What does it mean to be human in world of increasingly powerful technology? This is a question video games have grappled with, most recently in the “Deus Ex” franchise and the upcoming E3 show-stealing “Cyberpunk 2077.”
Daedalic’s “State of Mind” approaches the topic in a different, more philosophical way. Guns and body mods aren’t the order of the day. Rather, “State of Mind” is a narrative adventure that considers how far the human race will go to trade dystopia for utopia.
Creative lead Martin Ganteföhr is an avid follower of transhumanist theory, and how humanity will evolve over the coming decades as scientists pursue the singularity. Transhumanism explores the intersection of people and technology, with the ultimate goal giving all people access to technology that leads to an egalitarian utopia.
“State of Mind” explores two connected worlds: a dystopian Berlin in 2048 and a virtual utopia created to escape it. Ganteföhr has explored technology in his previous work, including the 2004 title, “Moment of Silence.”
“When I was making that game, I stumbled upon transhumanist literature,” he tells Variety. “I read books by people who now work for Silicon Valley companies, including Google. As soon as I started to read about that and understand the techno-religious thing they have going on, it intrigued me. It tries to answer fundamental questions of life in a new way, in a technological way.”
“State of Mind” explores those fundamental questions through the eyes of Richard, a journalist living in the dystopian world and Adam, who lives in the virtual utopia (though doesn’t realize his world is not real). Adam starts to uncover the truth through a series of strange occurrences that Ganteföhr likens to Jim Carrey’s titular character in “The Truman Show” discovering his reality isn’t as it seems.
The two characters are connected, reflections of one another created when Richard was uploaded to the VR construct. The process wasn’t entirely successful, and both Richard and Adam have gaps in their memory players will help fill in.
Ganteföhr’s story tackles big issues, but it is also personal. Richard’s wife and son have gone missing. He’s also on the verge of being fired, in part because of his memory issues.
Players also get to explore the past through the eyes of four other characters. These include Richard’s wife, a former model and drug addict.
“State of Mind’s” visuals are bold. Daedalic has opted for a low-poly aesthetic (like the original “Tomb Raider”), which drives home the fraught position Richard and humanity at a whole or in during the game.
“It’s a sharded look,” Ganteföhr says. “Richard is a character whose life is in shards. It’s broken on all levels. His mission is to put it back together. The player’s mission is to put the story together from its layers across two different worlds and across time. The characters represent this theme, in that they look sharded and hard and edgy, but fragile. They look like you could break them and they would fall to pieces. That’s what happens in the game. When you upload people, you convert them to bits and put them together somewhere else.”
While “State of Mind” takes place 30 years in our future, Ganteföhr sees some of the groundwork being laid for dystopia. The promise of transhumanism is an egalitarian utopia, but the reality could be much darker.
“I believe transhumanism proposes something for the first time in the history of mankind will lead to humans of different value,” he explains. “There will be people who, using technology, will be much more intelligent than others. There will be people who will be more powerful or have body augmentations. That kind of inequality between humans is scary, because of ethics. It’s a fascist idea. When you have humans and sub-humans. That sounds familiar.”
Power imbalances in the United States and around the world have been increasing in recent years. While transhumanism offers the promise of affordable and accessible technology available to all, someone always needs to be first.
“There are people like Elon Musk. He does not believe we are approaching a utopian future,” Ganteföhr says. “To the contrary, he says the AI apocalypse is coming. Humanity is facing extinction, so we need to go to Mars, because he believes the apocalypse is coming. I believe that existing power structures will favor those—either in a utopian or dystopian future—the question will always be, ‘Who comes first?’ I don’t believe it’s going to be poor people. The existing elite now will be the first people who get away from the apocalypse, if it comes. Or they will be the first to go to ‘paradise’ and rule.”
Technological innovation could be leading us to a place in which the masses are both more oppressed and have access to powerful tools to fight back against those in power. Ganteföhr believes we’re already seeing those seeds planted.
“We’re currently seeing the same thing that liberated us is now oppressing us,” he explains. “It used to be a rysome, a network in which each node is of equal importance. That’s not true anymore. Some nodes are much more important than others, like Google and Facebook. Some people mistake those two for the entire internet now. I believe social media is quite the opposite of what the term suggests. I don’t see them as social. There are more than 1 billion people on Facebook, and it’s all in the hands of a 33-year-old Silicon Valley boy who collects amounts of data that have never before been possible. I believe that is a threat, because Facebook is creating its own reality. As we’ve seen with the US elections or the referendum in Britain, it’s unclear how those decisions have been influenced by the inner workings of Facebook. That is a threat, because it can lead to the dissolution of organized societies.”
Despite these big ideas, Ganteföhr understands where games like “State of Mind,” and “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided” fit into our understanding of the human condition. He also recognizes the limitations of storytelling in explaining heady philosophical concepts.
“I do see games as a part of culture,” Ganteföhr says. “In the 21st century, games are the defining medium. I wouldn’t say our game explains transhumanism, but we do see a lot of games with that theme. I’m all for more of that coming out, because people sense that this is a topic of high importance, not for entertainment, but for society. Culture is the way society computes things.”