Atmosphere can mean a lot, I find. The mood a game makes can raise it beyond its shortcomings, you need only look at the world of visual and sound novels to see this in action. They use word choice and visuals to create a mood that sucks you in and engages, despite a lack of mechanical play. These games choose to take advantage of a certain set of techniques to create works you can lose yourself in, while others use it as a flourish or major addition to enhance the experience. Survival Horror games love using atmosphere in one way or another, especially Silent Hill, Siren, and the Nanashi no Game series (look it up). But atmosphere is more than strange or dark. It can be whimsical or childish, like Kirby’s Epic Yarn or Yoshi’s Island, or maybe wacky and erratic, a tone you commonly find in old point and clicks. One I rarely see explored, though, is nostalgia.
Enter Backstreets of the Mind.
It’s a type of game pretty common on mobile and tablet, a find the object affair where you pick out select things on a screen, occasionally solving puzzles. They tend to be very pretty and experimental in the types of stories they tell. I mean, I once played a bit of one about a woman working in the ad industry caught in a limbo dimension based around her own insecurities born from the sexist society around her. That’s not something you see everyday. However, they’re also as mechanically interesting as a slice of moldy bread. Their mechanics don’t really mesh with the stories they try to tell, and it tends to really stick out as lazy and slapdash. That’s sort of the case here as well.
Backstreets of the Mind follows some random white guy who helps an old native American man, who in turns gives random white guy time powers that allow him to change his past and correct his greatest mistakes and failures. There’s an out of nowhere environmental message at the end that is never built up, plus the old guy also doles out that our actions have unforeseen consequences that we should think about. All of this feels hollow because almost the entirety of the game is focused on correcting personal mistakes and never actually seeing how those corrections affect everyone else, except maybe someone has a nicer car or something. Not a particularly insightful title.
It also doesn’t stray far from the find the object formula, constantly having you find the six things, then picking the thing that solves the problem but doesn’t, then find the new six things, they select the thing that does solve it. Some segments are just larger find the object affairs with way more to find and no repetition, and the only real change up comes from a scattering of just okay minigames. Except the stock minigame at the end. That can seriously die in a fire.
What makes the game memorable and worth a look is the presentation, which is seriously master class stuff. This game wasn’t made with a huge budget or staff, but the mood created is absorbing. The trick here is that the entire game is put together with a series of photographed objects and faces, and they don’t quite match right together. Little details also feel wrong or off, and there’s a few licensed items removed and replaced. The music is also very simple and underplayed, not really drawing your attention, but adding to the feeling being made.
The game is trying to be as nostalgic as possible, going over three major time periods and showing the passage of time in each through the things you see. The fact that it never seems to be put together right actually adds to the game, creating a sense that you’re floating through memories. Much like our own memories, the game never gets the big picture quite right, but certain little things seem to stick out very vividly. Because so many games today are focused on a present experience, they try to make everything as realistic or defined as possible, but this game is more interested in an abstract concept rarely explored. When most games tackle memory, they treat it as a movie flashback and maybe add a filter of some sort, not really taking advantage of the uniqueness of the medium. This game, on the other hand, uses a style of art, photoshop and collage, that is normally unexplored in the medium. It does it in a way that wouldn’t really work in animation or live action either, designed for the audience to search through it than use it for simple play feedback. The end result is a game that’s very relaxing and absorbing, when it’s not throwing a lazy minigame your way or reminding you of the pointless plot. It captures the idea of old Americana with a lot of success, from iconic images (freshly cut grass, office cubicles, the unintended additions to an arcade cabinet, and more) to items of brand and pop culture that were apart of an era.
It’s interesting. There is precedent for something like this before, as we’ve seen many first person point and clicks, but they usually focus on the fantastical or horrific, aiming to get strong emotions of shock or awe. This game is quite content with just trying to jolt some memories and act as a time capsule, and it does it well. Now if only they could come up with an actual narrative to go with it.