On Empathy and Psychonauts 2

On Empathy and Psychonauts 2

Empathy is a good skill to have but one that feels like it isn't taught or passed along as much as it should be. Americans are familiar with sympathy, but empathy comes from a deeper place, and it's hard to access when bombarded by a mixture of Western Exceptionalism and the belief that bad things are always one's own fault.

Empathy is especially difficult to find in videogames. They are often competitive or violent in nature. There's always a villain to defeat, enemies to kill, weapons to earn to make that whole cycle more efficient. There's no room for empathy when the game industry has essentially made most games about "winning" against some other force.

This is what makes Psychonauts 2 such a marvel. It doesn't really have a villain to speak of, not in the traditional sense. In Psychonauts 2, your enemies are regret and sadness. You fight against the act of shutting yourself away from the people around you, or the mistakes you made towards your friends and family. It's a game about healing, forgiveness, and, of course, empathy, which is why it will be a game that stays with me, long after having completed it.

The fact that Psychonauts 2 is as incredible as it is is nothing short of a miracle. One need only look at games like Shenmue III to understand my trepidation at a sequel to a game that's nearly 20 years old. But not only did Double Fine do a good job, they did a fantastic one. The game effortlessly gets you back up to speed with Raz and the titular Psychonauts, providing a brief catch-up sequence for anyone who's jumping in for the first time, or needs a refresher. From there you'll be running and jumping in no time, as Raz uncovers the secrets of the original Psychonauts, all while attempting to find a mole amongst the members.

The 3D Platformer is a bit of a lost art-form nowadays, which is a big part of what makes Psychonauts 2 such a joy to play. The first game felt alright - barring one infuriating circus made of meat - but its sequel is smooth as butter. The act of running and jumping never got tiring, and made exploring a treat instead of a chore. Every time I felt like things might start getting stale, the game would give me a new ability that I could use to find new areas, finish side-quests, and grab collectables that I couldn't before. Not once was I bored playing Psychonauts 2, which I can rarely say about the games I play, even of the ones I absolutely love.

A big part of that lies in P2's narrative charm. For one, I can count on my fingers how many times most games make me laugh. They just aren't very funny, usually. Double Fine's crack writers, however, refuse to let you go very long without getting a good laugh, or in my case at times, a genuine guffaw. This game is funny as hell. The gags never felt like they were getting in the way of the plot, nor were they too mean-spirited or dependent on that Borderlands brand of "lulz random" humor. Even the the game's UI elements can lead to getting you to chuckle.

Beyond all of this, though, Psychonaut 2's narrative charm stems from the heartwarming story it tells. The game's cast of characters are all quirky and filled with life, but many of them are also in pain from their difficult pasts. Much of the gameplay stems from Raz diving into these characters' minds to help them cope with their trauma. Personifications of grief, anger, and judgement are the enemies you engage with in these mindscapes. The game is very deliberate in making clear that as Raz, you aren't solving these characters problems yourself - just providing a helping hand, as a good friend would. A lot of the issues you help with can get very real, and I saw a lot of myself in the characters whose minds you delve into. It was never triggering in its intensity, but I do admit to crying a few times (and straight up bawling at the end of the game). I know I'm speaking broadly here, because I don't want to spoil anything, but I will reiterate what I said earlier: there aren't really villains in P2, other than the consequences of one's own actions. And the game reminds you that there's always another chance to make amends, and to forgive yourself. It's really good stuff, and I wish we got more of it from videogames.

I'd like to give special attention to the designs of these mental landscapes that you traverse through. These levels are Psychonauts 2 at their absolute best. They're home to some of the most vivid, imaginative design I've ever seen in a game. They use some extremely clever visual tricks to bend and stretch your own brain as you move through them, some that literally left me mouth agape. None of them overstay their welcome, and they're all so unique that I was dying to see what world I'd be diving into next.

The nice thing is that P2 obliges. I was absolutely NOT expecting this game to be as meaty as it is. When I thought I was getting close to the end, the game's world opened up even further, and I found out I was halfway through. On top of this, the huge cast of delightful characters constantly have new stuff to say - even after you've finished the game - making it worth it to do a round after every level to find out what they've been up to, or pick up some new side-quests.

All this to say, it was difficult for me to wrap up Psychonauts 2 and give a final goodbye to all of the people I grew to love over the course of the game. It really exceeded my expectations on every conceivable level, and the thought of having to wait another 20 years to see them again in a Psychonauts 3, if it ever happens, is simply too much for my heart to bear.

Very infrequently do I feel that a game has something interesting to say after I've finished it. Psychonauts 2 is special, in this regard. It asks you to be empathetic to those around you, and to offer help to those who are hurting, whether they're your friends or your family. It's a reminder anyone could benefit from - God knows I could be better about this, and all sorts of other things. Raz and friends are so persistent in seeking something better despite the pain they've been through that I can't help but feel like I can do better too. I simply can't recommend this game enough. Please play it.


That’s all for now! Have you played Psychonauts 2? Let me know @mintmakesthings! And if you enjoy my work, please consider supporting me on Buy Me a Coffee! Till next time!

mint

mint

I love writing, music, my friends, and food. FAAFO.