4 stars
An engaging, beautiful and flawed sci-fi adventure

Daedalic Entertainment made its name with games like Anna’s Quest and the Deponia series, which are helping to keep the genre of 2D point and click adventures alive. Since then, other developers (e.g., Dontnod with the Life is Strange franchise) have shown that it is possible to translate the exploratory appeal and rich narratives of the genre into beautiful 3D worlds.

State of Mind (2018) is one of Daedalic’s entrants into the 3D adventure genre. Set in the year 2048, it’s primarily told from the perspective of two individuals—Richard Nolan and Adam Newman—who grapple with the trauma of a recent accident, and who find that their lives are deeply connected.

The story that unfolds explores transhumanist themes like strong AI and mind uploading, but it remains grounded in a narrative about Richard Nolan’s relationship with Adam, with his own family, and with a lover.

Protagonist Richard Nolan and his household robot Simon in Richard’s Berlin apartment (Credit: Daedalic Entertainment. Fair use.)

In many parts of the game, the player explores their surroundings (e.g., Richard’s and Adam’s respective futuristic apartments; the gritty Berlin neighborhood where Richard lives, etc.), with limited choices and trivial puzzles. Occasionally, the game throws in a trickier puzzle or a mini-game.

In one of those mini-games, for example, you must navigate a drone through a building’s maintenance shafts in order to listen in on a conversation that happens in another room, without being detected by other drones. If you fail, you get to retry until you succeed.

While State of Mind offers some choices in dialogs, they are fairly inconsequential until the final stage of the game. Then, the player is given a choice between different endings, but even the impact of those choices on the final scenes of the game is a bit underwhelming.

What makes the game work, in part, is that it’s gorgeous. The low poly design of the game’s characters takes some getting used to, but the world they inhabit is rich in detail and imagination.

In one memorable scene, Adam Newman meets his wife on the location of an Augmented Reality art installation, where the game lets you draw with light and sound in the world around you. This scene is just there, and it’s up to the player whether they choose to explore it for its own sake or not.

The Verdict

The story of State of Mind is engaging but derivative, and the execution quality of the game as a whole is mixed (e.g., limited choices, mini-games that can be a bit tedious). Parts of its world are a joy to explore, and the game offers about 10-20 hours worth of generally rewarding play. The native Linux version worked beautifully for me.

I appreciated the game’s willingness to tackle adult themes, the lack of moral finger-wagging, and the deep flaws of its main characters. I found the voice acting not as stellar as, say, Life is Strange, but Doug Cockle (who voices Geralt von Rivia in the Witcher games) pulls you in as Richard Nolan, even if you end up hating him.

While the game is only 2 years old, you’ll now find it on sale regularly for 5 USD or less. At that price, you won’t have any regrets about paying a visit to its morally ambiguous world and the flawed beings that inhabit it.

4 stars
Holly Gibney goes it alone, and three other stories

If It Bleeds by Stephen King advertises itself as containing “four new novellas”, but I would really characterize it as one novella supported by three stories.

The heart of the book is “If It Bleeds” itself, which stars Holly Gibney, an important character from several of King’s most recent books (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch, and The Outsider). After the events of The Outsider, Holly Gibney faces an evil force of a similar nature—but this time, she tries to go it alone. It’s an engaging tale that never overstays its welcome, but I would recommend reading The Outsider first (reviews).

The other stories in the book would make good Twilight Zone episodes. The first one, “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”, would fit better in Jordan Peele’s reboot than in Rod Serling’s original. It’s about a boy’s friendship with a wealthy old man, a friendship that ultimately takes on a supernatural character. King uses the story to offer his own social commentary on the effects of smartphones, disguised in the words of a cynical old man. Overall I found it the weakest story in the volume.

The second story, “The Life of Chuck”, is told in three acts (ordered in reverse) and describes the impact of a seemingly ordinary man named Charles Krantz on the world around him—starting at a time when the whole world seems to be ending in a series of apocalyptic catastrophes.

The third story, “Rat”, is about a writer who has been struggling for his whole life to finish a novel. When inspiration strikes, he seeks out the isolation of a “basic no-frills cabin in the Maine woods” he inherited from his father, to focus on the novel without the distractions of family and social demands. Soon the isolation, coupled with an illness, starts to play tricks on his mind—or does it?

King’s constant readers can’t go wrong with If It Bleeds; those new to his work looking for recent horror novellas that pack a punch should consider picking up King’s Full Dark, No Stars (2010) instead.

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
3 stars
Humanism for Believers

According to the Oxford dictionary, faith is the “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” or the “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” According to philosopher Martin Hägglund, we should all have it—but we should base it in a belief in this world, not in an afterlife.

The core argument of This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is that eternity is overrated. In fact, Hägglund claims, the religious idea of eternal life is indistinguishable from death. It is only because our lives are finite, because we may suffer horrible losses, that we can set meaningful goals for ourselves in this life.

