Psychonauts 2, a multi-hyphenate action-platformer-comedy-adventure, is a rare video game genuinely interested in people — and not just the protagonist or player.
It’s about a youngster with psychic abilities named Razputin ‘Raz’ Aquato who must solve a mystery at an international psychic espionage organization. In doing so, you, the player, delve into the minds of its cast of eccentric characters. You literally explore their subjective mental landscapes rendered in fabulous idiosyncratic detail albeit shaped by troubling insecurities. I was reminded as much of Pixar’s emotionally charged, interior adventure Inside Out as I was 3D entries in the Mario series. The best parts of it feel singularly open-hearted, exploring situations and feelings that we can all relate to, even if not all of us have experienced them directly. It stirs the soul as much as it tickles the brain.
Sequel to the beloved 2005 original, Psychonauts 2 kicks off with young Raz joining the internship program at Psychonauts. Its leader, Truman Zanotto, has been kidnapped, and the prime suspect is an unhinged ex-dentist called Dr. Laboto. So Raz dives into his mind. Inception-style, in a bid to extract information on his boss’ whereabouts. In these opening moments, we get a taste for how discombobulating and strange the insides of our heads are. Befitting his former profession, Dr. Laboto’s is one in which unnervingly realistic teeth and squidgy red flesh line corridors that defy spatial and temporal logic, all while the game’s peppy script ensures every orthodontic pun that can be made does indeed get made. Like other characters in the game, Dr. Laboto has his own hang-ups, but writer Tim Schafer (also co-founder of Double Fine), never makes a joke at the expense of these troubled individuals; rather, the game is a grand exercise in understanding and empathy.
With the intro out of the way, Psychonauts 2 opens up. The headquarters of the espionage group is a hub world which you’re free to explore almost as you please. Stepping out into its buzzing atrium — all sleek, curved 1960s design — is a thrill, reminiscent of the great reveal shots of Pixar’s output like that of the great bug city in A Bug’s Life. You get the sense that the scope of this computer-generated world goes beyond what you will necessarily encounter directly.
The game does widen further as you make progress. You go outdoors and gain abilities that make it possible to access hard-to-reach areas. The bulk of it, though, is spent inside the heads of its non-playable characters, and you advance through these sections in linear fashion. It feels very different to the large open spaces of recent platforming classic Super Mario Odyssey which was full of activities you could tackle in any order you liked.
If Psychonauts 2 is less formally ambitious than some of its peers, the game makes up for it with the ingenious scenarios that frame each psychic excursion. One, near the start of the game, sees Raz accidentally turning his line manager, the serious-minded Agent Hollis Forsythe, into a foolhardy gambler. How? By uniting the ideas of risk and money in her head using his own mental powers. You spend the next 45 minutes trying to undo this mistake by rewiring her glittering, obstacle-filled casino brain. Ideas float inside it, depicted as classic thought bubbles, and Raz must teleport between them to solidify their connections. As the jazz soundtrack bubbles along, you ultimately help Hollis overcome her newfound addiction.
The platforming of Psychonauts 2 is a big improvement on the 2005 original, which often felt floaty and inconsequential. Here, there’s a delightful snap to Raz’s movement as he flits between running, jumping, rolling, and levitating. While the mechanics of movement don’t change a great deal throughout, the environments absolutely do, whisking players through a woodsy adventure park, hare-brained game show, and softly quilted world, amongst others. In this regard, it really feels as if technology has caught up with Double Fine’s considerable vision. There’s a weight, solidity, and tactile quality to the varied high-definition spaces you traverse — everything looks good enough to eat, or at least plunge your head into.
It really feels as if technology has caught up with Double Fine’s considerable vision.
So too has society started to catch up with the franchise’s nuanced depiction of mental health, even if many video games haven’t (the recent Moons of Madness typifies the all too common mental-illness-as-horror trope). Schafer’s script draws clear parallels between what happened to its cast of characters in their early life, many of whom are elderly, and the figurative representations we see inside their mind — a universe of memories, repressed pain, and coping mechanisms. It’s the kind of story I imagine benefits from the perspective Schafer, now well into his 50s, brings to the table; the heavily felt emotions ring true. The most heart-rending of these revolve around two characters, Bob Zanotto, uncle to the grand head of the Psychonauts, and the cryptically named “Brain in a Jar.” It's best not to spoil exactly what happens, but I found their subplot utterly touching.
Brain in a Jar is also the catalyst for the game’s most celebratory depiction of the brain. Raz helps the estranged cerebral matter rediscover its five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. You do so by leaping through a psychedelic dream world as a voiceover spits out cosmic one-liners like “the question isn’t what you know but what you feel.” These are deep philosophical ideas delivered with breezy exuberance; they may just help you see the world in a new, acid-dipped light.
And yet, Psychonauts 2 isn’t entirely without missteps. We learn of Grulovia, a cliched representation of eastern Europe (or perhaps, more specifically, Russia) where Raz’s family is from — the way its population was beaten down by war and a jingoistic monarchy. In one grating section, Raz endures an agitprop-esque musical tour of its recent history — I felt his pain, and boredom. Neither is the game’s combat especially fun, even if the enemy design is uniformly excellent (I love the drab office wear and grimace of the Censors who police minds). Its problem stems from the fact that many of the enemy types are vulnerable to specific psychic powers of Raz’s, but only four can ever be equipped at once. This means you have to swap them out mid-combat which, as you might imagine, grows tiresome — it’s at odds with a game effortless in so many other ways.
It’s worth pointing out here that Psychonauts 2 comes equipped with a host of accessibility options, some of which ease the pain of combat. I’ll be honest; I used the invincibility toggle at various points, but this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the action. Just as there’s no judgement about various mental and emotional states, the same holds true when it comes to proficiency using a controller. The game is about overcoming challenges on your own terms.
“We’re not here to change people’s minds, to ‘fix’ people. We’re here to help people fight their demons. The ones they already have.”
As Agent Forsythe reminds Raz early in his mission, “we’re not here to change people’s minds, to ‘fix’ people. We’re here to help people fight their demons. The ones they already have.” Psychonauts 2 demonstrates this sentiment at every turn, even going so far as to extend sympathy to its megalomaniac villain who one character says was simply “going through a tough time” when she committed her not inconsiderable misdemeanors. If we think about Psychonauts 2 as a children’s game, then it’s notable for avoiding the sort of prescriptive statements that talk down to youngsters. The game takes us inside the minds of others, each one its own unique world, to lay bare a universal truth: there are no easy answers when it comes to “getting better.” In Psychonauts 2, just like the real world, life is, and always will be, a process.