I write about tabletop games because I want to share my love of the hobby with a wider audience. I want to tear down games and get inside them. I want to express why I enjoyed a game, or why it didn’t grab me. As I write, my audience learn what I like and what I don’t. Where our tastes align, and where they diverge. They get an insight into my mind.
In reviewing computer games I hope to give a similar insight into the inner workings of my brain. I want you to be able to navigate the cul-de-sacs of my likes, dislikes, preferences, and rejections. More than that I think computer games can tackle subjects that boardgames just haven’t been able, or willing, to.
Psychonauts 2 is the long awaited sequel to Psychonauts, first published in 2005, by Double Fine Productions. For those not familiar, the game focuses on a young boy called Rasputin (Raz). He discovers he is psychic and goes to a camp for similarly gifted children. Adventures ensue in a platforming game where each level takes place inside a different persons mind. The original is extremely well regarded, has a notoriously hard final level, and some of the most innovative level design ever seen in the genre. Its sequel has a lot to live up to.
Psychonauts 2 picks up shortly after the events of the first game. Our hero is taken to the home base of the psychonauts, the secret agents of the psychic world, all ready to join their ranks. Once at the Motherlobe, there are some super puns throughout, he is instead slapped with an intern badge and chucked into lessons with a bunch of other odd kids.
Naturally this is just the beginning of the story, but to say more would really be getting into spoiler territory. I really want to not spoil as much as I can with a game that managed to surprise, delight, and move me throughout its run.
That said let me give you a small taster. The game opens in Medias Res as you pursue Doctor Loboto, a dentist with a fixation on removing people’s brains, through the offices of the psychonauts. The level twists and bends as Loboto defends himself against you and eventually he turns the table on you. The office is now warped and changed by Loboto’s mind, full of teeth doors, gum walls, weird enemies, and manifested psychosis. This is merely the crown on the teeth of this weird world which will see you bounce between minds, encountering all sorts of wonderful worlds inside troubled minds.
From the moment you step into the Psychonauts’ world you are confronted with the central message of the game. These problems you encounter cannot be fixed, they are part of someone’s mind and trying to change them is futile and dangerous. The aim of the psychonauts is not to fix people, it is to let people come to terms with their own minds. To let them fix themselves.
Psychonauts tackles issues of mental health with understanding and care. It never makes fun of its troubled characters. It realises people are complex, that we all have issues that we find hard to talk about, but that fundamentally contribute to who we are. Our hero Raz has issues with family and his past, and some of his approaches to those problems leave something to be desired. The point being that no character in the game is purely good or purely evil. They are more complex than that and in being so feel more relatable and human.
Psychonauts 2 has a lot in common with recent animated films from Dreamworks, Soul and Inside Out. All of these are exploring the inner self of each of us. In doing so they make us look at ourselves and question the image we have of our own mental landscape and think of the very nature of the human spirit.
I loved Psychonauts 2. I haven’t spent any time really talking about the mechanics of the game because they are not what is important about this title. It got me thinking about whether board games can ever tackle such difficult subject matter. Certainly we have had some attempts in games like the Holding On: The troubled life of Billy Kerr or Fog Of Love but it feels like an area that boardgames are yet to properly explore. I would love to see more attempts to tackle difficult subjects, even if some of those attempts fail. We can learn a lot from the successes of games like Psychonauts 2, and I hope that those designing boardgames will not only look to the world of tabletop for future inspiration.