FGC #601 Psychonauts 2

This article contains spoilers for Psychonauts 2, primarily in regard to a lore twist that is learned approximately halfway through the game. If you have had long conversations with Ford Cruller, you know what I am talking about. Anyway, you have been warned…

THE PSYCHONAUTS!My grandfather was the eldest of seven brothers. As confirmed by those granduncles and practically our entire extended family, my grandfather was always known as a generally kind man who was also very quick to anger. And everyone thought this was wholly justified! He had to “keep in line” his younger, male siblings with very little help from a father growing up, and then he was a navy man just in time for World War II. He spent all day on a boat with a metaphorical collection “brothers” that all had to be disciplined and controlled, and… well… I don’t know if you have ever dealt with a man before, but they can get kind of rowdy. So is it any wonder that his experiences from childhood to young adulthood stayed with him his entire life? You cannot just “turn off” the person you have been for twenty years, and if that means you occasionally must throw your drunken brother-in-law off a balcony to make a point about being civil at dinner parties, so be it (also, in my grandfather’s [legal] defense, it was not a particularly high balcony). My grandfather lived to be older than most, and, even through to the age when he was frequently napping in the living room lounger, his whole family continued to have explanations for any temperamental shouting matches. He’s always been like that. That’s just who he is.

Until it wasn’t who he was.

Today’s game is the venerable/mythical Psychonauts 2. Psychonauts 2 is here! It was released! After 16 years of absolutely no Psychonauts (Gogglebob.com does not recognize the existence of virtual reality), here is Psychonauts all back again. And it is no exaggeration to say that Psychonauts is “back”, either. If your number one complaint about Psychonauts is that it never should have ended, Psychonauts 2 has got you covered with everything from the original, and a host of quality-of-life improvements to round out an “and then some”. Psychonauts 2 starts with a Raz that already knows the essential skills from Psychonauts 1 (sorry, invisibility, I said essential), and escalates from there with confidence that the audience does not need an entire level to understand PSI blasts again. All new abilities are then introduced, challenges are expanded, and, by the end, Raz will be thought-grappling while bossing a clone around with the best of ‘em. It is remarkable all on its own that Psychonauts 2 is simultaneously exactly more of the same, and something wholly new and different. This is the game Super Mario Bros. 2 could have been! If that wasn’t awful!

Connect the thoughtsAnd I would be remiss if I did not note that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Psychonauts was one in a seemingly endless parade of collectathons that had been going strong for ten years when it was released back in 2005. But now it seems like the idea of searching environments for hard-to-find collectibles has fallen by the wayside, and Psychonauts 2 is an example of a lamented evolutionary dead-end that that did not survive to see 2021. Chasing figments or hooking hidden keys to hidden chests feels simultaneously antiquated and refreshing when the best other titles of this era can manage is a sidequest or two where you must rescue three cats. Three cats!? You lifestream-addled morons! This friggen’ foyer has 17 tickets to find, and five more scavenger hunt items just to add a little flavor. Is this the kind of gameplay that is sustainable for title after title demanding you achieve 101% to see a marginally satisfactory ending? No. Of course not. That’s why so many people in Liberty City had mental breakdowns when photographing graffiti and seeing a “1/5,000 found” notification. But now, as likely the one game this year that is going to ask you to achieve “Rank 102”, it is a much easier pill to swallow.

But a collectathon can only work if there are interesting worlds in which to do your collecting. Mario 64 had portraits that doubled as portals, Banjo Kazooie had entire realms inside its haunted castle (wait… that was just the same as Mario…), and Psychonauts has always been about exploring the mind. And abstract psychological concepts are fertile ground for a dungeon or ten! Psychonauts 1 featured bipolar disorders transformed into theatres and Napoleon complexes transferred to gigantic boardgames. Psychonauts 2 ups the ante (literally) with hospital-casinos, gameshows, and germ-riddled bowling alleys (uh… that is better than it sounds). It is a joy to explore these abstract worlds with concrete platforming abilities, and slingshotting over a gap to find some emotional baggage or sneaking under a bridge to find a bright idea is consistently pleasant. These “mindscapes” are beautifully realized from a conceptual and level-design standpoint, and every opportunity to enter a new level feels like a gift. Look, Ma, now I can jump in this crazy bee lady’s brain! Wonder what I’m gonna find there!

