Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Genre&Topics: interactive drama, cyberpunk, dystopia, trans-humanism, AI, transfert of conscience, VR, family, friendship, love, betrayal
Daedalic Entertainment is a German company aimed at production and distribution of Video Games; it’s specialized in point and click traditional graphic adventures with hand-made illustrations relying heavily on puzzles. Daedalic has always paid a lot of attention to the narrative side, although within a traditional and somewhat dated gameplay; its productions are generally characterized by a low budget that manifests itself with graphics and animations not at the state of the art. Nevertheless, the specialized critics have always appreciated the quality of hand illustrations and stories and how the latters are integrated with the point and click mechanics. I refer you to the Wikipedia page to see the numerous Daedalic productions.
I’m witnessing a rapid evolution of Daedalic titles in the last two years. The first game that has pleasantly surprised me is The Pillars Of The Earth (2017), an interactive reduction of Ken Follett‘s famous historical novel. Basically with this title Daedalic merges the trends of modern narrative games, interactive drama and visual novels, with the mechanics of point & click graphic adventures. The result is an interactive narrative experience that invests heavily on the artistic and expressive features, and that knows how to be modern and even immersive, despite budget is low compared to the ambition of the project.
Daedalic has made the biggest leap with State Of Mind (2018), which is a 3D interactive drama, similar to the titles by Telltale (TheWalking Dead) and Dontnod (Life Is Strange). You are faced to cyberpunk title for adult and mature audience, set in a futuristic Berlin that recalls the urban architecture of the two Blade Runner movies. From a thematic point of view you find the typical contents of cyberpunk genre spread by writers such as Philip K. Dick, W. Gibson, B. Sterling, J. Ballard, by directors like Cronenberg, by movies like Matrix; there are also evident topics, music and design references to Deus Ex: Human Revolution; you find even some science fiction themes already seen in SOMA. The style of the plot recalls the movies by Christopher Nolan, quoted in the name of the protagonist, the freelance journalist Richard Nolan. SoM‘s starting point is similar to that of Memento: the protagonist has lost some of his memories and has to rebuild his recent past. For this reason you often play long flashbacks that help you to clarify the story; the latter, despite being intricate, does not show signs of smearing, and mantains consistency and plausibility from beginning to end; obviously within the science-fiction context, which however has considerable scientific basis. I’m not going into details; being a narrative game, I let you experience and discover the intricate plot by yourself; on the contrary it maybe useful to summarize contents.
SoM talks about trans-humanism, artificial intelligence, androids and robots, virtual reality, download and upload of “consciences”, but also about love, betrayal, friendship, family; obviously it is set in a dystopian future that turns out to magnify the anguishes of our present, a future dominated by technology where privacy no longer exists and people’s lives are rigidly controlled and bent to government and corporations interests also by means of manipulated mass media. Personally I do not perceive technology as a threat; I am more worried about inequalities and concentration of power. By the way, technology can effectively become an instrument of domination in the hands of few people; this is precisely the message that shines through most of the cyberpunk works, including this one. I think the contrast between the fascination of futuristic technology and social dystopia is the reason for the success of the cyberpunk genre. This pessimistic view of the future and of technology has something romantic and could be seen as an ideological limit; but it also helps to be critical and vigilant towards our present and to balance the blind faith in progress, a positivist ideological excess to be avoided, which often hides elitist interests.
Daedalic with State Of Mind has made a remarkable leap not only for the definitive overcoming of the point and click genre, but above all for the modernity of the narrative mechanics. It seems developers to have read my reflections on interactive narration that I wrote long time ago and recently updated here and here! The narration-videogames relationship is a very debated and complex issue which I promise I will write of again. This review of State of Mind is still a good opportunity to come back to it. In fact, the more I analyze the subject, the more I realize that, as I had already concluded, there is no theoretical incompatibility between narration and interactivity, between artistic expression of contents and Video Games. The narrative and expressive evolution of the medium is already a reality, State Of Mind proves it; certainly there are obstacles, but they are about to be overcome. They are essentially two.
- The conservatism of industry and consumers: the most widespread and popular idea of Video Game tends to remain strictly ludic, linked to challenges, to a disengaged, “gymnic”, “instinctive” entertainment. This leads to story traditionally confined in cut scenes that are just intervals between one challenge and another; the separation between narration and interactivity is clear, just like saying that if you want to tell stories you have to rely on Cinema, interactivity is geared only to playful challenges (puzzles, fightings, shootings, etc.). This is clearly a limited vision: why should interactivity be limited to traditional ludic and challenging mechanics? There is no reason, any resistance to expansion of virtual interactive experiences is only sign of conservatism and closed mentality. And we come to the other obstacle.
