Just a month or so ago, we attended LudoNarraCon, a virtual convention all about narrative driven games. We saw a lot of great stuff at the convention, including Mind Scanners, a game where you’ll be a citizen of The Structure, a shadowy, threatening government that forces you to do their bidding or be cast out and left to die. Your job, whether you like it or not, is to be the arbiter of everyone’s sanity, working for almost no money for the same system that’s taken your daughter away from you, and is holding her ransom until you prove yourself more worthy–if they’ll even let her go then. Life in The Structure for you is a neverending greyness of work, sleep and anxiety that you won’t earn enough that day to survive the next. Then, there’s all the anxiety that comes with having to decide if someone’s sane or not. Your role as a Mind Scanner makes you somewhat of a pariah, but you have no choice but to do the job.
If it sounds bleak, it’s probably one of the bleakest games I’ve ever played, and that’s saying something. Mind Scanners nails “dystopia” in a way that’s hard to emulate. The system is crushing, your job is not only difficult, but morally grey, and you’re constantly fighting against the clock and scraping for kapok (cash) while also attempting to find out more about where your daughter is and how you can get her back without arousing the suspicions of the people you work for.
Gameplay wise, Mind Scanners is made up of a few simple parts. Everything is broken up into days, with your goal to be to make it to the next one. You have 200 “time” each day to travel through The Structure, scan citizens and treat them. Each night before you sleep, you’ll owe the system 7 kapok for use of their equipment. Everything takes time, and time moves extremely fast. Travelling sets you back between 15 and 115 time. Once you get to a patient, you’ll first have to scan them to determine their sanity. Each person you meet has begun to act a little strangely, and your job is to suss out those who need treatment from those who do not.
It’s surprisingly difficult to determine whether someone’s just having a hard time or is actually a danger to society. While it doesn’t really matter to The Structure if you treat a sane person or what happens to anyone at all, you’ll find it doesn’t pay to blindly do what they tell you. Your daughter’s life is still on the line, and there are people in the Structure who can help you find her, wrest control away from the Constructor and his men, and tear down the system.
When you first encounter a patient, you’ll typically mind scan them. This “scan” mechanic is one of the first areas of the game that I noticed was a bit problematic. To scan a patient, you submit them to a sort of Rorschach test where they then tell you things about themselves and their problems. After they make a statement you determine which of the multiple choice answers most fits what they said. At first I thought this would be pretty easy as it leans towards “whatever a corrupt system of government would hate–free thinking, challenging authority” etc, but it turns out it’s rather esoteric at times, and scanning takes up some of your time, so failing an answer can cost you.
Once you scan the patient, you determine whether they’re sane or not. If they are insane, they need treatment, which you’ll begin. If they’re sane, they’re free to go and you collect your measly 3 kapok. Having listened to a whole lot of Rage Against the Machine in my life, at first, I tried totally bucking the system and declaring everyone sane, since they were only being manipulated by the system, man. That backfired on me though, as some of the folks you’ll meet are legitimately dangerous without treatment and may harm you, themselves, or others.
Treatment for insane folks is the meat of the game, and consists of a bunch of mini games that appear in the game as different devices you use. These are generally horrible, and some are based on real life therapies for the “insane.” If that has you a little uncomfortable that’s exactly where Mind Scanners wants you. Types of insanity are shown with various symbols, and you’ll need to use different devices to treat each one, switching quickly between them as time ticks down extremely quickly.
Some of the mini games are pretty intuitive, while others are not. There’s a manual for scanners that you can refer to but sometimes, it’s not that helpful. One of the most frustrating games I found was one where you manipulate what I hope is jello (but probably isn’t) in 3 little vacuum chambers. The instructions say to turn the dial until you hit the “sweet spot” and nothing more. It seems like this means they all have to be vibrating as quickly as possible, and that seemed to be the answer, but it was inconsistent if that’d net me the win every time.
Other games have you do things like highlight words in a word scramble, which represent the patient’s thoughts, and then keep the good ones while erasing the bad, or turning a dial to use the patient’s own throat to voice (against their will, mind you) the negative things you want to purge. I mentioned this in the preview but it’s pretty uncomfortable work, by design. Treatment also means the potential to harm a patient, too, either by stressing them til they can’t take it anymore, or worse, completely removing their personality. Mind you, The Structure doesn’t care about the patient losing their individuality–I think they’d prefer it. But there are other forces at work.
Not long into the game you’ll be contacted by Moonrise, an organization who says they can help you locate your daughter. You can choose whether to work with them or not, but they seem to have juicy leads that could help you find her. They’ve got rules too though, including not frying a person’s personality, and if you run afoul of that, they’ll cut you off, leaving you to fend for yourself within the system.
The narrative is extremely interesting and the tension is real, with the constant balance of resources and time always ticking down so quickly. Unfortunately, where Mind Scanners loses me is its actual balance. I understand what developer The Outer Zone is going for here–the systems in the game should feel oppressive, treatment should feel icky and possibly confusing. However, it’s a little too oppressive and too punishing. At a certain point, no matter what playthrough I was on and how well I’d been doing at managing money vs. time, I felt completely stuck, inevitably running out of money, usually because in order to preserve a patient’s personality, I’d have to run extra modules or pause treatment. Not doing this, though, would get me cut off from Moonrise. There’s an option to rewind back to any point in your current run, and that is definitely helpful, but the bottlenecks seemed endless, and it was often extremely frustrating to progress past them once you landed yourself around Day 20. Insanity types got more complex, you didn’t have enough of the secondary resource, science, to develop the more advanced treatment devices, and even if you got a time boost or money boost, neither seemed to help enough.
This led to a prolonged period of frustrated tedium, running the same days over and over. It seems like time goes too quickly and errors are too costly, leading to a sort of death spiral that’s hard to get out of, and ultimately serves to wreck my enjoyment of the game while it’s happening. If it was there to create tension, it overstays its welcome, and with no difficulty settings, it means some people may never break through that wall–and that doesn’t serve Mind Scanners fantastic narrative very well.
Overall, Mind Scanners had its hooks in me, even when I was super frustrated with it. It has the appeal of a mystery or action film, where you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop and that tension really serves its story. Meanwhile, while done in a retro style, it’s also remarkably pretty, with a minimal but interesting soundtrack backing up the action. Characters are memorable, if strange, and the threat seems real. With a few tweaks, I honestly think Mind Scanners would stand out, but as it is, I feel like it definitely needs some balance tweaks before it reaches its full potential.
Mind Scanners releases today on Steam.
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