In the futuristic dystopian reality of The Structure, the minds of citizens are scanned and branded into a camp of either “Sane” and “Insane” which determines their fate. It’s a world where governments rule with an iron fist, and thoughtcrimes are decreed illegal with the threat of banishment for any that dare go against the system.
In Mind Scanners, you play as one of the eponymous scanners who travels the metropolis, visiting patients who have begun expressing views that challenge the status quo of The Structure’s order. This includes people who suffer from delusional thinking to the activists who see through the government’s lies and are now seen as a threat to the system.
Your job as a Mind Scanner is to analyse their minds, diagnose them as “Sane” or “Insane”, with anyone who doesn’t fall in line being banished to The Outer Zone, a location outside of the city that isn’t explicitly detailed but is implied to be a lawless, impoverished land with no government support.
Of course, here in the real world we know those suffering from severe mental illness requires support and care, particularly from the state, but Mind Scanners’ depiction of this totalitarian society outcasts anyone who doesn’t assimilate into the ideals of The Structure. The game is intended as a vehicle for political commentary on this issue of how fascist governments treat its marginalised citizens, but it isn’t perfect.
I’ll begin this by saying that I believe Mind Scanners to be an antifascist story at its heart. It attempts to disillusion you to The Structure’s reality of silencing government critics and the socially vulnerable. The disembodied system mouthpiece that speaks to you throughout the game echoes much of the propaganda you’d find in a modern Tory Britain. It’s a voice that peddles discourse about stability, control, and sovereignty.
But the problem comes in the fact that Mind Scanners employs the suffering of the mentally ill and marginalised groups to motivate you as a player. The whole premise of the story is you’ve reluctantly signed up to become a mind scanner in order to earn money and keep your daughter in care of the state because she’s “shown signs of a highly contagious mental illness”. At the end of each day, money is deducted for maintenance with the threat of being kicked out into the Outer Zone if you can’t pay up.
Meanwhile, the patients you treat during the game suffer from conditions such as psychosis and delusional thinking, and the game uses their suffering as a means to progress through the story. You get paid more for diagnosing them as “Insane” and inflicting potentially-harmful treatments on them to cure them, whereas making a “Sane” diagnosis pays less. But this all means you can’t even play the game with compassion without hitting a game over screen.
There is potential here to tell a nuanced story about the dangers of fascist governments harming the vulnerable, but it’s just too distracting by the awkward gameplay. It doesn’t help that the actual process of treating a patient is also really uncooperative too.
The first phase is the Mindscan, where you read their thoughts and interpret them to find out more about their mental state. When presented with a thought, you have a choice of three answers for how to read it. Despite the nonlinearity of this mechanic though, it ultimately leads you to the same conclusion, as it’s also possible to choose wrong answers that will penalise you. The choice is really an illusion, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any obvious commentary here either. It’s just a bit of an awkward mechanic that doesn’t fully explain itself well, even inside the in-game manual.
Then there’s the second phase: Treatment, which only occurs if you’ve diagnosed the patient as “Insane”. The interface is unfriendly, where you’re presented with a bunch of symbols that represent the patient’s mental state and you have to go through a small group of minigames to eliminate these traits.
Did I mention this section is timed too? The puzzles aren’t exactly difficult, but if you’re like me and struggle with memorisation and matching symbols while under time pressure, they can feel a lot harder than intended to be. It would have been handy for the developer to include some accessibility options here, so you could at least slow or stop the timer to alleviate some of that pressure.
Despite taking a lot of direct inspiration from it, Mind Scanners isn’t going to be the next Papers, Please. Perhaps the story might fare better with people who haven’t experienced severe mental illness in either themselves or a loved one, but there’s very little nuance here besides making people suffer for the sake of suffering. And even putting that aside, I just found the gameplay to be too frustrating that it didn’t really motivate me to continue playing.
Tested on PC
Also available on N/A
Developer The Outer Zone
Publisher Brave At Night
Disclosure a copy of Mind Scanners was provided by Brave At Night