FBT ponders the meaning of life. He didn’t mean to, he thought this was a retro shooter.
“The End” is how This Strange Realm of Mine begins, and it just gets weirder from there. Waking up dead, our hero finds themselves in Minecraft, where they must embark on various missions to understand what their life was all about, in order to cross over – or not, or find peace or self-awareness or escape their own mind or resolve it or ... I dunno, I thought this was a shooter, I didn’t sign up for metaphysics.
For a while I figured this was just a hip, retro shooter that would wear thin very quickly. Sometimes it’s exactly that, but it’s not all hipster self-aware irony; that’s just a trick to get you thinking about how to beat the real final boss – life.
Each level begins in a Tavern run by Ulrich, a barkeep/guide who lectures us on perception of reality and awareness, then sends us to another world where we have to face some element of our past life – but it’s not confronting, resolving or mending an event, it’s internal emotional states and belief systems; one absolutely mind-blowing level is navigating an apartment block to grab a parcel - simple enough, but outside gruff looking people stare, triggering our anxiety and ebbing our health, causing us to retreat back to the only safe place, our unkept apartment. It’s only when we find the strength to struggle through that we reach someone who teaches us to manage the anxiety; and then the starers turn into kittens and we can get the chore done.
It’s not all pretty daydreams though, some are downright psychedelic like Plethoras the Sloth’s level or the out of nowhere zero-g spaceship rescue where the character made what I’m sure was an Alien Resurrection joke. That is vague.
Other missions are Blake Stone era shooters, which are good fun and short enough that the experience doesn’t start to grate. And then we’re on amazing trips in a hot air balloon, switching to a Manic Mansion or an Asteroids-style level – we’re not playing through this person’s experiences we’re playing through my gamer life. It takes every gamer trope you can think of and turns it into a think piece on how your greatest enemy is often your own mind telling you that you can’t do it. Occasionally though, it’s just a load of wordy crap.
Most levels include a person we confront or save, who then imparts a long-winded explanation of a philosophical thought or coping mechanism; often TSRoM seems to be just a platform for the developer’s philosophies, belief systems or some meta-verse tosh which can get tiresome, especially as many of the characters talk (well, text) in a way that even a one-year-old would find condescending. More than once I thought I’d accidentally loaded up a Christian Educational Game given the God references. It teeters on sanctimonious with characters going ‘see, life is what you make it!’ and reminds me of those Just Girly Things memes that pollute Instagram still.
But it is incredibly empowering and thought provoking, and there’s some moving, emotional moments within the blocky events, like the little Rat poet who’s Vogon-style poetry reveals she’s suffering from extreme depression, which lifts the more you make time for her – not the kind thing you get in a regular shooter. Or the girlie-girl who makes bad jokes to avoid saying what she really means. And many of the conversations are witty, playful and enlightening as they go through their own problems and prod you to reflect on yours. There’s also a character trapped in a padded cell, who’s all about existential dread and admits to knowing more than they’re letting on – frustrating, given they’re you.
Still, it often seems a bit twee, if not downright bollocks with characters banging on about understanding forth dimensional reality and circular events that just trigger heavy eye-rolling and dialogue-skip-clicking, but the way it reenforces how to live a productive life means it should be played by anyone who thinks games aren’t a healthy outlet or only about killing people – you’re getting this for your Birthday, mum.
In the end, and I didn't realise the dialogue and action choices I made affected the judgement of my soul, I was proclaimed a Dualist. I always knew I was a fighter. Oh, that’s Duellist. A Dualist? I’m someone who perceives the world as split in two? That… is actually accurate, least when it comes to liking video games or not. Hang on, this was all about revealing something about me? Did I just get tricked into playing Myers-Briggs the video game?
Actually, dualist is a fair description of how I viewed this game – one part original and emotional, and one part indulgent and nonsensical. At barely three hours it’s just about right, and supposedly there are five different results based on the decisions you make – while I enjoyed it and was often moved by it, I don’t think I can face going through it all again to explore other facets of my subconscious. It may not be quite at the level of Fractured Minds, but as a game tackling mental health it’s great, even if it’s occasionally up its own arse. How’s that for duality?