Playing Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou for the first time is a life-affirming moment. In a world where games from big publishers need to be marketable, along comes one so nearly incomprehensible that I mistook it for a fevered dream for nearly a decade afterward.
Eastern Mind is, unquestionably, the strangest game ever made. This is mainlined interactive surrealism. It’s also a deeply spiritual game. The game ruminates on the purpose of the soul while jumping erratically from moment to moment. It defies explanation.
…but let’s try.
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: Dream Emulator. He had great creative control over Eastern Mind, and its themes are appropriately 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 life represents a different part of Rin that he must experience and learn from. Through these lives, Rin must collect the five elemental magatamas that contain his soul and, essentially, rebuild himself. Death is frequent and not only not penalized but encouraged; in keeping with the Eastern spiritual theme, death represents a new beginning and lets you reselect whichever life you want.
As befits a self-guided journey of the soul, Eastern Mind is a non-linear experience. Each of Rin’s nine lives carries 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.
The freeform structure is refreshing and thematically appropriate; this is your journey of spiritual restoration, and plot events unfold whenever you get around to them. One of Rin’s lives requires an item called the Eyeball of Dreaming, and you can get it from the King of Life whenever you happen run across him in the forest.
Of course, the next step is 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 waits inside to ask you a trivia question. For every creative flourish Eastern Mind makes, there’s always a few extra parts of weirdness too.
Consider the golden Helix Palace hidden in the Land of Desire, a scene emblematic of both the wacky and religious sides of the game. The palace indulges your sins in fatal ways, such as force-feeding you until you explode or transmitting you a disease after dubiously consensual sex with 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 bizarre? Also yes. But it’s a methodical insanity. This isn’t just randomness for its own sake. This game is a Zen parable about balance in life, finding your purpose, and discovering yourself. Rin needs to recover his soul, of course, but the adventure also helps him remember to use his time alive meaningfully.
Osamu Sato followed that path but took a detour deep through 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 some time just listing 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 any other life, 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 moments of meeting you.
- Peaches are at one point used as a weapon.
The game’s chaotic internal logic follows its own rhythm with distressing consistency. 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”? It’ll make sense eventually. You’re just along for an ambling tour 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 violently energetic music to the Jell-O-by-way-of-a-BeDazzler character design.
As the ending explains, Tong-Nou is not an island that devours souls but rather purifies them. A visit to Tong-Nou is a time for relaxation, for learning, and for understanding. Eastern Mind presents just such a voyage: its interlocking, allegorical world offers an eye-opening (if disorienting) turn on the adventure genre – and a unique perspective on life and what defines success. But you’re forgiven if, at least at first, you overlook how inventive the game is. Oh jeez, is it 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. And it was released for Windows too!
[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.]
(This post was substantially revised on February 17, 2016.)