In Mind Scanners, you play as a nameless psychiatric worker tasked with ‘curing’ those that the monolithic, dystopian Structure views as deviant. If the satisfaction of a job well done isn’t enough motivation for you, there’s also the small fact that they’re holding your daughter hostage. With your limited time each day, you’ll visit, diagnose, and cure patients, with the fear of eviction always hanging over your head. If your overseers ever find you lacking your daily maintenance fee of 7 ₭apok, you’ll be exiled, ending the game.
Building on the administrative work of Papers, Please, Mind Scanners’ gameplay loop is a pitch perfect metaphor for its themes. There’s a choice between care and efficiency, between choosing to view the individuals you treat as people, or as paychecks. If you’re quick and ruthless, you might get through a couple of patients in a day, or maybe even squeeze in a third. Of course, you’ll likely erase their personalities while doing so, and probably send at least one into a stress-induced overload.
Showing care means alternating back and forth between treatment and relief, rummaging in your bag of gadgets for devices that restore personality and relieve stress between the ones that simply erase any unwanted personality quirks. It takes longer, it’s much trickier, and if you don’t plan ahead, you’ll find yourself running dangerously low on ₭apok. It’s the right thing to do, of course, although that wouldn’t mean a thing if you didn’t believe in Mind Scanner’s world. There’s enough pathos here – enough humour and bleak, emotional parallels to the way mental health is treated in our own reality – that it’s hard not to see heart in each goofy, impressionistic caricature.
I found myself taking notes and compiling a scrapbook of my favourite patients, each one of which was wonderfully written or just straight up bizarre in the best way. There was the copywriter who installed a cyborg ‘beatnik upgrade’ to make his writing better, but ended up alienating everyone he met by spouting streams of discount-Kerouac gibberish. Relatable. Then there was the guy who donned a rat costume and lived out in the sewers as a self-proclaimed superhero, only to be overwhelmed with disgust when he realised what he’d been eating.
Mind Scanners takes pains to differentiate those with genuine psychological problems from those that The Structure just views as having deviant outlooks. While its portrayals are often heightened for effect, there’s an evident care for the subject matter here. It’s not always easy to engage with, emotionally, but it is always rewarding.
None of this would work as well as it does if there wasn’t such a simple, arcadey pleasure to the design of Mind Scanner’s retro-futuristic odds and ends. Each device boils down to an exercise in pattern matching, memory or timing, but they are all novel and tactile, requiring mastery of a specific puzzle to operate effectively. In a game where the suffocatingly bleak dystopia is primarily relieved by equally dark gallows humour, there’s a simple, childlike joy to operating these Seussian widgets and twiddlers. So much speculative sci-fi can stray too far into the digital, removing some of the tactility and texture from the world, but Mind Scanner’s future is one of twisting pipes, springy buttons, and odd instruments that are delightfully – sometimes uncomfortably – physical.
It took me around four hours to arrive at what I think is the best ending, but I also enjoyed every second of it. Mind Scanners makes the player-friendly choice to let you restart from any day you’ve already played if you mess up, but you could easily self-impose limits here if you wanted a more challenging experience. It’s good for at least one more playthrough of the same length, if you value replaying a game. I’m happy the game was confident enough to end the way it did, rather than dragging things out.