Written by no less than future U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Mindwheel is one of several attempts throughout computer game history to imbue Infocom-style adventure games with literary importance. On a quest to save the world by finding the core of human consciousness, you journey inside the minds of a dictator, a Bowie-esque rock star named Bobby Clemon and others, solving abstract puzzles and filling in the blanks of Pinsky's lovely sonnets.
Today, the online interactive fiction scene -- hobbyists who write freeware adventures -- aim for this level of ambition (or pretention), in games like Photopia and Jigsaw. But at the time, Mindwheel was the exception to the rule, with other adventures playing it closer to pulp and fantasy roots. That doesn't make Mindwheel better than its peers. The writing is eerie and often humorous, taking you into strange, whirling vortexes of familiar objects, meeting a demon reading the New York Review of Books and visiting a Love Room full of insects getting it on. But there's not much interactivity, and the puzzles too often operate at the level of "remember the word." For word games in interactive fiction, you're better off with Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It. The game includes a novella by Pinsky.
This real time all-text game puts you in the role of a Mind Adventurer, asked to journey back through the minds of four deceased residents of your planet in search of the Wheel of Wisdom. The Wheel is the only thing that can restore your planet from the state of chaos it's now in.
The hardbound book that comes with the game includes the instructions and a novella-length introduction to the plot.
Synapse's last game and also its most ambitious, Mindwheel unfortunately ends up as an ideal example of a great concept that is horrendously botched by frustrating puzzles that are not illogical, but are poorly integrated with the amazing storyline. Written by Robert Pinsky, one of the most acclaimed young poets in the 20th century, Mindwheel simply has one the best and most unique sci-fi plots you'll ever come across, with many layers and metaphors that will take repeat playing to appreciate. At its most basic level, the game is about telepathy: you will time-travel into the kaleidoscopic minds of four deceased geniuses. You will encounter the Cave Master, inspired father of the primary visions, retrieve the Wheel of Wisdom, civilization's one key to salvation, and witness some of the most crucial moments in history.
Unfortunately, this wonderful premise is shattered by absurd puzzles that bear no relation to the game's larger plot. Most of the game's puzzles revolve around finding words to complete the various sonnets posed by different characters, and answering obscure riddles. The problem is that it is often almost impossible to know if you have found the right word, and why. Worse still, some words are written only in the manual/novella that comes with the game, with almost no clue to the effect. The parser is decent, although its range of synonyms are very limited (for example, in one case it will only understand LADY but not WOMAN).
Mindwheel is one of those rare games you really want to like, but simply can't. The illogical and frustrating puzzles simply get in the way of enjoying the game, which is extremely well-written. It would probably have been a true classic had Pinsky opt for a "true" (i.e. passive) electronic novel (e.g. Activision's Portal) than a real game. The storyline and writing are among the best you'll ever find in a game (or books, for that matter)-- it's just unfortunate that they are trapped inside a poor shell of puzzle-solving, merely for the sake of utilizing the "interactive" medium. The few nuggets of sonnets and poetic fragments in the novella alone are proof of why Pinsky is regarded as one of the most talented poets of his generation. The bottom line: read the novella that comes with the game's manual, and play the game only as an afterthought.
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