As gamers, or more broadly as consumers of fiction of any stripe, we’re used to living rich internal lives.
But what if other people could step directly into that inner life and tinker around? What if your mind was a sieve that other people could pass through, into and through, and leave their mark in dramatic and direct fashion directly on your psyche? Or, perhaps more importantly, what if you were able to plunge into the minds of others, confront their personal demons and share their more intimate challenges, and help them overcome them through direct, immediate intervention?
Asylopole, the upcoming adventure game created almost entirely by a single designer, seeks to answer that question.
You play as psychologist and mind-delver Adam Murdock, and your task is to rove the minds of the patients at a giant asylum and attempt to help them overcome their illnesses by directly confronting their personal nightmares.
The asylum is set in the center of a massive, sprawling metropolis, a near future dystopia dominated by intrusive social media technologies and, by all accounts, incredibly delicious burgers. The city is ominously covered by a giant dome that’s centered on and propped up by the asylum, the central placement and prominence of which has disturbing implications for the social fabric of the city around it.
A link to the past
Asylopole hearkens back to adventure game traditions established by giants in the genre, games like #MonkeyIsland, #KingsQuest and others of its ilk, promising a non-linear storyline punctuated by puzzles and mini-games to keep players engaged and propel the story.
The primary character looks less like a medical professional and more like a superspy that’s leapt right off the pages of an Ian Fleming novel, which makes me wonder exactly what role the asylum’s employees play in this society. Are they doctors in the traditional mold, the archetype we’re familiar with in the real world, or are they in fact a kind of mental special agents, trained infiltrators whose milieu is the interior of the mind rather than foreign espionage?
The game’s art design is also evocative of classic point and click adventure games, with a hand drawn, cartoonish style that’s bright and vibrant but serves well to immerse players in its bizarre and slightly surreal setting. But it’s also littered with neon signage and the sort of imagery you’d expect from a dystopian cyberpunk setting, which adds a darker dimension to the game’s tone and suggests as yet unrevealed dimensions of the game’s background.
Character design suggests a world where transhumanism and extreme body modification is common, and where medical science has taken massive leaps forward, evidenced by a shopkeeper who is little more than a human head preserved in a tank of some mysterious fluid.
The mouth of madness
Some of the assets the creator has released (or teased in trailers) suggest some fourth-wall breaking elements that further push the otherworldly sensation of exploring the interior of another’s person’s mind; error messages intrude on gameplay, suggesting that the game has crashed or that you’ve encountered a bug, but then the error window transforms into a cackling, mocking mouth and you’re shunted back to gameplay.
These moments call to mind the sanity effects from #EternalDarkness, when the screen would occasionally go black as your character edger further and further towards madness, or bugs would being crawling across the screen, or the game would turn down the volume while displaying a fake green volume bar. The effectiveness of those jarring moments has stuck with me, years later, and I fully endorse a modern game emulating them, assuming these sorts of effects are used sparingly and tastefully.
Asylopole looks like a promising throwback to some of the adventure games I remember fondly from my youth, tucked inside a shell of modern design elements. Here’s hoping it delivers on its significant potential.