Art reflects life. Often, that is a necessary responsibility. People find great solace in seeing their experiences mirrored on the screens they engage with, no matter the size.
Mental Health is a stigmatic issue that plagues the lives of millions everyday. It is a common diagnosis, an overwhelming emotional battle fought inside the small confines of one’s own head. You’ve either felt it yourself or know someone who has, but it’s not something society wants to raise at the collective dinner table, so we internalize and look to expressive mediums like video games, motion pictures and records in an attempt to understand the feelings we can’t explain.
What is impossible to comprehend becomes palatable and defining. Stumbling onto someone else’s most introspective thoughts can be a wholly purgative experience, a mode of relatability not found in meatspace.
It’s not uncommon to hear stories about people suffering who engage with media and later attribute its existence to their own. This is why it’s so important for entertainment to address and challenge distinctly taboo subjects in order to bring them into the limelight and start life-changing conversations.
While in some instances it would merely be out of character, many video games fall short in their depictions of mental health. It’s most often subdued or glossed over, mirroring the situation in real life and inevitably contributing to that formula. Games that do succeed however warrant an extreme amount of praise. Especially when they don’t just address the subject, they do it with nuance and integrate it into the medium, making play the means by which you reveal the message, not just exposition.
In this article I’d like to focus on a game that manages this feat, namely Double Fine’s 2005 3D platformer Psychonauts.It’s a very dear experience to me for a number of reasons, and the way I like to explain it is by comparing it to a Pixar film.
When I was a child, I remember standing in the Gateshead Toys’ R Us with my dad looking at the Xbox cover art. My brain seemed to have decided that I hadn’t yet seen something so abstract and interesting as this image. On that day I was lucky to be treated to a video game of my choosing, and out of nowhere this game demanded my immediate attention, like a beacon in the night.
I had previously seen a very early trailer for the game from E3 2002 on the Xbox combo disc, but since then the logo had changed and all I could remember was that the game looked effortlessly unique.
When I first played it as a boy, it was this wacky unexplainable adventure into the minds of a range of interesting characters. Even now when people ask me what my favourite video game is, I find it tough to word Psychonauts in such a way that does it justice. Its systems and story are baked in thematic layers that don’t lend to a blurb. The conversation will end up awkward as I fumble over myself in an attempt to explain it. I start to look a bit obsessive and mad, and I’ll wonder why I didn’t default to a second-favourite with a palatable elevator pitch like Dead Rising.
Much like Pixar’s Toy Story or any gem from their animated roster, Psychonauts is rich in colour and morality and most crucially, some of the humour and themes are completely lost on young children.Yet, the design of the world and its characters leave captivating impressions, especially on myself.
I felt at home with my duke controller in Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, and I earnestly wanted to help achieve Raz’s dreams of becoming a psychic secret agent (Psychonaut) by solving the seemingly ordinary problems faced by the people he encounters.
I appreciated the sounds and colours, and all of the expressive enemies put a giddy smile on my face, but my mind wasn’t operating at a level where I could appreciate the bigger picture. Fast forward, I’m 19 and I’m in my second year of university. I hold the game fondly and have returned to it periodically in my adolescence. This time I sit down to play it and something about it feels special.
One reason why is that I was finally playing it on my desktop PC with updated graphics and quality-of-life improvements. It was the Steam release. This I feel nurtured my experience, as it let me return and understand what Psychonauts is truly about.
Every level I had skipped blissfully through in my childhood, I instead paused to study the art and reflect on the writing and situation. Psychonauts is inherently quite a dark game. Yes, the overarching conspiracy that Raz has to solve concerns the pandemic lobotomy of children, but the art style and tone is deceptively childish, to a point so metaphoric that children can get lost in the allegory that might resonate with an adult easily.
If you take a step back, you eventually realize that the game is about going into the minds of people struggling with actual mental health issues, only masqueraded in masterful metaphor.
Whilst all the signs were there as a child (emotional baggage collectibles, mental health being your HP), I, of course, was blissfully unaware of this aspect of human life. At 10 years old I had never struggled with it, but now, at 19 I certainly had, and these feelings were at the front of my mind.
I’d recently suffered great loss and was pushed out in my little row-boat into a wild, terrifying new biome: university. I was lonely, anxious and lacking direction. Getting out of bed and leaving my room constituted a successful day. In a particularly dark place in my own life I found new solace in Psychonauts, a game that pulls no punches with its mental health discourse in a manner I hadn’t seen before.
