Psychonauts and the Evolution of Self-Help
By Reece Skelley (he/him)
This article contains spoilers for Psychonauts 1, which came out 16 years ago, and mild spoilers for Psychonauts 2, which came out a month ago.
Psychonauts is a beloved cult classic video game for many reasons, but one of its most prescient – and most underrated – reasons is its sincere display of empathy for mental illness. Since we’ve all been in a big spooky lockdown and have had quite enough time to explore the depths of our own depraved minds, let me take a few minutes to shill for a game about jumping into someone else’s.
Let’s quickly summarise for the uninitiated: Psychonauts is a series of 3D platformers in which Razputin Aquato, our ten-year-old hero, runs away from the circus and sneaks into Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, with the goal of joining the fabled super-spy agency of the Psychonauts. Cue a few conspiracy-laden shenanigans – someone stealing the brains of campers here, or practicing necromancy to revive an old psychic war criminal there – and the rest is history.
Every level takes place in a person’s subconscious, and as the first game progresses from psychic summer camp to mental asylum, the minds on display become more fractured. A saner subconscious, such as Agent Milla Vodello’s internal disco party, can compartmentalise infernal past tragedies into near-missable secret areas. On the other hand, the famous “Milkman Conspiracy” sends suburban paranoia past the boundaries of physics, with swirling pavement turning up and around on itself. The allegories and gimmicks are rarely subtle – hell, most enemies are straight up artistic interpretations of negative emotions, like regrets trying to “weigh you down” by dropping anvils on your head. That’s what makes exploring these worlds and beating these enemies so fun. Beyond the normal satisfying sense of progression, you feel like you’re actually making a difference for these characters.
Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between assisting someone with their demons, and carrying their burden on your own shoulders. In hindsight, the original Psychonauts has no time to distinguish between the two properly, because it’s a video game. It’s an interactive medium; activity rules over passivity here, so of course you’re going to sort the characters’ emotional baggage for them. If you don’t beat that mental apparition of Napoleon Bonaparte in a non-copyright infringing game of Risk, then who will? These characters do want help, but your progression as a player is at odds with their progression towards healing, forcing an inorganic state of “normalcy” in order to proceed.
(Let’s not act like that’s too deep for a "cartoon" – cartoony stuff isn’t just for kids. The Last Airbender featured genocide and surveillance states and our ten-year-old-selves didn’t mind. Tangent over!)
In contrast, one of Psychonauts 2’s early story trailers emphasises “we’re not here to fix people,” and that ethical dilemma is confronted immediately in the game. This is conveyed by the game’s grappling hook mechanic, cleverly imbued with the concept of "mental connection". Think Inception, but instead of a spinning top, Leonardo DiCaprio jumps across space and time using a book of word search connect-the-dots puzzles. Almost immediately it’s used to make neural associations – aligning “risk” with “money” to accidentally inspire a gambling addiction, or “cilantro” and “disgust” to inspire a correct opinion. Consequently, these mental connections put a globe-trotting casino heist in jeopardy, and Raz is forced to undo his mistakes before people get seriously hurt. The subtextual fridge horror of the original game becomes full-blown text here: altering people’s minds, especially without their permission, only spells disaster.
It’s refreshing to see a character not only learn this lesson about trust, but consistently honour it going forward, since the transition from mental saviour to mental assistant adds a lot of nuance in how Raz treats the supporting cast. Little touches, like asking for consent before throwing his psychic portal onto someone’s big ol’ forehead, go a long way in establishing a relationship of respect. Sure, on some level, you’ve got to suspend your disbelief and accept a 10-year-old playing therapist, giving closure to incredibly powerful super-spy psychic adults. Then again, we always tout kids for viewing the world in a more pure way than us.
Lately, video games can feel less like a hobby and just as much like the rat races we use them to escape from. eSports are a full-time job now, talk about a rat race, right? And sports games sell gambling to kids, and big expensive live service titles are all fighting to be the game you play forever and sink money into until the day you die and who’s a good boy, you are, yes you are, here’s your dopamine fix! It’s an entertainment medium too often defined by toxicity, by bashing your head against a wall until you click or you crack – and that lack of accessibility is a major turn-off.
Psychonauts 2 doesn’t care if you “get good”, and it doesn’t want to pressure you into feeling like you have to. It cares about making sure you understand its themes and messages, and it cares that you’re having a good time. For all the cartoonishly absurd fridge horror lying underneath the surface, it never stops feeling like a dorky Saturday morning cartoon. (Putting dirt into pancakes “for the umami” is genuinely my favourite joke of 2021, by the way). This is a story where children are literally sneezing brains out of their heads and Raz is more worried about having a girlfriend. At the end of the day, no one’s made the butt of the joke in Psychonauts; it accepts the truth that punching down is both bad comedy and in bad taste – and the characters that attempt to usually get their comeuppance one way or another.
For Raz, the time between games has been only a few days; for us, it’s been sixteen years. Eight-year-old Reece would never have appreciated a disclaimer or content warning before the game started; he probably would’ve been whining about how the game wouldn’t let me play the actual game. Adult Reece, however, is a professional, superior to a child in every way, and thus, appreciates the way Tim Schafer and co. have managed to expand on the original game in a mature and meaningful way, whilst retaining the nostalgic humour of the original.
Games like this rarely come once in a generation, let alone once in a lifetime. We assume that we’ll automatically understand ourselves better as we age, but the truth is things never come that easily. That’s why we have to appreciate and preserve Psychonauts now, so when the next generation comes along, they’ll have something they can appreciate too – something that appreciates them back