Before the advent of military first person shooters, gaming’s narrative well was firmly entrenched in the dystopian/alternate history subgenre of fiction. Starting with the release of System Shock in 1994, dystopia games have influenced some of the most important titles in gaming history; including Half-Life, Portal, Deus Ex and, of course, Bioshock. Its influences are still felt today in titles such as Dishonored and the reboot of Prey. And its influences can even be seen in the EVN sphere with titles like Analogue: A Hate Story and Solstice. However, those influences are limited.
Both Analogue and Solstice have certain inspirational points from System Shock (and really Bioshock), but those inspirational points come from a more visual and atmospheric mindset. What is often left out though are the philosophical themes and, most importantly, the horror. The Mind’s Eclipse by Mind’s Eclipse Interactive (I think? That’s the only official name I could find for the group) looks to fill that gap and the demo shows that we could be in for quite a ride.
At the heart of the Mind’s Eclipse is a classic start for this type of game: the main character, John Campbell wake up in a hospital on the verge of collapse, filled with dead bodies and no real clue of who John is are. From there, you meet an AI called L who wants to get out as badly as John do. From there, we’re dropped into a world dead set on making you doubt both John and L and masterfully builds tension between them as neither can really trust the other.
For John that comes with a bit of narrative dissociation which is a dangerous play on the developer’s part. There are a handful of ways to give the audience information the main character doesn’t know. It’s a trigger most writers don’t pull because half of the fun of the main character not knowing something is creating a mystery around it. If it’s going to happen though, most writers approach giving their audiences such information through either subtly hinting towards the larger truth or by lying to the audience about the information they’re getting.
The best example I can give for the former is the film Inception. While it has many narrative threads, the biggest one was that Cobb never fully trusted that he was awake. He constantly hints at how important distinguishing between real life and the dream space is and as they go deeper, the tension grows because of how important his distinction has become for us. In the end, his ability to let that obsession go serves as the film’s coda and the final shot of the spinning totem puts the audience into Cobb’s shoes: daring us to either accept what we see or obsession over the distinction between reality and dreams. But it simply would not have worked without the subtle narrative hinting that was placed all along the way.
Same goes with the latter half: just flat out lying to your audience. For those who don’t know Knights of the Old Republic is my favorite game. Throughout that game, we’re told about the recent history of the galaxy that is in the midst of a war between the Sith Empire headed by Malak and the Republic. You were told from the beginning that the main character was a noble soldier working to fight against the Sith, but by the midway point of the game you realize that’s a lie. All the horrors of the war that player witnesses were set in motion by the main character who is revealed to be the previous leader of the Sith; Darth Revan. From there, your interactions with the world change because your identity has fundamentally changed because of the player has gone from deciding their place in the universe to deciding whether or not they want to revert back to their old self or embrace a new future.
These areas seem to be where The Mind’s Eclipse are going to operate in. We get a fair bit of information about John and his potentially late wife throughout the demo. The problem is that we don’t know if any of its true. Between what we see in the hospital, the flashbacks and the quotation inserts, we’re never really sure if we want to know who John Campbell is. The same goes for L. Just as we’re getting used to her accompanying us, John sees graffiti explicitly warning us not to trust her. This gives the game something that other titles fail at: a sense of paranoia. We don’t know who or what the trust, so the audience moves forward in hope of finding answers and easing the uncomfortably atmosphere.
The atmosphere is the second star of the demo. There is a schizophrenic quality to the entire presentation that is made even more uncomfortable for the audience when you realize John’s view of the world is digitized. Everyone in this world is modified through cybernetics and it would make sense for his sight to be digitized. However, there are ways to present this to make it feel more natural to the world setting: Ghost in the Shell is an example of that. Here though, it feels decidedly unnatural. What you can interact with in the environment pixelates as you scroll over it, there are loading spikes when reading through personal journal entries, and even the sketchy art style itself keeps the player from fully immersing themselves in this world. In any other title, it would be a detractor. Here it builds on the overall uneasiness the game builds.
And the dead bodies everywhere don’t help with that either.
Last but not least there is the major conflict in the background. The world of the Mind’s Eclipse seems to be working towards an event called, ironically enough the ‘eclipse’. We’re not sure exactly what it is, but it seems to be tied to the larger government and religion in the game; all of which seems to push its citizens become cyborgs. Several journals we see note that it’s a crime to remove one’s implants: something which seems to be a rebellion point at the hospital John wakes up in.
Where it goes from there, I don’t know. The fact that it feels inspired by the Unitologist religion from Dead Space gives a much more oppressive air and could lead to a very heavy narrative moving forward. It can also be easily subverted since we cannot trust John and L, which naturally feeds into distrusting whatever conflict is happening just outside of the hotel. Either way is intriguing and I want to see how it unfolds and how it will feed into the story of John Campbell.
Overall, I’m very impressed with The Mind’s Eclipse. It can still be a stagnant affair if it isn’t managed well, but the atmosphere and narrative structure is fantastic. One thing I am interested in is that there was a gun in the hospital that we couldn’t pick up before the end of the demo. I’m curious to see if this will have a limited exploration mechanic where, if we can find a way to ensure our oxygen supply, we can go back and get that gun. If so, WHY. The game already allows for limited inventory and different tools, in this case a laser cutter, to get through obstacles. So, it’ll be interesting to see if that is followed up on. Other than that, I’m just looking forward to Eclipse and whatever comes with it.
For more information about The Mind’s Eclipse, go here! JP3 OUT!