Welcome to Smugglivus 2016! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2016, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2017, and more.
So who likes works about mental health! Mental health has been a subject near and dear to my heart lately. I’ve been learning a lot about my own mental health this year, and thinking a lot about how it’s portrayed in media. And when I think “mental health in media”, there’s nothing that jumps to mind quicker than Psychonauts
Psychonauts is a 2005 video game created by Tim Schafer and co-written by Schafer and Erik Wolpaw. Tim Schafer is the creator of many think-outside-the-box video games, known for having a unique style that nonetheless looks completely different from game to game. Erik Wolpaw is the writer behind the Portal games, which are famous for some of the best video game writing in history. With these two teaming up to write, and Scott Campbell on board as lead concept artist, Psychonauts was sure to be something interesting. But what exactly it turned out to be is a gestalt beyond the sum of the talents of its creators.
The protagonist is Razputin “Raz” Aquato, a young boy who, in a twist on the usual trope, runs away from the circus he was raised in to go to a summer camp. The thing is, it’s a summer camp for psychics. At this camp, he hones his psychic powers and explores the mental worlds of those around him, eventually encountering a conspiracy that forces him to face not only the formidable (and often silly) machinations of his enemies, but also his own inner demons. Also, you can set squirrels on fire (but watch out, some of the psychic wildlife can set you on fire right back).
The visual look of the game is bizarre-bordering-on-ugly, but this actually works in the game’s favour as it makes everything look unexpected and interesting. And there is not one crate anywhere.
As Raz explores minds, he encounters some common elements across these imagined worlds. One is the Censors, little be-suited entities whose task is to keep minds orderly and free of incursions. Of course, Raz himself is a foreign entity in the minds he explores, so the Censors are out to get him. Another common enemy are the Personal Demons: imps which harass Raz on his quests. Throughout the worlds, Raz can collect Figments of the Imagination. These are childlike crayon drawings of things pertinent to each given world. Raz can also clear out Mental Cobwebs and sort out Emotional Baggage — actual pieces of luggage which cry noisily until they are reunited with their tags. Sorting all the Emotional Baggage in a world grants access to “Primal Memories”: concept art of the pertinent world and characters. Last but not least, scattered throughout each world are one or two Mental Vaults where the character whose mind you are exploring has locked away specific memories. These memories come in the form of slideshows and often reward the player with an outright emotional punch. One character hides memories of reading his father’s mind to learn about his dead mother. Another has a horrific memory of dying children. This game does not mess around and rewards thorough exploration with rich pictures of each character’s inner world.
But those are the elements that are common across all the mental worlds. What makes this game really shine are the absolutely unique mental worlds themselves.
Each mental world is utterly unlike any other, and is a masterwork of characterization and environment-as-storytelling. The first mental worlds you encounter are those of the camp counselors: Coach Oleander, Milla Vodello, and Sasha Nein. These mental worlds have been carefully crafted by these talented psychics to teach the camp’s children about specific mental abilities, but each holds surprises about the counselors’ psyches. After all, it’s impossible to completely partition your mind off — whatever you’re trying to hide will always be there, somewhere. I’ll take Milla Vodello’s mind as an example. She’s here to teach the children about levitating, and Milla herself is a perky, fun-loving maternal figure. Her mental world is a disco dance party with a race track built in, an utter playground for the children she loves to teach. But if you step out of bounds and explore the darker corners of her world, you will find the room where she has carefully locked away her nightmares. Mia is a healthy individual: her nightmares are acknowledged, but do not bleed into the safe world she has created for the children she cares for. They’re in a separate space, locked inside a chest.
But things get very dicey when you move from the carefully-cultivated minds of the camp counselors to the messy inner worlds of the rest of the characters you encounter, and this happens to include the entire population of a dysfunctional asylum. Also a giant mutated lungfish.
So here is where I face a fork with my feelings about Psychonauts. On the one hand, it’s a really enjoyable, clever game. On the other hand, you solve mental troubles by beating up bosses. It’s just not that easy in real life, you know?
