Rebel Retro: Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou
At one point you throw an ant at the King of Life so he'll sneeze and you can enter his mouth and talk to a smaller version of him to get the essence of wood. Not only that, but one of the characters you can reincarnate as is that ant, and your life as him consists of looking around, getting picked up, thrown, and dying from the impact.
Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou is quite possibly the weirdest game ever made (except maybe Hatoful Boyfriend).
Right, um, dialing back now. Eastern Mind is a game by Osamu Sato, a Japanese visual artist and musician know for, yes, LSD Dream Emulator. Japan has a reputation for being weird, but Sato is like 30% responsible for that. I have to make a very important declaration about that, though. See, there's a fundamental difference between Eastern Mind and LSD. LSD is essentially a bunch of weird, sort of disturbing random crap stuck in a pile for you to randomly swim though. Eastern Mind is actually coherent... In a way.
You are Rin and you've lost your soul. It has, in fact, been devoured by the floating island of Tong Nou. Your friend gives you a temporary soul that'll save you from death for 48 hours and, after a white snake gives you an amulet and a furoshiki (a cloth used to carry things), you head off to Tong Nou to get your soul back. And, uh, when you get there it turns out that Tong Nou is Sato's giant head. Also it's green. Clicking on it of course causes various events to happen such as a drill poking out of its head, its face squishing, and eyeballs peering out of its cheeks. You enter the island through the ears or cheeks, although your ultimate goal is to unlock the central shine at the back of the head.
And how do you achieve this goal? Well, it's two part. For one you need to collect the five Magatamas, elemental energies with one representing each area of Tong Nou, the Lands of Life, Dreaming, Desire, and Time, and the Central Mountain. Your other task (which is actually the one discovered first) is a bit more complicated. See, here's the thing, early on in the game you are going to die from one thing or another. On the plus side, death isn't that big of a deal! Upon death you get to choose from nine characters to reincarnate as. Each character has a task they need to complete, after which they die and you get to choose a new one (you also can choose a new one if you die in other ways, of course). You need to complete all nine tasks to gain access to the Central Mountain. These tasks vary in complexity. Aside from the previously mentioned ant, there are a few other characters that exist only to die. One guy is crushed under his own weight, another lives in ice and is killed by another character. The rest all have actual quests which generally involve doing a task for one of the Kings of the four Lands of Tong Nou.
And how are these tasks achieved, you ask?! Through the magic of first-person pre-rendered adventure gaming! Like Myst. But insane. The gameplay's pretty standard, really. You click on things, move around, talk to people, and solve puzzles. The puzzles are a bit different than the ones in Myst, though. That game mostly has logic puzzles. It plops some sort of puzzle or machinery in front of you and then says, "Go on, figure out how it works". The puzzles in Eastern Mind are more exploratory. They're generally fairly easy and more reliant on finding the solution in the world. The nature of these puzzles plus the freedom in choosing incarnations means that the game's fairly non-linear. If you get bored of a particular task (although they're generally pretty short), you can always reincarnate as someone else or just wander around for the heck of it. Tong Nou isn't that big and you'll find yourself going through the same areas a lot over the course of the game, but the inventive weirdness combined with each character experiencing different things kept exploration entertaining for me.
Since I've been talking straight-facedly about things, let me remind you how incredibly bizarre Eastern Mind is. This guy here spontaneously shows up in some screens, sings "Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun" and gives you cryptic hints if you click on him. This picture was taken inside Tong Nou's ear canal.
Moving on... I have a secret. Want to know it? Yeah, you do. You know you do. My magical secret is the secret of why we should actually care about Eastern Mind as anything beyond a weird oddity. The magical secret is this: under the complete lunacy of the game, Eastern Mind is actually pretty philosophical. Not only is it pretty thematically consistent, it's actually surprisingly poignant. What is the philosophy? Well, it touches on some pretty common themes of Eastern philosophy: Death, cycles, and balance. They're really pretty obvious when you take time to penetrate the lunacy. The only way you can complete the game is by dying and being reincarnated as nine different guys. Once each character's task is complete, they die. The game posits death as a necessary part of life, and a big purpose of life, but not as the end. Just another bit in the cycle.
That's not quite all there is to the death themes though, there's one other interesting thing: At one point in the game you enter an area called the Golden Helix Palace, in the Land of Desire. Fittingly, this place is filled with various stuff to tempt you: Endless amounts of food, sex, etc. Indulging yourself too much in any of these rooms kills you. Except for one room. In this room you're offered a choice between two types of drink: One is poison, which kills you, and one is Moon Water. Moon Water grants immortality. If you drink it, you're endlessly barraged by rapid images of every single scene in the game until you quite or reload a save. Got it? The only way to lose, in the game about reincarnation and death, is to live forever.
The theme of balance mostly comes out in the ending, although it's also prevalent in the quests of each of the characters. They're generally going to right something that was wrong, to restore balance. I don't want to give too much away about the ending, but Rin's ultimate mission is one of balance as well. By collecting the five magatamas and bringing them to the central mountain, you're not only restoring balance to Rin's soul, you're restoring balance to Tong Nou itself.
I'm not going to talk that much about the graphics, since you can see them from the pictures. The music you can't hear from the pictures, sadly, but it's very good. Sato's a musician, so he composed all the music himself. It's sufficiently wacky, mostly electronic stuff with all kinds of weird things going on moment to moment.
So, I guess that's it. I hope I've given you an idea of how weird this game is and, more importantly, that it's actually a good game worth more than just something to hold up and go "Japanese people are weeeeeiiiirrrrd". It's a good game, for a very specific type of person. You have to like adventure games. You have to like weirdness. You have to like Eastern philosophy. It's certainly a very specific audience, but that's far from a bad thing. Eastern Mind is very much a personal game for Sato, and it'll only appeal to those who align with his weird tastes. But those who do like that sort of thing will probably enjoy it, and at least everyone else can be amused by the wackiness. In short, Eastern Mind is
Well said, my crabby friend.
Coda: Eastern Mind had a sequel made called Chuuten (also written as Chu Teng or Chu-Ten), and it's one of the most obscure games I've ever heard of. It's Japanese only, of course (I'm amazed Eastern Mind was translated, to be honest), and only available on Mac. There appear to have only been a small amount of copies made, and it has almost no internet presence. The only actual proof of its existence are some pictures of the box, a 20 second video, and a few rare closed Japanese auctions. If anyone has anymore info I'd love to hear it.