Technological, financial and creative limits. Narration requires interactions between characters and between the latters and the game world to be very varied and complex, more and more similar to those of our real experience, not just linear and playful like the traditional ones (shooting, fighting, solving puzzles, walking, collecting items, etc.). All this implies a cost in terms of time and money and can find limits in processing, programming, development tools, interactive techniques, game interfaces (controllers, headsets, etc.), etc. As authors search more and more for expressive and narrative language in Video Games, more and more innovative tools, algorithms, techniques and mechanics are requested. It is clear that it is an in-progress process that needs time and resources. An expressive language of Video Games have to emerge, it is already happening; this is the task of artists and creative people; at the same time it is necessary to develop techniques and technologies capable of supporting that language. In a nutshell, replacing cut scenes with complex interactive experiences where the player moves forward the story in real time by means of complex interactions, it is not so immediate and has a cost. At first it is possible to use the existing mechanics and techniques for expressive and narrative purposes, but sooner or later we’ll need new adaptive algorithms, advanced AI, new graphic and physics engines, new game interfaces, etc.
The limit of State Of Mind lies in the budget, not so high to allow developers to overshadow cut scenes, especially in the ending and in some other highlights of the story. However, it is a title that despite the limits of budget makes a clever and successful use of already known mechanics and techniques for narrative purposes and also introduces interesting language solutions that underline the interactive side of narration; the result is an experience where interactivity masters, except in the ending. It represents a remarkable transition point within the narrative genre, to be matched with higher-budget titles such as those mentioned above, not to be underestimated for its poor packaging. It’s true that the low poly graphics and the scarce animations of the characters cannot fully satisfy, but I strongly suggest to overcome this superficial impact and not to miss this beautiful interactive experience.
Let’s see the specific elements that make the title valuable. State of Mind makes wide and intelligent use of multiplicity of avatars. You are not only controlling the main protagonist, you put yourself in the shoes of a large number of key characters; in this way SoM manages to give an evident depth to the interactive story. You are not only controlling human avatars, but also robots, drones and even cameras and lasers in the most fascinating sequences. This multiplicity of points of view makes the narrative experience very rich and varied; consequently even the interactive mechanics are varied, different for each of the avatars mentioned; they allow you to better relate with characters and game world, reaching greater complexity than in other more traditional titles. That’s why State of Mind turns out to be more interactive than the average of traditional titles, including mainstream ones that are often limited to the linear game mechanics mentioned above. Interactive mechanics of SoM are often deliberately oriented to challenges and action; players used to more traditional titles will find a certain familiarity and will not get bored. The multiplicity of avatars fits perfectly the need to tell story in real time with an interactive approach and not passively, just by means of cut scenes; in fact, you can play numerous flashbacks and reconstructions of past events that will gradually shed light on the intricate affair; mechanics introducing flashbacks are very interesting, a sort of 3D puzzles whose cards are fragments of memories of the protagonist. In flashbacks, you can collect informations in real time, moving the story forward, experiencing the drama on your skin. This is not Cinema, but precisely Video Game in its most general meaning, not just ludic, as stated here.
But the merits of SoM do not end here; developers were really skilled at cleverly exploiting both traditional and narrative mechanics already experienced in previous games, managing to provide an admirable and meaningful synthesis of narrative language useful for the evolution of the medium. The interactive experience is enriched by many challenges and tasks. For example, you have to compose a newspaper article, a ploy already used in Attentat 1942 and 11-11: MemoriesRetold and probably in other previous titles that now I cannot remember. You can play piano through the controller with a really effective mechanic; in fact you use the left hand for bass and chords by means of the arrow keys, the right hand for the melody by pressing the front buttons, and you can change register with the back keys: with a little effort the result will be very pleasant. I found myself playing the piano for more than ten minutes in a row thanks to this mechanic. Such interactive experience is not an end in itself; the music you play varies according to the instrument, the avatar and the location, underlining important differences and expressive features within the game world. The latter also presents multiplicity, variety and meaningful sharp contrasts; I cannot say more, no spoiler here.
