Psychonauts 2 and Inner-Space Gaming: A Review

Rob Mayo reviews Psychonauts 2, a third-person platformer game on PlayStation 4 (Double Fine Productions, 2021).

When Psychonauts 2 was released in August 2021, it had been a long time coming for many fans. The original Psychonauts was released in 2005 to rave reviews from video game critics, and when the sequel was announced in 2015 it reached its $3.3 million crowd-funding target within about a month. Originally set for release in 2018 – already a significant stretch of time between the original game and its sequel, if compared to contemporary franchise games like Call of Duty – it was delayed and finally released on 25 August 2021, over 16 years after the original game.

A screenshot of Psychonauts 2 protagonist Raz, a stylised cartoon character wearing flying goggles on the top of his head and holding a disembodied brain inside a container
Psychonauts 2 protagonist Raz Aquato. Credit: Double Fine

Fortunately, the wait was worth it. The new game is a delight to play, retaining the endearing characterisation, snappy dialogue and imaginative world-building that distinguished the original from contemporaneous platformer games. The passage of time is also, significantly, not dissimilar to that between the original Psychonauts and another, very different game: Mindwheel (1984), a text-based adventure game that was developed (in part) by US poet (later laureate) Robert Pinsky.

My current interest in these games derives from the fact that they contribute to a canon of texts which depict ‘inner space’. Defined by J. G. Ballard as ‘an imaginary realm in which on the one hand the outer world of reality, and on the other the inner world of the mind meet and merge’, inner space fictions (such as The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny, or Inception by Christopher Nolan) typically feature settings which are shared virtual spaces (Ballard, 1968, 106).  These are not simply communal hallucinations, but also represent or manifest a person’s mind. In such spaces, facets of the landscape or architecture may metaphorically express concepts of how the mind works, and inner-space explorers may potentially alter the person’s mind by their interactions with space. This is, therefore, a rich vein of investigation for medical humanities scholars, as these texts provide insight into contemporaneous attitudes to psychiatric care and understandings of neurodiversity.

A screenshot of Raz from Psychonauts 2 navigating a kitchen-like environment which is distorted and twisted into a disorientating slope
Raz navigates the changing environments of Psychonauts 2. Credit: Double Fine

Inner space gaming 1984–2005

In my recent work on this theme I have focused on the first inner space video game, Mindwheel, and the original Psychonauts as well as other ‘inner space’ texts (Mayo, 2019; Mayo 2023). While these games naturally share a focus on imaginative level design and allowing the player to explore these spaces, there are also some very significant differences. Superficially, this is due simply to the huge technological developments in gaming that have occurred in the 21 years between the two games; Mindwheel is entirely text based, and the user must explore by typing the direction that they want to travel within the game world (north, south, east or west) before reading the text description of that space. The player of Psychonauts, in contrast, can use a combination of direction keys to guide the player avatar through the 3D world, direct the camera through 360 degrees to view the world from different angles, and jump (or use the psychic power of levitation) to reach different points of elevation. This degree of player autonomy of movement is commonplace now, but was not possible with the technology that Pinsky and his collaborators used to create Mindwheel.

Other differences are perhaps more indicative of a difference in philosophy between Pinsky in 1984 and Tim Schafer – Psychonauts’s creator and director – in 2005. Firstly, there is the question of difficulty and the relationship that a player has with the game. As Jesper Juul has explored, players typically expect a degree of difficulty in video games, and are just as likely to feel frustrated by a game that offers no challenge as by a game that is near-impossible to complete. Psychonauts provides sufficient capacity for player failure (which Juul terms a ‘paradoxical’ necessity for games), particularly in its fiendish final level (Juul, 2013, 50). However, it is in general also quite supportive of the player, providing helpful hints for when they get stuck, and offering many attempts to retry a task if they fail. Mindwheel, in contrast, forces the player to start over from the beginning if they fail, and features many narrative dead-ends which render the game unwinnable if a player takes a wrong turn or fails to pick up an essential item.

Secondly, there is the issue of ‘coherence’ – both in terms of the player’s comprehension of what they need to do to win, and in terms of how the game design complements the theme of inner space exploration. In Mindwheel it is unclear why, for example, one person’s mind can only be accessed by putting an acorn into a recess. What this says about that person’s mind, or how such a game mechanic represents a typical mental function is perhaps secondary to Mindwheel’s commitment to a generic puzzle that doesn’t relate to the theme of inner space at all. Mindwheel’s inner space exploration is hamstrung by the fact that the characters whose minds are explored are all long dead, and the player never gets a sense of the persona connected to the mental apparatus. In Psychonauts, the characters are as vividly realised externally as their inner worlds are rendered as game levels, and it is often clear how the player’s actions in the mind have produced a positive change in the character’s outlook and wellbeing.

The evolution of Psychonauts

With this recent research in mind, my anticipation for Psychonauts 2 was not simply to see if it was as enjoyable to play as its precursor, but whether it would produce such a stark contrast, after another 16 years had passed. Unsurprisingly, Psychonauts 2 remains quite consistent with Psychonauts, given that it directly continues the story established in previous games (the two platformer games are bridged by Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, a puzzle game for VR which cannily plays to both the strengths and limitations of VR gaming but does not feature much inner space exploration). The coherence of the game mechanics around its theme is increased, with many new antagonists explicitly representing a particular dysphoric experience. Perhaps most memorable among these is the manifestation of a panic attack, a chaotic adversary which can only be defeated by slowing time so that its movements are easier to understand and react to.