A previously innocuous level like Gloria’s Theater was now a gritty, relatable story that really tugged at my heart. Set at the bay of a baroque stage play within this character’s mind, devastating episodes of Gloria’s life are replayed ad nauseam whilst a giant critic fires abuse from above, condemning the stars of the show into anxious stasis.
Raz must alter the waves of mood in each act to let the story play out and essentially, complete the heart-wrenching performance. Something so simple for an experienced starlet is now somehow impossible, and desperately, the help of another is needed to do simple tasks and mitigate the voice of a harsh critic.
In real life, Gloria had suffered a family bereavement that had forced her into submission. She felt lost and incapable of acting normally, which meant she could not connect meaningfully with anyone.This hurt her acting and led real critics to demean her previously brilliant performances and ruin her career. In her mind this is reflected as bipolarity, and a dangerous inner critic. Gloria’s self-deprecation had become so critical that all of who she is lost.
What she doesn’t realize is that those voices are irrational. Raz eventually finds and stops this inner critic, who in a spat of irony is frightful of the spotlight. Gloria learns how to rationalize and live with her issues in a more positive way, and retires from the scene.
What is so brilliant about this is that something like this couldn’t exist in any other form of media. The interactivity of games creates the perfect medium to tell a powerful story through actual gameplay.
Raz has to use his Invisibility power to reach out to a tearful star when she needs it, fix the spotlight to mitigate stage fright and get to the dangerous area of her mind by platforming through the rafters of the theatre. To solve the level’s core puzzle you have to swap between happy and sad stage moods that force the player to deal with Gloria’s darkest moments. Rationalizing and letting her experiences out to the world in order to get to a calm place to deal with them.
The boss fight even involves avoiding literal “critique projectiles” from the imaginary detractor who has eclipsed the performance. This critic is the only voice in Gloria’s lonely head, the only one she can hear after the years of torment. This kind of emotional nuance is spread across Psychonauts. Each level is attuned to a range of real-world mental problems that are gamified into something palatable and impactful. The level design on display here is unparalleled.
You’d be lucky to find the moral quandary stocked in one of these levels spread across an entire game. The beauty is that none of these levels are actually levels, they’re fully realized mental worlds. You are inside someone’s head acting as the therapist for another and by doing so, lending an ear and learning how to soothe your own worried mind.
Black Velvetopia is about the all-too-relatable struggle to create whilst facing adversity. Edgar always ends up painting bullfights over his beautiful artwork to cope with the loss of a loved one. The game uses a fragile house of cards as a motif to juxtapose the delicacy of masculinity approaching emotion with the violence and rage tied to its most toxic pitfalls.
Sasha’s Shooting Gallery is simply a compact white cube belonging to a man who gives off the impression he has it all together. He frames it as the perfect tutorial setting for the protagonist, but as the level progresses you watch mutated censors and repressed memories literally burst from the cube, teaching you that you should never bottle up your feelings and leave your heart numb.
Milla’s Dance Party is a gaudy festival of colour full of playful art and mind-bending platforming obstacles. Yet, venture into one of the rooms off the beaten path and you cross through to a burning hellscape full of nightmarish representations of lost souls.
Despite Milla begging you not to enter, when you do the creatures ask in their youthful voices why Milla didn’t save them when they perished in a fire at the Orphanage where she acted as carer in her previous career. You can see where the lessons can be gleaned here. This part of the map isn’t sign-posted, and a child like myself at the time easily breezed past it. It’s only as I got older and explored the level that I found its foil, the mental vault explaining the situation.
I find that process evocative of something more. A loss of naivety, a sudden realization and an evolution into the harsh reality of waking up every day and living in your own head. The space gets wider and harder to deal with, but we learn to push on in spite of it in chase of life’s rewards. Where we can, we fill those dark corners with love. Stories from friends and family, our ambitions and dreams. We strive for those days when our hearts will feel full and warm once more and no longer lost at sea.
Double Fine knew when they were developing this game that its target audience would be pre-teens to young adults, but they actually packed it full of meaningful messages that adults in real life find hard to broach with their children.
What a criminally underlooked sentiment.
This thoughtful practice is very rarely seen in video games, and as mentioned, most often seen in the movies of Pixar, one of the very few pockets of entertainment that I think to return to when I’m feeling low and in my own head. It’s a very exclusive club. I wonder why that is?
Hopefully, one day we can break the stigma surrounding mental health. I pray for the day where this won’t be an outlier, and we’ll be able to talk candidly about our low points and share openly in everyday settings. When that day comes, I’ll think about my time with works of art like Psychonauts and be thankful for the fact that they found me at a point when it was deeply necessary, whether they meant to or not.