Not a waste

Radiohead is offering gamers a free musical odyssey with ‘Kid A Mnesia’

A journey for all the creeps this holiday season.

Far from the rhythm gaming of a Guitar Hero add-on band pack, the party-game antics of Just Dance, or the sci-fi racing of Avicii Invector, Radiohead’s Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition offers an astoundingly visceral, if bleak, exploration of a trailblazing moment in the band’s history.

It was originally intended as a travelling physical installation, but plans were scrapped due to construction difficulties and the COVID-19 pandemic. Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich and artist Stanley Donwood were not dissuaded from making something with these 21-year-old musical and visual artifacts, so they worked with developers [namethemachine] and Arbitrarily Good Productions over two years to build a virtual space that could repurpose their ambitious ideas digitally. The experience is now available, for free, on PlayStation and through the Epic Games Store.

For something that can be experienced in about an hour, Kid A Mnesia: Exhibition is absolutely jam packed with astounding artwork and spaces poached from nooks of the band’s unreleased catalogue, lyric sheets and bits of poetry from Kid A and Amnesiac, and artwork from Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood. You’ll find yourself engorged enough in its world to sit through entire songs, as structures morph and evolve around you. Some rooms are filled with stick figures laboring away to keep the walls and windows of the exhibit clean, adding a strong metafictional element to the whole space. Other rooms are essentially large-scale equalizers.

You start in the woods, which seems chalky and hand-drawn, and little sharp-toothed bears from the Kid A cover watch you from behind the trees. After a series of Starchild-from-2001-esque hallways, you move on to a pyramid hub — which reads more like a sci-fi monolith right out of Control. The game tells the player which songs a route will lead to, as there are multiple interlocking ones that all lead to a final credit sequence — which looks and feels inspired by the side scrolling segments of Nier: Automata — and back to the woods. The sheer amount of different surfaces, objects and artistic styles make an ostensibly short trip down Radiohead's memory lane feel grand and diverse.

“The sheer amount of different surfaces, objects and artistic styles ... feel grand and diverse.”

The quality of the music and visuals on display here are top notch (naturally), not just in the original artworks that have been reproduced and essentially reframed in virtual gallery rooms, but also in how they’ve been enhanced into new, gorgeous, razor sharp scenes of light and texture. While there are certain pieces here that really feel like they’ve brought some new ideas to the table that haven’t been seen in games, there are other hallway areas that feel a little more traditional — as though they were transferred from one of the number of first-person horror titles like Amnesia. Overall, though, I came away extremely impressed and surprised by where the game led me.

In some cases, I wish the game would have pushed the limits a bit more with its interactivity. There’s a space where you fly around waves of digitized cubes, and watch them shoo away from you as you come into contact. There’s a tunnel of blue spikes that feels like the rhythm horror game Thumper. There are other rooms, particularly for the National Anthem, which feel like there could have really been more going on. I’m not saying the game needed to be Starfox 64 3D or Doom, but from a later bit where you pick up the phone and hear Yorke’s distorted yelling through the speaker, it feels like there were opportunities left on the table. Similarly, there are spaces where the character can float or fly, but it often feels like you’re stuck in molasses rather than really soaring. Having said that, there will be times that the game forces you to isolate on specific sounds within songs from their catalog and create a miniature epic, or re-contextualize what was one a quick sound effect into a surprisingly haunting, moody new sound that you live with in a room.

“I came away extremely impressed and surprised by where the game led me.”

The title is very upfront that it isn’t quite a game, and, given that it’s free, it’s hard to see anyone being disappointed by the exhibition. However, there could have been a few quality-of-life improvements. Movement feels floaty and imprecise. The game’s frame rate stutters in spots. It can feel strange to approach these large beings or dutifully laboring figures and have nothing happen. There could have been more recognition of the player’s presence around NPCs. One you go through the gallery once, it’s likely you’ll have to go through again and find one of three different major album paths. It would be nice if the game had a fast-travel function to skip to songs/rooms. It seems only natural that a player might feel an attachment to a particular track or visual and want to instantly travel there, adding whatever scant re-playability could be added to a project like this. I would have loved more bits where touching or approaching specific objects would elicit a variety of isolated sounds.

The exhibition is a refreshingly innovative take on the music game genre, and doesn’t shy away from the material’s anxious and sometimes aggressively dour notes. In fact, it does the opposite, and forces the player to embrace and absorb particular moments, almost subjugating you to feel a specific emotional state. It alternates between freedom and strictly curated moments, and forces you to breathe in the ambience from this era of the band’s creative output. Even if moody and morose, it’s a balm in an era of uncertainty to play something that knows so wholly what it is.