stereotypes are obviously a rotten thing. Despite the stigma toward mental health decreasing very, very slowly indeed, people with mental health issues are often seen a certain way. If you tell someone you’re struggling, or even get specific about why you’re struggling, there’s a chance they’ll change how they talk to you. Worse yet, people might start to forget who you are, and why they even came to care about you in the first place.
Perhaps you won’t be in on the joke anymore. “He’s sad now”, they may say, “so we better not joke about that near him anymore”. Being unwell doesn’t mean you can’t still feel emotion, and it doesn’t mean you’re a different person from before. I’ve had a tough year – perhaps we all have. This year was one of the darkest I’ve ever had, and I did not expect to find solace and understanding in a game like Psychonauts 2, that’s for sure.
Double Fine’s long-awaited sequel might actually be exactly the right kind of game to dissect some of the more pressing mental health issues many of us have been facing over the past 18 months or so: delving into the minds of friends and foes alike and trying to help understand and validate them, essentially by making their thoughts less muddy, is oddly cathartic. The whole game is almost an advert for the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy. But there’s one particular moment that hit me hard, and – because this is still a video game, after all – it was via enemy you fight fairly early on.
The enemies you have to defeat in Psychonauts 2 encompass all aspects of mental health, really. There’s the “censor” who that wants to be the physical manifestation of your own internal critic; “doubt” which comes to try and ruin your good time and plant the seeds of worry deep in your cognition, and then there’s “panic attack”.
Of all the symptoms of anxiety, that’s the one I had never suffered until this year, and my word I do not want to have any more of them. For me, it manifests as a complete feeling of helplessness, alongside the cold realisation that it’ll never be “okay” again. The weight of this revelation is staggering, and doing anything else seems an impossibility. And when you’re through it – taking a minute on the other side of it – it feels like a numb moment you don’t really understand. Did it even happen? Frankly, the only other entertainment form I’ve seen nail it so well is the TV show Ted Lasso, which takes a different (but no less real) angle on things.
Psychonauts 2 depicts the clawing claustrophobia of it all in such a simple way that’s mechanically interesting as a videogame conceit, yet also carries an important message. To beat the “panic attack” enemy you have to first acquire an ability that lets you slow down time. “Panic attack” is all the colours at once, vibrating, tenacious, violent. But when you can slow time down, it becomes more manageable. In real-time, as your heart beats at speed and reality threatens to overwhelm you, “panic attack” is simply too fast and manic to allow you to even lay a glove on it. Slowing time down allows you to breathe, relax, focus and, importantly, defeat the monster.
The enemy returns time and again, of course – this is a video game, after all – but by the time it comes bearing down on you again, you have the tools to dispose of it. It never gets a hold of you and ruins you. It never gets easier, but you have the means to defeat it. It’s this revelation Psychonauts 2 is so adept at communicating. Many who suffer with mental health issues will often consider themselves in “remission” from their problems; struggles with yourself never truly go away. Recovery and growth come from having the tools to understand, process, and deal with feelings as and when they come, and Psychonauts 2 manages to deftly and tenderly portray this through the entire game.
There are metaphors throughout Double Fine’s latest, even addressing the ideas behind trying to change people for self-interest, or because ‘it’s what’s best for them’. The game prompts critical thought: who even gets to decide this? What is self-improvement if it’s forced by other people? There’s another moment where someone’s mental illness has made their memories incorrect. They feel abandoned and as though nobody wanted them. But it was never true: it was the illness making them think these negative thoughts. Protagonist Raz is never judgmental, never preachy: he just wants to help. He makes mistakes like anyone, but deep down he’s just a good person trying his best.
I’m very lucky. I have people around me who will always support me if dark times come. But in writing about this, I wanted to get a simple message out there, really: you matter. You are not alone. You are important, and your very being makes the world a better place. Hopefully, you’re lucky enough to never have feelings to the contrary. If so, would you abandon your pal if they broke their leg or fractured a toe? No. The world has never been more stressful than right now, and we need each other more than ever. Check in on that friend. Support them. Hear what they have to say.
It’s very clear that Double Fine, as a developer, has been listening to its staff, friends, and audience, because I’ve never seen a game deal with mental health issues in such a way. With dignity, respect, and even (God forbid it) some humour. There’s a plethora of reasons you should play Psychonauts 2, but its management of sensitive subjects and message of how to treat one another is the most crucial of them all.