But Psychonauts does so many interesting things with taking mental conditions and translating them into entire worlds that you explore that… honestly? I love it. People are not presented as the sum of their mental conditions, but as full individuals where whatever they have up with their brains is just one part of them. Sure, you solve problems by beating up bosses, but figuring out what to beat up and how to win is always an interesting exercise. The game actually has some really nuanced and creative ways of interpreting mental illnesses and turning them into something visual, something accessible, something visceral and relatable.
None of the people in and around the asylum whose minds you enter are demonized. They’re just people. People who need help, which the dysfunctional, twisted system they’re in — note, a villain is in charge of the asylum at this point — isn’t providing. (But mental health facilities/caretakers overall are not demonized — there’s a very nice orderly there.) So it’s up to Raz to help them sort through their issues. And none of them have just one thing going on with them that is easily solved. There’s a man who has OCD but also anger issues. His mental world is a black velvet painting landscape dripping with neon colours and rich symbolism. You have to figure out what sets off his anger and how he deals with it in order to win in his mental world. There’s a woman who has bipolar disorder, but also has a really harsh inner critic and issues with her family. You have to deal with all of those at once to help her. There’s the guy who used to be an orderly at the asylum who reached out to a patient by playing board games with him, until the orderly was overwhelmed by an inferiority complex inspired by being related to Napoleon Bonaparte.
But what really makes these worlds rich is the visuals. The level that’s gotten the most critical attention is called “The Milkman Conspiracy” and concerns paranoia and pyromania. The world is a literally-twisted 1950s suburban landscape populated by trenchcoat-wearing G-men (that’s what they’re called) and Rainbow Squirt Scouts. The G-men incompetently impersonate suburban roles like housewife (by wielding a rolling pin while making no attempt to alter their suit-and-trenchcoat look), grieving widows (by wielding calla lilies like golfing clubs), and road crew workers (by using STOP signs as shovels). The level is populated by eyes staring out of the blinds of empty houses and cameras popping out of mailboxes and lawn flamingoes. The Figments in this world (remember them?) are childlike drawings of what the subject imagines an ideal suburban life to be: potted plants and happy neighbors. This is indeed a terrific level, and I won’t ruin the punchline for you here, but it’s a fascinating take on paranoia.
But this level is far from alone. My favourite is probably “Black Velvetopia“, which I mentioned above. In this level, the subject is a painter who is endlessly building a house of cards to reach a beautiful woman in the sky, who is crying rose petals. Your job is to collect cards to get up to that lady by defeating animal-themed luchadores. There is a bull who regularly runs through the main narrow street that structures the level, dogs who are painting in alleys (as in Dogs Playing Poker; remember the cards?), and paintings that turn into real objects when placed in the right locations. And all of this, yes, ties together to describe the subject’s mental state.
Another level changes things up entirely: in the mind of Fred Bonaparte the orderly, he is playing an endless strategy game against the genetic memory of his ancestor, Napoleon. Your job is to inspire his units and move them around the strategy game. To do this, you alternate between being gigantic and tiny: when small, you interact with the game’s units directly as an equal, and when large, you see the strategy board as a whole and move units around as a commander.
And, of course, there is another favourite level: Lungfishopolis. When you enter the mental world of the mutated lungfish I mentioned earlier, the fish imagines you as a kaiju stomping around a city populated entirely by little replicas of the mutated lungfish. Raz, in this world, is known as “Goggalor” (he wears aviator goggles throughout the game).
Each level has a unique take and unique gameplay mechanics, and the way to beat the level is not always obvious. Mental health is not always intuitive, but one thing Psychonauts will show you is: it’s always fascinating.
I’ve struggled with pinning down my feelings about Psychonauts as an object of critique. Sure, it’s creative and interesting, but is it a good portrayal of mental health? Is it exoticisizing? Is it essentialist? And I think, in the end, the game does struggle with that a bit*, just because of its premise and mechanics. But I think it more than makes up for it with a heavy dose of compassion and creativity.
All in all, I heartily recommend everyone check out Psychonauts if they’re able — it’s on a number of platforms and there are now some sequels on the way. It’s a fascinating look into imagining mental health, and well worth a visit.
* If there’s one thing that’s most problematic about the game is that Raz and his family are Romani stereotypes.