“Tell me, what good is a PhD if the world around you is crumbling?” asks a gruff, mysterious voice on the end of an old-fashioned telephone. You’ve stepped into the shoes of one Desmond Wales, a small-town therapist trapped inside the nightmares of his patients – which is why the building he explores is a darkly surreal place with water lapping at its front door, and why that mystery character keeps ringing up to deliver taunting messages. But despite the voice mocking Desmond for his doctorate, a bit of education comes in handy here: In Sound Mind is a survival horror game where you’re as likely to be following clues and solving puzzles as you are wielding a gun. In fact, even acquiring a gun requires a fair bit of patience and problem-solving on the player’s part.
In Sound Mind is the first full game from We Create Stuff, an indie studio that previously brought us Nightmare House 2 – a free-to-play horror shooter built in Valve’s Source Engine – and it’s a chiller full of contrasts. On one hand, there’s the suspenseful build-up of exploring areas, finding hidden items, and finding keys to locked doors; on the other, there are sequences where you’ll be gunning down demonic entities with your trusty revolver. In fact, the game’s creative director Hen Matshulski envisioned the game as “like Shadow of the Colossus, but horror,” when it was first conceived back in 2007.
Gradually, however, the game evolved from a game about horrifying boss fights into something more low-key and ominous: a nineties-set mystery where every note and item you find lying around tells you more about your patients’ stories: “You’ll find audio tapes, and each one unravels a new section, where the emphasis and the game mechanic follow the patient’s story,” explains producer and studio co-founder Ido Tal. “Their character and struggles connect you to a bigger conspiracy that unravels through the game.”
On Steam, you’ll find a chunky one-hour plus demo that showcases how each of these areas (or ‘tapes’) plays out: from the slow build-up of solving puzzles and unlocking new areas – there’s an entertaining conundrum involving malfunctioning washing machines in here that we greatly appreciated – to the mounting sense of dread as the spooks close in near the end. “We originally tried to release a ‘normal’ demo in length – something like 20 minutes of gameplay,” Tal explains. “But we felt like that wouldn’t be a good representation of the game, so we went ahead and decided to release an entire area, a full ‘tape’. It took so much more work to polish at this early stage, but it was worth it – we learned so much more about what works and what doesn’t.”
So what goes into designing a puzzle that involves repairing a vibrating washing machine? “When I approach a new puzzle, the process for me is to reverse-engineer it,” explains Matshulski. “I start from the solution and break it into parts. For example, we wanted to put an emphasis on the elevator at the start, so it would be a reward to ride it. It’s broken, of course, and you have to fix it. We used the washing machines in the next room so that the player can manipulate their fuses and use them to fix the elevators… We try to focus on a theme for every puzzle. In the hub area, which connects the different sections of the game, you slowly unlock more and more areas as you progress in the game and find more tools to use. So these mechanics combine, and new, more challenging puzzles appear. It’s a tiny bit Metroidvania.”
As for the more action-oriented sections of the game, In Sound Mind’s creators are designing set-pieces that can be approached from a multitude of angles. “In most cases, we give the player several options to engage with tough situations, like most boss encounters in the game,” Matshulski says. “You can sneak, go out guns blazing, or even do some platforming and optional puzzling to gain an advantage.”
Making such a large demo wasn’t without its challenges, however. In one section, you get to pet Tonia, a cat who’s something of a recurring motif in the game. In order to avoid players experiencing a distracting bug, the team were forced to make cunning use of a chair. “When you go to pet Tonia, you might notice there’s a chair blocking your way to go around her that wasn’t there before,” Tal says. “That’s because prior to the demo release, we found a major bug with the code that forced her head to rotate 180 degrees in the most creepy way if you (walked) around her. We couldn’t fix it in time, so there’s a chair to block you from snooping around. Sure, we’re creating a horror game, but there are some things you can’t unsee! We’ve fixed it internally since… a game studio is a team of people who want to create a breathtaking, uncompromising piece of art, but are in reality forced to make thousands of little compromises.”
One of the tried-and-trusted ways In Sound Mind builds its narrative is through clues and details left behind on notes. One of the ways We Create Stuff keeps these notes engaging for the player, according to Ido Tal, is by keeping them brief and to the point. “It’s such a fine thing to balance – the text length, the visuals around the note, their volume and placement in the level,” says Tal. “We found that if you keep the notes short enough and visually diverse – like using doodles and coffee stains in the supermarket notes – most players would actually give them a read and pay attention. True, we spend more time designing each and every note, but the upside is the opportunity to build a much more engaging world that players actually want to read.”