Mindshadow
for Apple II

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Mr Creosote:
Company: Interplay / Activision
Year: 1985
Genre: Adventure
Theme: Mystery / Text-based
Language: English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 425
Review by Mr Creosote (2024-06-15)
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Mindshadow – nothing less than the granddaddy of a genre within adventure games which at one point became so popular that expert players complained about this having become a huge, by that time annoying cliché: the amnesic protagonist. What made it become such a phenomenon?

From the perspective of narrative technique, it is fairly plain to see. Starting the character with amnesia avoids the knowledge gap inherent in the player-protagonist relationship. Without this gimmick, any narrative has to get across a lot of exposition about facts which the protagonist is, or should be already aware of. Just to get it across to the player. The protagonist being the recipient's representative in the world, what is the reason for these information dumps even to happen, though? Although there are ways to get it done not too horribly, it all too often results in awkward scenes of other characters telling the protagonist things he already knows, the protagonist reading things he already knows in books, watching something he already knows on TV etc. In a setup where protagonist and player both know nothing, all this is circumvented organically. Both at the same level, they can unravel the mystery together. Increasing the level of immersion, making for potentially thrilling drama.

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Mindshadow makes good use of this setup. The “treasure items” to be collected are keywords, hints which trigger partial memory flashes. The task therefore is to find them, but also to identify them as relevant in this respect. As usual at the time, text is brief. Giving a stark impression of being lost. Brevity in the writing is also a technical necessity. Graphical illustrations take up most screen space. Their quality ranging from quite good, even with small animations, to essentially undecipherable in few cases.

Disk space priorities thus decided in favour of graphics, this further has an effect on the difficulty level. At most two sentences available to describe a location, it is always immediately clear what to focus on. Looking good and playing smoothly, the game is explicitly aimed at an audience of newcomers to the adventure genre. Even including an extensive “how to play” tutorial on the disk. Sure, it was 1985. So of course, there is learning through death, but at least it is mercifully instant when it strikes; players never find themselves in dead-man-walking situations. There is a maze early on, another one following towards the end. But even those, and certainly the object-based puzzles are not at all unreasonable. And even when stuck after all, a built-in help system, delivering cryptic hints through a bird, is available.

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If there's anything to blame Mindshadow for, it is how it proved how well this amnesia thing worked. Leading to an explosion of imitations, too many of which failed to replicate the smooth playing experience, however. The low quality imitations gave the whole concept a bad name in the eyes of some. Reflecting badly on Mindshadow in shallow retrospectives.

This game set the standards. Can it be blamed for that? No. Does it detract from its playing experience today? Honestly, yes, it does a little: originality is one pillar of enjoyment which can be taken away after the fact. And yet, what's still to be found behind the cover is a remarkably playable game for its time. The latter observation unfortunately talked about all too rarely.

Comments (1) [Post comment]

Mr Creosote:
Don't we all love these moments in classic text adventures? The obligatory maze, intended to make the game longer! What's worse, you have to traverse this one without any memory. Because Mindshadow has you stranded on a remote island and with amnesia. Oh boy, retrospective trope alert!
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