Why Psychonauts 2’s most unethical mechanic epitomises its sensitive side (contains spoilers)
When Psychonauts 2’s protracted introduction is over and Raz begins his internship in earnest, it tutorialises a new ability that comes with a playful new mechanic, one that immediately sets our minds racing as we imagine it powering a range of puzzle concepts. It’s a brilliant idea, the kind some developers might build an entire game around. Yet within the hour, Double Fine shocks us by doing something we’re not sure we’ve seen before – or not like this, at any rate. Having taught us how to use this ability, it almost immediately takes it away. Permanently.
To dig into why, we need to explore the story behind it, so if you’re hoping to go in cold, look away now.
The second mental world in the game belongs to Hollis Forsythe, usually the Psychonauts’ second-incommand, but promoted to temporary head while Truman Zanotto is incapacitated. Frustrated by her safety-first approach, which he believes is holding him and his fellow interns back, Raz seizes upon the chance to change her way of thinking using his new Mental Connection power. Linking two thoughts – ‘money’ with ‘risk’ – he transforms her environment (a neurological hospital) into a casino. Rather than, as Raz imagines, encouraging her to take chances on these young recruits to make the organisation more profitable, he’s saddled her with an addiction to gambling. Naturally, Raz is horrified and sets about fixing it, which partly involves further use of the mechanic to convince gamblers that walking away from a slot machine is wiser than persisting in the hope of breaking even. This, at least, appears to be a much more helpful use of his power.
Even so, when Raz finally defeats Lady Luctopus – a gaudy, Vegas-themed cephalopod, who has imprisoned his fellow interns within giant playing cards – and exits Hollis’s brain, he’s admonished for his behaviour. The human mind is not to be toyed with, Hollis explains. This seems a tad hypocritical after the opening heist, which is built around a piece of clever misdirection. The difference, however, is helpfully defined: brains are not to be manipulated for one’s own ends. She explains that the privilege of being a Psychonaut comes with a duty of care to those you’re attempting to heal.
Though it’s mischief rather than malice that prompts all this, it’s a sobering moment – all the more so when it dawns that while Mental Connection will still function as a kind of ethereal grapple between stray thoughts, you’re not going to be seeing any more floating word bubbles to tether specific ideas together. We’ve played plenty of games that have introduced game mechanics and then moved on (Nintendo EPD does it all the time), but we’re struggling to think of any that have been abandoned for presenting an ethical narrative quandary.
Then again, it’s clear Psychonauts 2 is taking its own responsibilities seriously. The original game wasn’t, as Schafer has admitted, without its problems in its depictions of a variety of mental conditions, but its central conceit was inherently kind and empathetic – it clearly came from a good place. This time, Double Fine has decided to make its intentions more transparent.
One unfortunate side-effect of that is the script’s habit of overexplaining itself. You can understand the studio opting to err on the side of caution, even if, on occasion, you sense Schafer grappling with his desire to poke fun while trying to remain sensitive to the conditions portrayed. It’s perhaps telling that, outside of some terrific visual gags, some of the funniest moments are reserved for incidental or optional dialogue with NPCs. Psychonauts 2 is evidently keen not to undercut its more serious moments with comedy.
Still, some changes are undoubtedly for the better: Raz asks for consent before he dives into a character’s brain, a small but considerate touch that makes us feel better about this intrusive form of therapy. Indeed, it’s no surprise to see three consultants, including mental health nonprofit Take This, named in the credits.
Nor is it surprising that Schafer and Double Fine should so consistently find smart visual and mechanical ways to address a range of mental conditions. One character appears in three distinct guises, representing the different versions of ourselves that we present to the world. Another has problems that have been literally bottled up, requiring you to physically uncork them so they can be reckoned with. A lot of thought and care has been invested in the place and function of everything in these worlds, even the enemy archetypes. Doubts emerge out of nowhere, nagging at you and slowing you down. Panic attacks, on the other hand, are fast, jagged and unsettling: a dark, spiky, unwanted presence that’s most effectively dealt with by pausing for breath using your Time Bubble. And bad moods (grumpy scribbles that remind us of Chuchel during one of his strops) are dealt with by steering a 2D cutout of Raz dressed as a therapist towards the source of its woes, so you can demolish it and turn its frown upside down.
There may be complaints from some quarters about Double Fine’s handling of certain issues, even if some of that will be down to interpretation: defeating a boss could be viewed as encouraging someone to repress a problem rather than representing them coming to terms with it, for example. But as we return to root around in the recesses of these minds for the post-game mop-up, we’re struck by a final thought. Psychonauts 2 may spend its entirety fixated on the brain, but we come away most impressed by its heart.
It’s no surprise to see three consultants, including mental health nonprofit Take This, named in the credits