Fractured Minds, a first-person puzzle game created by Emily Mitchell, has managed to place me in something of a unique position as a reviewer. For the first time, I am faced with a game that is not intended to be enjoyed. Or at least, not in the traditional sense of enjoying a video game.
Let me add some clarity to that. Despite carrying a few of the same trinkets long associated with puzzling games of old, these tried and tested methods of moving from one room to another are playing a distant second fiddle to what is actually an atmospheric, unsettling and hugely enlightening journey through various elements of mental health. We have something here where the goal actually transcends the physical act of pushing buttons on a controller to reach a glorious victory or dismal defeat finale. Fractured Minds is about opening eyes.
You see, its creator has endured her own struggles on the same journey in her real day-to-day life having suffered from severe anxiety. The solace she found in games development paved the way for Fractured Minds and later saw her scoop the 2017 BAFTA Young Games Designer award.
What this has left me with as player and reviewer is an interesting dilemma. You see, as a gaming experience, we have around twenty to thirty minutes of play from start to finish, at which point it is likely there will be an additional 1000 Gamerscore in the account – the points fall like autumn leaves in a hurricane here – and no overwhelming desire to tread the path again. However, as an emotional and insightful experience, Fractured Minds hits hard. That aforementioned insight a player gets into the turmoil, unease and claustrophobic nature of mental health is genuinely eye-opening. For a game built on such simple foundations in terms of looks and gameplay, this is some serious achievement.
Based upon the above, what I want to do is something I have never done before. I want to look at the game from two differing perspectives. One angle to study Fractured Minds as a game. The nuts and bolts, the ideas and concepts we accept as traditional gaming standards. The other, to look at the experience away from the puzzling and to focus instead how it impacts upon emotions.
This could be different.
The game then. The reality with Fractured Minds is that if you are seeking a puzzler first, something to truly tax the grey matter, then this is not the game for you. Each moment designed to give the brain a workout barely has it breaking a sweat and if anything feels a bit like an afterthought. Everything is incredibly basic. The general rule is – enter a room, find a key/code, move on. There are six levels in total and I swear one of them was ushering me out the door almost as soon as I had entered. There is no gameplay driven tension, no jeopardy and nothing to really get the gaming infused juices pumping.
Beyond the puzzling, there is little else happening from a gaming perspective. A drop of room exploration here, a hint of stealth there, a short-lived and equally jeopardy free final battle, but all is so very light and largely unengaging.
Graphically it is an equally simple, unintrusive affair. Whilst this won’t turn many passing heads, it actually allows the game’s claustrophobic levels room to breathe, which is ironic. The different aspects of mental health and the struggles within that each level brings have been captured in such a way that playing Fractured Minds is never an easy experience. There are no smiles to be had here. Instead, we are taken to places of discomfort and unquiet as we view an outside world darkened by inner turmoil. The monster that lurks in the corners and shadows is genuinely unsettling despite the lack of graphical shine and once seen is not easily forgotten. Believe me, I’ve tried.
The game flies by from start to finish with little replay value. There are some nice touches hidden inside the package such as what I took to be a little nod to the book Coraline where players find themselves briefly inside a snow globe or a birthday party that takes a dark turn, but nothing that has enough draw to demand a return visit.
If we were looking at Fractured Minds as a game that, let’s say, involved our protagonist traversing these short, simple levels in a bid to defeat a monster from the pages of fantasy or horror writing, then we would be faced with something doomed to failure. There just is not enough game here to warrant high praise.
However, Fractured Minds is cut from something altogether different. The fact that this is a game built from personal experience of mental health and that it opens the door for others to gain an insight into what this means is truly something quite unique and, in all honesty, terrifying.
This area is where the game both shines and blankets the world in darkness. To experience the individual rooms and levels in the knowledge that this unsettling place is a reality for some, really has a huge impact when playing. The impact is, in fact, of such power that all the issues I had in regards to Fractured Minds as a gaming experience were forgotten. I found myself mesmerised by places, people and events that left me on edge, unable to relax and almost unwilling to venture any deeper. That is a brilliant thing.
This game transcends all the norms of gaming. It is more of an education in mental health carried out from the perspective of someone who has endured such struggles first hand. It is an emotional trip through the black and grey, the shadows and eventually, the first sliver of light. The game has a positive message but travels some dark places to get there.
Where this leaves us as players is in a similar dilemma as to where I began this. So, how to conclude?
The truth is that to truly appreciate Fractured Minds and leave the game having been rewarded and touched by its content, it is imperative that you approach it in the knowledge that the actual gameplay and puzzling is entirely secondary to the experience and the message. Not that the puzzling is completely pointless, it’s just heavily weighted to the simplistic.
If you can do that, what awaits is wholly unnerving and uncomfortable. Fractured Minds is an insight intended to open eyes wide to the daily turmoil mental health can raise. From the half-light of paranoia to the all too bright light of anxiety, this is a game that makes its mark, and in my opinion, makes those who play it all the richer for having done so.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.