Many of the same mechanics from the first game – such as using telekinesis to manoeuvre objects and solve puzzles – are still present. There are new mechanics, such as ‘projection’, which creates a 2D representation of the player character (Raz) which can help him by slipping through bars or letter boxes; this is useful for the player, but does not provide any insight into Raz’s mind or how the psychiatric process works. A more illuminating mechanic is the ‘mental connection’ skill acquired early in the game. Functionally, the skill is used to cross distances that can’t be bridged by jumping. Thematically, the skill suggests the image of neural pathways and capacity to ‘rewire’ mental processes which keep the patient trapped in uncomfortable thoughts and behaviours. The function, theme and game ethos are masterfully brought together in one of the game’s first levels, set in the mind of a psychonaut trainer. Keen to progress his training and take part in an official psychonauts mission, Raz forms a new mental connection in Hollis Forsythe’s mind between risk and success, inadvertently turning her into a compulsive gambler. The driving motivation for the level set in her mind is to provide more healthy mental connections that will undo this drastic change, aligning the player’s actions with therapeutic practice and warning against the dangers of untrained psychiatric intervention.

Art from Psychonauts 2 depicting 'neural links' via glowing pink tree-like branches and connections which Raz navigates like pathways
Concept art depicting the navigation of ‘mental connections’. Credit: Double Fine

Compared to one of Psychonauts’s most beloved levels, The Milkman Conspiracy, the main innovation of Psychonauts 2 becomes clear. In Psychonauts, the paranoid delusions of Boyd are vividly represented by his twisting internal landscape and its chaotic physics, but Raz’s intervention into his mind doesn’t seem to alleviate his condition, and Boyd is last seen committing arson against the asylum in which he is imprisoned. While the level design for Boyd’s mind was rightfully praised for its innovation (with Lucas Sullivan presenting it as evidence for ‘Why Psychonauts is one of the greatest games ever made’), the characterisation of a paranoid person (of which the level design is a component) is not particularly insightful or sympathetic. The team behind the Psychonauts games seems to have reflected on this and responded to the greater tendency in contemporary culture for awareness and consideration of (neuro)diversity, exemplified by the message that greets players starting the game:

Psychonauts 2 contains artistic interpretations of serious mental conditions including addiction, PTSD, panic attacks, anxiety and delusions [which might be] distressing to some players.’

This message continues to state that the game’s primary focus is on ‘empathy and healing’, and directs players to TakeThis.org if they need help with any of the serious issues depicted. The themes of ‘empathy and healing’ are reflected in various reunited or reformed family units,  including both the literal Aquato and Zanotto families and the broader, more figurative Psychonauts ‘family’. However, while the game concludes with a refreshing acknowledgement that ‘there are flaws in our most venerated institutions, in our heroes, and in ourselves’ and that ‘we all make mistakes, and we all need help sometimes’,  a redemptive ‘second chance’ is notably not extended to the game’s villains, who are indefinitely banished to either a literal prison cell or a more fantastical realm of exile.

This questionable callback to the first game’s asylum notwithstanding, Psychonauts 2’s ostensible ethos of inclusivity and consideration of its diverse playerbase is also exemplified in the increased diversity of characters; while the characters in Psychonauts who display any sexuality are exclusively heterosexual, Psychonauts 2 prominently features a homosexual marriage between two of the in-universe founders of the Psychonauts, Bob Zanotto and Helmut Fullbear. Rather than being tokenistic (as is, arguably, the inclusion of a trainee psychonaut in a wheelchair), Zanotto provides the basis for a vivid exploration of grief and depression, as the lasting, detrimental impact of the death of his husband is depicted in a level characterised by downward or spiraling movement and a constant threat of engulfment.

Psychonauts 2, then, maintains the thematic coherence that made Psychonauts such an innovative and beloved video game, and builds upon it with a new focus on the need to provide ‘empathy and healing’. This evolution of inner space gaming, from Mindwheel and through the Psychonauts series, is an insightful case study for medical humanities scholars, but Psychonauts 2’s thematic shift makes it an even more fruitful text for medical humanities in itself. As well as treating players to another set of vivid and innovative levels, Psychonauts 2 provides an engaging exploration of the motivations and responsibilities of psychiatric care, emphatically casting the player as a healer rather than mental spy. It is an insightful and heartening reflection of contemporary culture; if Double Fine produces a Psychonauts 3 in another 15–20 years, may it be as sophisticated and worth the wait as this.

References

Ballard, J.G. 1968. “Interview with J. G. Ballard.” Munich Round Up 100.

Juul, Jesper. 2013.The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Mayo, Rob. 2023. “Ludic Mechanics, Psychic Mechanisms and Explorations of ‘Inner Space’ in Mindwheel and Psychonauts.Games and Culture. https://doi.org/10.1177/15554120231172614.

Mayo, Rob. 2019. “The Myth of Dream-Hacking and ‘Inner Space’ in Science Fiction, 1948–2010”, in Healthy Minds in the Twentieth Century: In and Beyond the Asylum, edited by Alice Brumby and Steven J. Taylor, 239–265. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

About the Author

Rob Mayo is the author of Depression and Dysphoria in the Fiction of David Foster Wallace (Routledge, 2021). He is now working on the intersection of psychiatric knowledge and video game mechanics in Robert Pinksy’s Mindwheel and Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts, as part of a larger project on the theme of ‘inner space’ in science fiction literature, film and video games. He can be found on Twitter at @RobFMayo.

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