Puzzling around a mysterious world, using the environment itself to solve complex problems – sounds fascinating. Carlos Coronado, the brain behind Warcelona, one of Left 4 Dead 2’s best known user created campaigns, has been plugging away quietly on a completely new independent solo project. MIND: Path to Thalamus, a first person puzzler in which the player manipulates the weather and time to solve mysteries, is the first complete game to be officially released by Coronado, and its fascinating conceit of environmental manipulation sounds intriguing. With the game approved and arriving through Steam Greenlight soon, we chatted with Coronado about how MIND: Path to Thalamus would blow our, well, minds.
“Mind is the story of someone who is lost in life.” Coronado tells us. “I don’t want to spoil the plot itself, but I can say the narrative has three main readings: the tough personal history of the person you are playing as, and two other, less literal thematic interpretations —it is a story about obsession, and, to an extent (although not to the extent of The Stanley Parable) a meta-narrative on the video game medium.”
The main character plays the role of narrator in Mind, lending his thoughts to the situations. “I don’t think he will bore you.” Coronado says. “It’s quite an atypical character, for a protagonist.” The protagonist begins the game looking like the typical tortured Hollywood hero seeking redemption, but Coronado assures us that this develops in a number of unexpected ways as the plot progresses. “I have personal connections to the background of the plot, although not so with the life of the protagonist.” Coronado told us.
Mind takes inspiration from a number of sources. Coronado cites Stephen King’s The Dark Tower as an early literary inspiration for the game, as well as films and shows like Mr Nobody, Mad Men, and True Detective – the latter of which is shaping the development of the script. “I love devouring culture and being shaped by it, so that then I can later shape my own creations.” Coronado said.
While Mind tells a mature story, but not in the stereotypical ways. “It’s not a game for children.” Coronado explained. “I imagine most children would be either bored by it if they don’t get it or traumatized if they do.”
“It’s a mature sort of story, but not in the “gore and swearing” sort of way that ironically attracts children the most. Although there is quite a bit of swearing.”
Mind is a puzzle game about manipulating the world itself. World elements like rain, night, fog, and time – all of which have a visual impact on the environment – must be used creatively to solve intellectually taxing problems. “[M]any puzzle games are a bit like badly designed point-and-clicks;” Coronado explained. “If you wander around and click on everything for long enough, the puzzle will be solved for you. In this game, that really is not the case. It is not a matter of it being difficult (FPS skills or reflexes also don’t come into play), it’s just that in order to progress you’d better think about it.”
“The main puzzles in Mind require quite a bit of large-scale, lateral thinking – the environmental puzzle pieces that you will control interact with each other and you will need to learn how they do it in general and specifically in each scenario. Stumbling upon a solution will not be that easy.”
“I don’t want to lie to anyone: it is a tricky game.” Coronado said. While the first few puzzles are designed as tutorials to ease the player into the mechanics, there are no explicit tutorials. No visual prompts, no written clues, no narrated tutorials – it’s all learned through playing the game. “A big part of my design philosophy is that puzzles shouldn’t feel frustrating nor easy” Coronado explained, “they must be challenging. A real challenge, too… Paying attention to the environment is key.”
Right now, there are “about 30 levels and 40 puzzles” to work your way through. Each puzzle is built on the same environment-changing mechanics, but they are all visually distinct and rely on different interactions between gameplay mechanics. “Think about the game Portal: your main tool is shooting two portals, but the level design makes use of every possibility imaginable. In Mind, even the environment itself changes.” Those environments, while “apparently realistic” and “not particularly stylised”, are designed to be “quite mad and impossible to encounter in real life.”
Mind doesn’t have any visible loading screens – instead the next area streams in during sequences that are designed to play with the player’s mind. “I don’t want to get too much into it, but essentially, while the next level loads, the game takes the opportunity to mind-fuck you a little. For example, you might get into a heavy fog and, by the time you get out of it, the environment has changed radically. That kind of thing.”
Current estimates by Coronado put gameplay length at roughly eight hours. This is, of course, an early average estimate, and Coronado says “it’s difficult to predict how many hours it will take when it depends on intelligence and concentration instead of reflexes and skills. Those who are more adept in this kind of thing will finish it earlier.” Although Mind is a puzzle game, and the answers to those puzzles remain constant, Coronado is peppering his world with little details that players might not notice or fully appreciate the first time around, “but it is after all a puzzle game —the puzzles will remain the same. Maybe a better idea is to replay it a few months down the line, when the solutions for the puzzles are not so fresh in your mind.”
Bringing a game into the world as a one-man dev team is no doubt a challenge – one that Coronado is rising to. The core concept for the game and many of its ideas had been floating around Coronado’s head for about three years, but he didn’t start truly working on Mind until a couple of years ago. “I didn’t want to rush it.” Coronado explained. “More than anything else, working on it at a consistent pace has been the greater challenge.” Coronado told us. “Sometimes I focus on the endgame too much —that is, paying my parents’ mortgage (as in, actually finishing and selling the game). I had to learn to work day by day, trying not to worry about what’s on the horizon, or else it can all be pretty overwhelming.” But being the only core team member isn’t always so bad – “having total control about every decision is a great help to expediting development.” Coronado isn’t completely alone, though. He does have some friends who are helping out “with programming and writing a final script.” Coronado is very grateful for their help, with their involvement in the project “priceless”. “But,” Coronado said, “it is true that, at the end of the day, the weight of the project falls upon me.”
Mind is currently a very undemanding game to run. Coronado is developing the game on a four year old system – one that “wasn’t exactly top-of-the-line back then” – and it’s already running “flawlessly”. There has been some consideration of upgrading to Unreal Engine 4, but Coronado says that at the moment it “seems unlikely” that any upgrade will take place. “The core of the engine is just too different and porting it would entail re-programming everything.” Coronado told us. “Still, you never know.”
There is a distinct possibility that Mind will be coming to next-gen consoles, although Coronado isn’t giving any conclusive answers just yet. “I cannot get too much into it but I can say that I am in contact with them to port the game into their systems.” Most excitingly, “[t]hat includes Sony’s Project Morpheus and Oculus.”
While there is no set release date yet, Mind: Path to Thalamus isn’t too far off, with just the other day Coronado tweeting
@PowerfoolGAME Soon. Maybe in a couple months! And THANK YOU! 😀
— Mind Indie Videogame (@MindVideogame) May 6, 2014
MIND: Path to Thalamus is coming to PC and later Mac through Steam Greenlight, and possibly to Xbox One and PS4 sometime in the future. Thanks very much to Carlos Coronado for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll keep you up to date with all the latest news on Mind as it gets to us.