But there is one important difference between Psychonauts 1 and Psychonauts 2. Love that baconIn the original Psychonauts adventure, Raz was indisputably doing good by his various brains. Give or take some quickly rectified mischief in Sasha’s head, all the “levels” of Psychonauts 1 had good intentions from jump street. Oleander, Sasha, Milla, and Raz’s dive into his own head were attempts to learn about the world and what our hero could do, and the rest of the brains available were all abnormal and required a little re-normaling. To put a point on it, Raz and the Psychonauts have incredible psychic powers, but they used them exclusively for good across the board. And, since you effectively are Raz for the entirety of Psychonauts 1, you are doing good across this world. Hooray for the benevolent agents of the Psychonauts and the controllers that keep them running around!

Psychonauts 2, though? Well, things get a bit grayer in this gray matter.

Your first mission in Psychonauts 2 is an attempt to trick a criminal into revealing his coconspirator. You are doing good, but the fact that you are doing this through a collective lie is a clear sign of how things are going to go. From there, the entire point of the next mind is to change your professor’s mind. Everything was fine until you showed up, connected a few stray thoughts, and then transformed a responsible adult into a gambling addict haunted by an ocean This is real rockcreature that is mysteriously not Gamblor of the Neon Claws. Raz is forced to undo this massive mistake, so he eventually does right by Hollis’ mental world, but damage is certainly done (if only to the Psychonauts’ coffers). After that, Raz stays on the straight and narrow with the various brains/people available, but that does also lead to the revelation that the Psychonauts organization was founded on a lie. The grand battle that put the Psychonauts on the map was actually against one of their own, and, in an effort to save their broken colleague, Psychonaut Head (heh) Ford Cruller mentally overwrote the personality of the nefarious Maligula with that of her gentler (and, incidentally, dead) sister. So, basically, the greatest hero the Psychonauts has ever known decided, alone, to change someone’s entire personality when she became inconvenient. Oh, and he threw an innocent kid in there, too, for good measure. Two people, their total lives irrevocably changed, because one dude decided to make the same reckless decision as a ten-year-old.

And I cannot think of a concept that could possibly scare me more.

Look, Raz changing Hollis’ general risk assessment levels was one thing. In a metaphorical manner, he basically worked as allegorical alcohol, and suddenly the uptight executive was a wild party animal. Not great, but something that we have all seen happen at the office Christmas party. But Maligula’s transformation? Ford “defeated” the Minister of War for an entire country, and transformed her into… a single mom/homeless performer. That is terrifying! Because she was terrifying! Maligula was nearly a literal force of nature feared by the entire world, but a few brain tweaks later, she is worried about the price of yarn and raising good little circus folk. And apparently there was a “bonus” mind modification that made her forget she ever had a sister, and added a case of aquaphobia that was so strong, it persisted in the family for three generations. Ford could not kill a person he cared about, so he “held back” by only killing everything that made Lucreca/Maligula who she was. “Maligula” went on to become a figure so feared and revered that she started an entire cult without ever showing her face again. The Ford-created Nona/Marona became an anonymous, doddering old woman.

A city escapeAnd I cannot be the only person that finds that disturbing, right? Objectively, if you look at practically any zombie story, the concept of your “self” being overwritten with something new is a fairly universal fear. Zombies are “alive” and functioning in most zombie stories, they are simply a little more brains-obsessed than your average citizen. Hell, the original, mythological concept of a “zombie” was little more than a magical spell that would make you a slave. And beyond enchanted enslavement, do we not all seek success in our chosen fields? The original Psychonauts prove themselves to be eclectic weirdos that wind up crippled by their own collective guilt. Meanwhile, Lucreca/Maligula practically ruled a country thanks to her own honed strengths. And that was abolished in an instant! Can you imagine if you woke up tomorrow, and your every accomplishment was washed away, and you had to be responsible for some strange kid? And, oh yeah, everything you ever knew or established regarding your “self” is gone. Horror show.

But… maybe it’s okay?

Yes, Maligula is effectively brain-killed, but Maligula was also, ya know, Maligula. If your name is the combination of a terrible emperor and the Latin word for bad news, you know you do not have a sensible fan club. Maligula was a threat to all life on Earth (well, any life without gills), and Ford stopping her without outright murder was a kindness. And the “new” Maligula? Sure, she may not be causing royalty to cower in fear, but she did find the love of a new family. Nona’s new son was a psychic hack job, but her love for her daughter-in-law and many grandchildren is genuine. And that whole family is doing pretty alright! They are so stretchy! And there hasn’t been a drowning in that household for years! That saves a bundle on life insurance premiums!

It may have been uninvited, but it sure seems like what Ford did was objectively proven to be a moral good for the whole world and Nona.

