We Create Stuff’s In Sound Mind is the latest in what has been a long line of indie horror games over the past decade. In a post-Amnesia world, the independent scene has taken the spooky reigns from an unsustainable AAA industry that places unreasonable demands on sales expectations for the genre. Horror games fill a similar niche to horror movies—simultaneously comforting and unsettling. Much like cult horror films, In Sound Mind is deeply flawed and hokey in a manner that feels in-sync with genre fanatics’ tastes and expectations.
Paging Therapist Desmond
In Sound Mind‘s psychological underpinnings are fueled by protagonist Desmond’s past. As a therapist, Desmond is thrust into an unusual circumstance, waking up in some hotel basement. After gaining consciousness and making sense of his surroundings, something feels off. The building Desmond finds himself confined to is in a state of disrepair, cluttered by broken windows, flooding, toxic sludge, and pits of darkness.
This building doesn’t exist in a real space. Instead, it acts as some purgatorial space whereby Desmond reflects on himself. In an interesting turn on the patient-therapist dynamic, In Sound Mind‘s narrative uses its patients’ stories to drive Desmond’s self-reflection; his guilt concerning how he handled his most recent patients, as well as the lives they lead after meeting up with Desmond, prompts serious self-doubt.
Each patient’s tale begins as a self-contained chunk of storytelling, but there’s more that connects these tortured souls beyond their association with Desmond. In Sound Mind weaves interesting and morose sub-plots that get muddled by its overarching narrative. The big picture plot isn’t as captivating as the various characters’ inner strife.
That is Some JANK
In Sound Mind straddles the line between legitimately spooky atmosphere and laugh out loud moments; a byproduct of its productions values. Unlike so many other low-budget games, though, its unremarkable presentation carries an unmistakable charm. It’s not low-poly, but it’s not modern or low-end modern either.
Its visual signature emulates the early to mid-2000’s in a striking manner. It looks good enough to imprint the false impression of being attractive if viewed at a glance under specific circumstances. By the same token, it’s also so outdated it provides breathing room for startling abstractions: flickering, unrealistically stark shadows, oddly shaped and simple geometry, pixelated faux-light shafts, chunky textures, and ugly models. Combined with an absurdly low rendering resolution for a next-gen console outputting assets that belong in a 2002-2004 game, In Sound Mind‘s amateurish showing contributes to the atmosphere in a way that’s difficult to describe.
It would have been an awful looking PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game—and yet, it feels right. This works partially because of the unintentional eeriness of its imperfect visuals. The other piece of the puzzle, though, is We Create Stuff’s understanding of their own limitations.
The studio throws in little gags such as the occasionally cartoonish walk/run cycle for the omnipotent stalker character and numerous shadow people. The mostly serious story delving into the deteriorating mental states of Desmond’s patients lets up on occasion, too. There are some absurd lines and voice delivery that can only be described as a hot mess. Crucially, this works because the experience isn’t attempting to ride on the coattails of its campiness.
Variety: In Sound Mind
The jank doesn’t end with its presentation, extending to its varied gameplay scenarios. The game’s structure involves finding each patient’s tapes. After acquiring said tape, Desmond is able to play those recordings back on a cassette player, transporting him to different worlds based on their psyche.
This anthology approach to game design provides a decent amount of variety that circumvents its undercooked mechanics and technical failings. For fear of spoiling too much, each tape’s conceit is used in interesting ways with imaginative puzzles and gameplay scenarios. Each tape takes place in an entirely different setting, introducing a new permanent piece to the player’s inventory’s in addition to unique puzzles based on those settings.
The first tape, for example, involves an anxious woman that struggles with daily tasks in crowded, public spaces. Desmond finds himself in one of the shopping centers she visited one day, using a broken glass shard to ward off said patient’s ghastly representation with the sight of her own face. Within the shopping center, you’ll also need to find and scan various items at check-out lanes equaling different amounts to open registers for coins used elsewhere in the building.
In Sound Mind‘s puzzles are simultaneously inventive and reasonable. The horror genre has an unhealthy relationship with obtuse puzzles, but that isn’t the case here. We Create Stuff manages to craft distinct levels with puzzles making effective use of those environments without steering into “how the hell was someone supposed to figure this out territory”. Even with each tape building off the last, often using inventory acquired from previous levels in addition to the tape-specific items, it’s unlikely most players will get lost.
This is a testament to the team’s design, both funneling players toward the right path and solutions without holding their hand in a condescending manner. Its puzzles and level design hit the sweet spot between slow-paced exploration and brisk pacing.
If it didn’t lean so heavily on this level design with inventive puzzles, combat would weigh the experience down. Whether using the pistol or shotgun, gunplay feels weightless. There’s no sense of player feedback or weight to any bullet fired. Coupled with the mostly uninteresting enemies, which are largely comprised of human-shaped shadow creatures, I found myself rolling my eyes at every encounter. Luckily, We Create stuff chose to de-emphasize the combat, recognizing In Sound Mind‘s strengths.
Charming Independent Horror with In Sound Mind
In Sound Mind encapsulates what it means to be greater than the sum of one’s parts–its disparate elements coalescing to form a simultaneously unsettling and campy horror title. The word experience is often used as a catch-all term for any game with a heavy focus on storytelling or some deeper thematic pull regardless of its success in either pursuit. In Sound Mind, however, earns that moniker. An experience is a piece whose impact can’t be quantified through traditional metrics. Its script isn’t attempting to win any awards and neither is its often on-the-nose symbolism. It’s likely to come and go from the public consciousness, but its undeniable presence is sure to lure in horror fans.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review]