Similarly, the ending’s slow move from a blurred camera to the beauty of a seaside drive taken in search of his daughter, Sophia, simultaneously recapitulates the opening of the psychological journey that is the game, while at the same time being burdened with an attempt at a pensive, thoughtful monologue that relies, in a bathetic twist, on John Lennon’s misremembered lyrics. In short, the conclusion brings the protagonist back to where he started, in search of Sophia. But now he is free of guilt and obsession, and looking for the only Sophia that matters right now – the living Sophia, his daughter – to simply talk to her. And the script spoils it all by addressing “people of the future world” and making a bad joke about smartphones.

But to call Mind: Path to Thalamus a bad game – or even a mediocre game – is to do it injustice. It is frustrating to dive from well-executed moments to amateur ones, or to play a boss fight that is simultaneously audacious and slipshod. But there is more to be found in its baffling blend of the brilliant and the banal than in its straightforwardly mediocre cousins – Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and its ilk – and that demands our attention, and even our tempered praise.

I read game creator Carlos Coronado’s announcement that he was going to improve the game’s script with a (by now characteristic) mixture of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand (again), the game would benefit from this rewriting, and be all the better for it. On the other hand (again), the creative hands behind Mind: Path to Thalamus shows such distinct promise that I cannot wait to see what they do next.