BOWL EM OVERSpeaking of grandparents, let’s get back to my grandfather. My grandfather was always an engineer, so it is little surprise that he routinely read about scientific advances in mood altering drugs. When he was in his 80s, he finally consulted his doctor on the matter, and began taking medications for a freshly diagnosed bipolar disorder. He changed. His personality changed. He no longer flew into rages with little provocation. He was the same man, but some of his closest (though still extended) family members claimed they did not recognize him. He was always so strong! He never would have “let that go” before! His most immediate family learned that a good number of people wanted the “bruiser” that many people imagined my grandfather to be, and even his own brothers seemed downright disturbed by the fact that he was no longer throwing hands when triggered. They were upset that he was no longer upset.

My grandfather did not care. His personality had changed after decades and generations, and he was happy with the change. Later in life, as his health deteriorated and he was inevitably spending more and more time in hospitals, he always asked to be put back on his bipolar medication first, possibly forgoing other medications for it. He knew what his old personality was like. He didn’t want to go back. He was different. He was changed by an outside force, and he identified that that change was for the better.

This is fun and scaryLearn from Psychonauts 2 and my grandfather. It may be scary. It may change who you are. But change can be good. Accept that you can let go of what people expect of you, who you are supposed to be, and you can find happiness with the new you. And, if you do it right, you won’t ever look back.

FGC #601 Psychonauts 2

  • System: Windows and Xbox One/X/S, because Microsoft owns this nonsense now. But also Playstation 4, because I would hate to fire up my Xbox for anything but Battletoads.
  • Number of players: Just Raz. Would be kind of cool to see the whole Aquato family get into the act, but then we run the risk of Double Fine wandering back into Brütal Legend territory, and we cannot have that.
  • Joy of Movement: The reason a collectathon can work is because you want to explore a unique world/level. Psychonauts 2 has that in spades! And the second reason a collectathon can work is because it is enjoyable to “move around” in said worlds. And Psychonauts 2 pulls that off with aplomb, too! Cannot stress enough how this is just an amazingly designed videogame from top to bottom. Practically perfect at what it is trying to accomplish.
  • Favorite Brain: Bob’s Bottles is the right combination of interesting level design, coherent representation of a serious psychological issue, subtlety, and people named Bob. It also contains an entire wedding. I am mysteriously moved by this world of talking, hairy bulbs.
  • Story Time: It is remarkable that the overarching villainous “plot” is simultaneously derailed and then immediately re-railed by Raz. Raz found a body in the mailroom! And it turns out that body was 100% supposed to be there, and was not part of something nefarious! Except it kind of was! So Raz is participating in a nefarious plan because he’s trying to solve a mystery that was never a mystery but was always malevolent! It’s complicated!
  • They even have similar hairSexual dimorphism is a scourge: Though it is kind of awful that there are exactly two people that have their brains significantly modified in this story, and they’re both women. And there are, like, a whole two other women relevant to the plot, total. And we are maintaining our “spunky female lead that never actually gets to do anything” status ala Kingdom Hearts. Not a great look, Psychonauts.
  • Best Dialogue in a Videogame Ever Award: “You know what happens when you die in someone’s mind, right?” “If you die inside a mind…” “You pee your pants!”
  • I love this pig: Psychonauts 2 contains maybe the greatest in-joke voice casting decision I have ever seen. Granted, that is maybe not a crowded field… But taking Raz, voiced by the actor behind Invader Zim, and giving him a “helper” that is voiced by Rikki Simons, the person behind robotic buddy GIR, is pretty impressive. There is a badge to mute your little pal, and I cannot imagine the kind of monster that would ever make that choice.
  • What just happened: I found a glitch in the final dungeon.

    That aint right

    It says I am supposed to tell an adult! Where do I find an adult?

  • Did you know? The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was originally released in 2011. Psychonauts 1 was released in 2005. Somehow, both franchises resurfaced in 2021 with levels that are based on carrying an object that creates a localized “bubble” of safe ground. I literally cannot think of any other games that utilize this design structure, yet two titles came out within months of each other that mutually use this same, cool trick. That is weird, right?
  • Would I play again: I have collected every last collectible, save a few errant figments. I am not a figgy piggy. But, now that I know the general arc of the game, I am probably going to play it through completely again at some point in the future. Maybe I can take my time on this go ‘round!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Gargoyle’s Quest II for the Nintendo Entertainment System! Firebrand flies again! With a jaunty little walk! Please look forward to it!

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