There are several sessions where you have to perform simple but intriguing deductive investigations by linking collected documents. Another merit of the game is not to entrust important informations for the understanding of story to long and boring documents, as it often happens in more traditional games. Documents contain a few essential lines; you can find most of the informations useful for understanding the intricate affair within flashbacks and numerous multiple choice dialogues. The latter is a mechanism that cannot miss in any narrative title. Although the interface through which you select the choices is really poor, the expressive richness of the dialogues and the value of their content are unquestionable. You will find yourself faced with the classic choices to which the Telltale titles have accustomed us; choices may not always have macroscopic consequences on story, opening no doors to alternative scenes, on the contrary as it happens in Quantic Dream titles (Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, Detroit Become Human); nevertheless they’ll give you not indifferent moral and emotional thrills. However, in the ending you can find crucial choices bringing considerable consequences on the outcome of the whole affair and on the fate of entire communities, in particular on the relationships and the future of the protagonists. Many dialogues take place through a communication system that projects the 3D holograms of your interlocutors into the scene; such conversation mechanic is very apt, it gives greater interactivity to dialogues.
I have particularly appreciated the scenes where you can drive drones to explore the environment and gather valuable informations by leaking some conversations, a very effective and intriguing narrative trick. Developers have been very careful to give as much as possible an interactive connotation to the experience and not to reduce it to a succession of cut scenes. In one of the most original scene, you have to set the environment for the next cut scene you will be protagonist of! You can choose different type of lighting (at sunset, at night, etc.), the songs and the points where you want place the speakers, the light effects, laser beams, artificial fog, light spheres etc. etc. This sort of mini-game is perfectly integrated within the narration and the relational dynamics of the characters! Another highlight that deserves our attention is the sequence of virtual sex played by avatar Lydia. Alternation of cut scenes and multiple choice actions and dialogues creates a surreal sequence with a sharp pace, very incisive from an aesthetic and thematic point of view, able to steal your attention and induce deep reflections. Congratulations to the authors!
Of course there are even a few defects, apart from the poverty of animations and graphics. In the ending, cut scenes prevail on interactive storytelling; the player is limited to take choices from time to time. Fortunately, these choices are really crucial and able to generate a state of high tension in the player, otherwise you could have exchanged the ending for a cinematic sequence. I cannot fail to point out missed opportunities, even if I am aware of budget limits; we must not forget that Daedalic is not a big entertainment company, but an independent small-medium sized company oriented towards a niche of the gaming market. I would have liked so much to drive the flying car, which resembles the one of the last Blade Runner movie, instead of observing it passively in cut scenes. During conversations you do not have the possibility to move your avatars or the camera, on the contrary of what happens in The Last Of Us and Half Life 2. There is one mechanic totally missing: QTE (Quick Time Events); a few of them would have been useful for giving variety to interactivity; we are accustomed to them thanks to games like Shenmue and the aforementioned titles by Quantic Dream and Telltale. There are very few “scripted scenes”, “guided” scenes where player’s control is limited to a few elements; they are invaluable for melting narration and interactivity. A farsighted example is What Remains Of Edith Finch, where player can swing, cut fish heads, control kites or toys, etc. This technique is very important. It is not necessary for the player to always have complete control of avatars in free 3D space; often it is enough that player can change the status of few elements according to the narrative and expressive needs, such to keep interactivity and immersion high; at the same time player can move story forward and enjoy expression of deep contents. Interactive narration, interactive art. Another example that comes to my mind is the march for the rights of androids in Detroit: Become Human.
I am tempted to imagine a scripted scene, just to make you understand what I mean and the narrative and interactive potential of such technique. Imagine a first person view, you are sitting at the table in a coffee room and you have an opened newspaper covering you and separating you from the rest of the environment; you only see your arms and the newspaper; but you can move the newspaper in all directions, lower or raise and browse it by means of the controller; every time you lower the newspaper you can focus your attention on people sitting at nearby tables by zooming with the triggers; in this way even the voices of spied people will be more evident and understandable. Here’s the way to put players in the shoes of detective, quite different than passively watching noir movies! Coming back to SoM, it has a few scripted scenes when you control lasers and cameras; they are aimed at challenges more than narrative; btw they make interactivity more interesting and are very welcome.
In conclusion I highly recommend the game for serious story and mature contents and for excellent narrative and interactive solutions. From an emotional point of view it could be a little more engaging, nevertheless there are a lot of scenes glueing you to the screen; the intricate and intriguing story stimulates to investigate and go deep until the end. Another peculiarity: on the contrary to what the previous narrative titles have accustomed us, SoM is not an episodic game, it’s not organized in chapters, it starts and ends in about 10 hours without interruption. Do not miss it! If Daedalic will have a good economic return from this game it is possible that in the future we will see other innovative narrative titles with even higher budgets! Let’s support expressive art in Video Games and the developers who dare!
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