We are striving creatures that must maintain ourselves, and our lives are only intelligible (to pick one of Hägglund’s favorite terms) with our finitude in mind, not as a limitation, but as a fundamental condition of the things we value:

The possibility of being touched is inseparable from the perils of being wounded, and exposure to loss is part of the experience of rapture. (p. 89-90, emphasis original)

All morality, in Hägglund’s view, must be grounded in our care for one another in this life. When we seek our grounding in religious promises of salvation, we implicitly place this promise above those promises that we make to each other:

If your care for another person is based on religious faith, you will cease to care about her if you lose your religious faith and thereby reveal that you never cared about her as an end in herself. (p. 10)

Hägglund engages with the theology of Augustine of Hippo, especially to bolster the critique of “eternal life” (Augustine’s eternity does indeed sound quite a lot like oblivion). He also comments at length on the biblical Binding of Isaac, and on Søren Kierkegaard’s interpretation of that story. Where Kierkegaard sees exemplary faith, Hägglund sees the dangers of fanaticism. Buddhism is not spared—nirvana is just another word for oblivion.

In This Life, we still need faith, because we must invest ourselves in people and causes whose outcome is never certain. It is this kind of commitment without certainty that Hägglund describes as secular faith.

If we are committed to this life, Hägglund says we also must commit ourselves to increasing what he calls our spiritual freedom—essentially the time freely available for any self-expression that matters to us, through work, art, or otherwise. No such commitment is valued in a capitalist economy, which places human ingenuity in the service of profit, not in the service of shared human goals. That’s why the robots take our jobs instead of improving our lives.

In his critique of capitalism, Hägglund relies heavily on Karl Marx. While affirming democracy as an essential core of any new political order, Hägglund’s vision of democratic socialism goes well beyond redistribution of wealth—he argues for sharing in the means of production, and remaking our society to maximize our freedom.

Hägglund criticizes any view of individual freedom that treats it as if it could be separated from the society in which we live:

Freedom cannot be reduced to an individual achievement since both how much free time we have and what we are able to do with our free time depends on how we organize our society. (p. 315)

In Hägglund’s view, a true commitment to (and faith in) our life together gives a critique of religion its real potency:

If we merely criticized religious beliefs as Illusions without being committed to overcoming forms of social injustice that motivate these Illusions a critique of religion would be empty and patronizing. (p. 330)

The Verdict

Hägglund’s book left me with three frustrations:

  • While I found the argument persuasive that religious promises of eternity are indistinguishable from oblivion, I also found it repetitive and tedious. Hägglund says the same thing—that our lives can only be understood in light of their finite nature—many times over.

    The cosmos is more interesting than Hägglund gives it credit for. How does consciousness arise, and what defines a being—their consciousness or their memory? If an eternal being forgets its experience in whole or in part, is it still eternal? If we live in a multiverse with an infinite number of universes, how can we relate our successes and failures, our victories and losses, to these infinite possibilities? These are the kinds of questions This Life does not grapple with.

    As a secular humanist and atheist, I have no faith in any promises of an afterlife, and I appreciate Hägglund’s willingness to engage in a radical critique of such promises. But I also try to retain a sense of wonder about the infinite and the very, very vast. Moreover, I believe such wonder can make us more resilient when we are faced with tragic loss.

  • Hägglund’s critique of capitalism feels similarly unimaginative. He primarily re-frames Marx’s 19th century analysis in his own philosophical terms, but other than repeatedly emphasizing the importance of democracy, he does not make a cogent argument how past catastrophic failures of communism can be avoided in future.

    Hägglund lays out three principles for democratic socialism, one of which is “that the means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit.” But what is required in practice to uphold such a principle? What happens to the first person in this democratic society who starts keeping the “means of production” for themselves?

    I am more persuaded by the more modern arguments in favor of transforming capitalism towards a solidarity economy, where cooperation is rewarded through structures and incentives. See, for example, the book “Humanizing the Economy”, which examines such examples—you won’t find them in Hägglund’s book.

    I agree with Hägglund that redistribution of wealth is not enough. But a democratic socialism fit for the 21st century needs to be a bit more responsive to what we’ve learned since the 19th.

  • Finally, I see very little reason for reframing secular humanism in terms of “secular faith” or living a “spiritual life”. These terms may appeal to a certain audience, but for those who have explicitly rejected faith, they hold little value.

    When Hägglund talks about “keeping faith” with our commitments (a marriage, a friendship, a purpose), he is using religious language where non-religious language will do just fine. It is true that we face uncertainty in all our life commitments. It is also true that we continuously re-examine those life commitments based on our lived experience.

    We abandon projects that are failing. We end marriages that don’t work. We lose friendships because our lives drift apart. When a commitment doesn’t make sense anymore, we should end it—and that kind of responsiveness to evidence is the opposite of faith.

This Life may help broaden the appeal of secular humanism, but it diminishes it by re-framing it in religious terms. It offers a useful critique of capitalism, but it fails to advance the discussion of how to replace it. It is not afraid to challenge ideas of holy oblivion, but it does not recognize the hope and inspiration we can take from the cosmos we find ourselves in.

The journey This Life takes the reader on is an important one. I’m just not sold on the destination.

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