In Sound Mind Review
There is an inordinate number of telephones in In Sound Mind—along dingy, winding corridors, in abandoned shopping malls, and within dilapidated offices. Once every few moments they’ll ring, the voice on the other end sneering at you like an infantile school bully. “If I were you I wouldn’t go down the elevator,“ the presence taunts. Far from being unnerving, however, these calls break up the game’s taut tension and perilous thrills; I imagine the enigmatic caller rubbing their hands in anticipation the moment I pick up on their intricately scattered trail of breadcrumbs, and then frantically calling me to mock my incompetence. It’s nothing short of hilarious.
But In Sound Mind feels like a different sort of psychological horror game, in that it doesn’t strive for scares as much as it sought to involve you in the unravelling of its journey, which may be—or may not—be frightening. For the most part, it’s hardly so. Cheap scares are infrequent, and the ghastly presences that permeate its levels are more languid than antagonistic; you largely learn to navigate your surroundings with them, instead of being alarmed by their proximity.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any immediate danger, but rather that horror often isn’t the point of the game. Instead, In Sound Mind is about retracing the events that brought you here, where you’re stuck in an inescapable labyrinth of islands, alcoves and chambers. It’s about figuring out terrible truths, and it’s about revelling in sordid acts of voyeurism, as you sleuth around in search of much-needed answers.
In Sound Mind begins with you waking up in the dark, dank basement of an apartment building. As you make your way up, hand-scrawled notes and other memos offer some clues to your next steps, while obstacles—like noxious, prismatic fumes leaking out of industrial-sized canisters, ridiculously durable police tapes, and miasma of inexplicable darkness—clog up narrow passageways. You’ll eventually pick up a few handy items along the way to disperse these, like a flashlight or a mirror shard that doubles up as a knife. On the surface, these seem like a typical excursion through once-unfamiliar environments like most games; the more tools you unlock, the more progress you’ll make.
The devil, however, is in the tapes strewn across the levels. These are pre-recorded sessions you had with your patients as a therapist named Desmond. Playing these back on a cassette player will transport you to morbid locations that are supposedly most intimate to the patients, but as with horror conventions, these are also warped to an ominous degree. In one chapter is a dilapidated shopping mall haunted by a spirit who can’t bear the sight of her face, with mannequins materialising—sometimes behind you—at opportune moments. Another is a lighthouse haunted by an apparition, emitting an incandescent beam of red light that could burn you. In essence, these levels are made up of a few straightforward platforming segments and some frankly interesting puzzles—one involves you fending off a poltergeist with your mirror shard, which you can only perceive through looking at the mirror like some sort of invisible Medusa. Once you’ve done with these chapters, you’ll be teleported back to the dingy apartment you started in, in search of another tape.
More sympathetic than most
It may seem uncharacteristic for horror games, but this soon becomes a comfortable routine for In Sound Mind. Exploration of these tapes serves as introspective exercises for Desmond, as he reflects on his past conversations with his patients, which sets the tone for the game’s discussion of mental illness. Rather than being outright demonised as unknowable, defective boogeymen, the patients are treated by Desmond with empathy. This stands as a bit of a contrast from In Sound Mind’s own promotional materials, which wax lyrical a lot about the unsettling terror of being trapped in your own mind, as it appears to embrace horror’s most harmful tendencies about mental health stigma. The distinct lack of a sanity meter—like that of Amnesia: The Dark Descent—is also a welcomed change, nor does Desmond suffer from the visible signs of duress that plague so many other horror games, such as cloudy vision and spooky hallucinations.
That’s not to say that In Sound Mind does everything right. The sneering presence on the other end of the line is wont to sprout some ableist lines—but you should just ignore the damn calls, anyway—and ultimately, the game’s most imminent threats are still the physical manifestations of mental trauma. In Sound Mind tries to foreground some of its spooks on surviving these dangers, which retreads well-worn horror grounds. It’s a bit disappointing to see that In Sound Mind doesn’t quite transcend outdated horror tropes, even though it has the potential to. But that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments that make it more intriguing than many contemporary titles: its thought-provoking puzzles, and its attempts to tell an engaging story without unnecessarily scaring you to death first.