Video game baddies used to be simpler. Back when they were created in the mid-’80s, Bowser and Ganon were little more than adversarial monsters, hell-bent on kidnapping the princess or stealing light from the world. In this way, they mirrored their one-dimensional counterparts on the silver screen — the scar-faced and beady-eyed foils to Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sylvester Stalone.
But just as Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker — engrossing though it was — feels shallow in comparison to Heath Ledger’s or Joaquin Phoenix’s, many of the final bosses of yesteryear now seem as flat as the 8-bit sidescrollers that birthed them.
Psychonauts 2 serves as a sharp reminder of how far video game storytelling has come in the 16 years since its predecessor’s release.
“I think the first game got a lot of things right, but there were some things we wanted to do better,” says Tim Schafer, co-founder and CEO of Double Fine Productions, the San Francisco studio responsible for both titles. “As a society we’ve come a long way in the last 15 years as far as talking about mental health and getting away from language and depictions that are stigmatizing, that create a feeling of ‘us vs. them.’ We don’t even think about it like that now; everyone has mental health. Everyone deals with anxiety and depression or more serious things going on with themselves or their family, so it’s something that belongs to all of us.”
While the style of Psychonauts always struck an even balance between a particularly friendly Tim Burton movie and a good Saturday morning cartoon, the sequel pushes that tone further. You’re still playing as psychic secret agent Razputin “Raz” Aquato, traveling through different characters’ minds to unravel their problems and emotional hang ups, but Psychonauts 2 emphasizes depicting all of its characters through an empathetic lens.
“Even the villains from the first game, you go into their heads and you see that they’re dealing with issues that make you realize that they’re just humans, and that maybe they could use your help,” Schafer says. “It’s very easy to write someone off as crazy, so you can fight them and not feel bad about it, and that’s something we try not to do. Raz helps the characters deal with what’s going on inside their head, whether it’s a past trauma or some sort of hang-up they’ve got going on.”
The original Psychonauts was a thoughtful 3D platformer game released at a time when many of the most popular games fit that mold. From Super Mario 64 to Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper, there was a 10-year stretch from the late ’90s into the early aughts where most AAA-developed video games were cartoony adventures where you played a little guy exploring colorful obstacle-course worlds.
This makes Psychonauts 2 feel like a fresh take on a type of game that’s become increasingly rare in recent years — as the Crash Bandicoots and Sonic the Hedgehogs of the world have been supplanted by photorealistic first-person shooters and open-world games that capitalize on the power of beefier consoles.
The game makes up for its older design ethos by being especially dialed in where it needs to be. Even when stepping back into the world of the original 2005 title, the sequel sports a ton of modern accessibility options that make it welcoming to any skill level. If you’re stuck on a particularly hard boss or platforming sequence the options to turn on invincibility, turn off fall damage or jack up your character’s strength to push through to the next story bit are switches that can be flipped at any time in the settings.
Double Fine Productions got its start in 2000 when Schafer left LucasArts with a couple of colleagues to start their own gaming company. Despite directing his fair share of games over the years and wearing many hats as studio head, Schafer says he never stops feeling the pull of the writer’s chair.
“I really think about that a lot, because I’ve been doing it for 30 years now in games, and I think it’s important to remember why you get up in the morning and do what you do,” Schafer says. “For me, it’s easy to get pulled in a lot of different directions when you’re running the company, because you can get involved in the finances, the marketing, or any aspect of it, but I try to not let myself get pulled into those too deeply. Because I want to be able to focus on the writing, because that’s what makes me the most excited creatively.”
Despite not straying from heavy topics like family acceptance issues and feelings of abandonment, Psychonauts deftly threads the needle between fleshing out those tough moments and giving them room to breathe when shifting to a more light-hearted tone. It’s a balancing act to be sure, but it’s made a lot easier by the simple fact that when Schafer’s and Valve-veteran Erik Wolpaw’s trademark humor does pop up, the jokes work.
Schafer’s penchant for wacky characters, worlds, and humor coupled with Double Fine’s own house style means many put Schafer on the short list of American video game developers and writers that are thought of as auteurs ↹— someone whose creative fingerprints are almost unmistakable. Whether that title was thrust upon him or not, though, Schafer doesn’t quite subscribe to it.
“I definitely relate to being controlling as far as the writing goes, like ‘I really need a story to go a certain way,’ but once that’s done, and even for the story itself, I collaborate with and talk to people. The great thing about making video games is you collaborate with people from so many different disciplines. You work with 2D and 3D artists, and really technical artists and animators, and musicians, and then you’ll have a gameplay and systems programmer, and all these people,” Schafer explains. “Just every creative act that people do in this world, you can bring into video games and collaborate with them. So even when I’m controlling about the writing, a screenwriter will tell you a script isn’t a work of art by itself, it’s an invitation to collaborate, and that’s the way it is writing for a game too.”
Yousif Kassab is a contributing writer at SF Weekly.