Playing Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong-Nou for the first time is a life-affirming moment. In a world where games need to be marketable, along comes one so incomprehensible that I mistook it for a fevered dream for nearly a decade afterward.
Eastern Mind is, unquestionably, the strangest game ever made. It’s the interactive equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. The narrative waxes philosophically and jumps around like a seismograph. The gameplay changes with extreme inconsistency. It defies explanation.
So uh… where do we start?
Eastern Mind is the product of Osamu Sato, an independent Japanese artist who attracted the attention of Sony Imagesoft after some critical acclaim for his music and video work. Sato is perhaps most recognizable for his work on the nightmare simulator LSD. He had great creative control over Eastern Mind, and its themes are fittingly personal. You play as Rin, a man whose spirit is taken by the soul-swallowing island of Tong-Nou. Rin borrows a soul for 49 days and, after receiving an amulet from a friendly snake, takes a trip to Tong-Nou to restore himself.
Up until this point, the game sounds like folklore, akin to the story of the trickster raven who steals the sun. All pretensions vanish when Tong-Nou is revealed to be Osamu Sato’s massive, green head floating in space. To get around, you have to climb into his head. Five minutes into the game, and it decides that the best way to depict an exploration of inner creativity is literally.
Rin can accomplish little at first, let alone enter the mountain where the kings of Tong-Nou have trapped his soul. To advance, he must die and descend into the Tree of Life. From within the roots, he can “transmigrate” into nine other lives from the four worlds of Tong-Nou: time, life, dreaming, and desire. Each represents a different part of Rin. Through these lives, Rin must collect the five elemental “magatamas” that contain his soul and, essentially, discover himself. Death is frequent but not penalized; going with the Eastern spiritual theme, death represents a new beginning and lets you reselect whichever life you want.
Apart from the batshit insane creative direction, Eastern Mind‘s greatest asset is its non-linearity. Each of the nine lives has a different objective which, while ostensibly based in a specific part of Tong-Nou, takes you on a whirlwind tour of the island. As long as you complete all nine at some point, you can follow whatever meandering path through the hub world that you want. At least half of the game’s content is optional, so you can pick and choose what you do to finish each life. To get one important item, for example, you can either find it in a chest or buy it with the aforementioned amulet. Or you can use that amulet as a Get Out of Death Free card.
Similarly, important plot events occur whenever you feel like addressing them. The King of Life might show up in a forest, and should you approach him, he’ll guide you to the Eyeball of Dreaming, an item you’ll need later on. Of course, to get that item, you have to trick the King of Life (who resembles a floating onion) by throwing an ant at him and making him sneeze. Then you can climb into his mouth, where a second smaller version of the King of Life is waiting inside to ask you a trivia question.
For every creative twist Eastern Mind makes to the adventure game formula, there’s another two parts crazy.
Consider the golden Helix Palace hidden in the Land of Desire, an optional area that gives you a few items you would otherwise need to find at the Phantom Marketplace. Within the Helix Palace is a series of rooms that fatally indulge your sins, such as force-feeding you until you explode or giving you a disease for raping an abstract object. One of these sins is, oddly enough, eternal life. In the Room of Immortality, a creature that resembles the moon will either kill you or bless you with the infinite “life of gold.” If you’re granted the power to live forever, you’re treated to an inescapable, rapid-fire slideshow of every scene in the game, repeating endlessly. In Eastern Mind, death gives your life meaning. The only way to lose is to live forever.
Is that a unique and effective way to make a philosophical point? Absolutely. Is it nuts? Also yes. But it’s a methodical insanity. This isn’t just randomness: you never have to collect Twinkies for a wizard who farts zebras. This game is a Zen parable about balance in life, finding your purpose, and discovering yourself.
Osamu Sato followed that path but took a detour through the deep, bizarre recesses of his mind, literally and figuratively. The otherwise coherent philosophical underpinnings only draw attention to how strange the rest of the game is. Eastern Mind frequently feels like it works on a different wavelength from the rest of the planet, making in-jokes and references that seemingly no other human would get. This article could go on for several pages just listing out all the inexplicable parts of the game:
- Three of the nine lives are just cutscenes. One is immediately crushed under the weight of its greed and desire, while another is frozen in ice and explodes as a reflex reaction to intruders. While playing as anyone else, you can track down the one that’s frozen and kill it yourself, which is a massive middle finger to the concept of linear time.
- The game includes an “Illustrated Book” which provides clues to the personalities of each of the various creatures you find in Tong-Nou. Some are not so useful; one creature is called a “youthful nihilist,” while another apparently enjoys New Year’s Day.
- Clicking on random spots on Tong-Nou will cause, among other things, a random drill to burst out of its skull and leak green blood. Also, it vomits eyeballs, and one of its cheeks contains dozens of screaming eyeballs. If you haven’t noticed, Osamu Sato apparently has a thing for eyeballs.
- A three-minded creature appears, has an existential crisis, and commits suicide within 10 seconds.
- Peaches are at one point used as a weapon.
The game’s internal logic is chaotic but distressingly consistent. So what if there’s a mysterious, bronze-colored creature that says “Fun!” repeatedly and runs across the screen? Eastern Mind doesn’t need to explain him; it’s all there in the guidebook. Can’t figure out the puzzle with the giant computer in the “Fire-Tower of Time Tong-tah”? Too bad. You’re just along for an ambling vacation through the island of Tong-Nou and, by extension, Osamu Sato’s imagination. He threw every ounce of his creativity into this one, from the spastically energetic music to the Jell-O-by-way-of-a-BeDazzler visual style.
Eastern Mind‘s philosophy presents an interesting perspective on life and what defines success. As the ending explains, Tong-Nou is not an island that devours souls but rather one that purifies them. A visit to Tong-Nou is a time for relaxation, for learning, and for understanding. The game presents just such a voyage; its interlocking paths and open-ended exploration offer an exciting (if disorienting) turn on the adventure game. But you’ll struggle until the very end to notice how inventive the game is, because it’s really fucking weird.
Osamu Sato created a sequel to Eastern Mind titled 中天 (“Chuten”). The game was only released in Japan, and only for Macintosh. It is an insane rarity and has only been spotted for sale on the Internet once or twice ever. Based on a brief email correspondence I had with Osamu Sato, even he doesn’t know of any available copies (the rough translation is his):
It has already become the discontinuance of making.
i think it is difficulty with acquisition in Japan.
May be you will check Japanese auction sites diligently!
To my knowledge, there is no record of anyone having ever played this game. The only pictures of Chuten are available from the official website for OutSide Directors, Osamu Sato’s company that developed both games. For convenience, they’re assembled here.
UPDATE: It’s found. And officially, it’s Chu-Teng.
[please note: this article originally speculated that Eastern Mind was planned to be released on the PlayStation. This was conjecture based on a Sony promotional reel. This was inaccurate speculation, and Osamu Sato has confirmed that only Mac and Windows versions were developed. Thanks to ace for the heads-up.]
Tags: 1994, 1995, 90s, artistic, CD-ROM, developer commentary, Eastern Mind, first-person, international developer, Japan, Macintosh, Osamu Sato, OutSide Directors, PlayStation, recommended, Sony, Sony Imagesoft, video, weird, Windows, Windows 3.1