Objects in Your Mind May be Larger Than They Appear: In Praise of a Psychic Adventure

game cover

Have you ever wondered what the inside of your friend’s mind looks like? How about your enemy’s? We all see the world differently, but what about our inner worlds?

Perhaps if we could see inside others’ minds, we could learn what makes them tick—or what’s holding them back.

In the action/adventure video game Psychonauts you get to do exactly that. You play as Rasputin (known to his friends as Raz), a circus-raised psychic ten-year-old. Raz runs away from home and sneaks into Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp in hopes  of honing his psychic abilities and training to become a psychic secret agent—a Psychonaut!

After completing the training missions in the camp instructors’ minds, Raz must thwart the conspiracy that looms over all the psychic campers. His adversary is formidable—but sometimes you’re your own worst enemy. In order for Raz to stop the vile plot to take over the world, Raz must first get help from the only reliable adults around: the inmates from Thorny Towers Home for the Disturbed, the literally twisted (read: warped and crumbling) insane asylum that’s located across the lake from the camp.

Every one  of the inmates is as much a prisoner of their pasts and thoughts as they are of the evil, brain-stealing Doctor Loboto, who rules the asylum with an iron claw. (He tells his first victim not to worry, because the brain-removal procedure will be covered by his medical insurance.)

psychonauts doctor
The mad doctor at work, IGN.com

And so the mental adventure begins!

The storytelling of Psychonauts is beautifully woven into the game level design. Each mind is a different world that reflects the personality, thoughts, and feelings of the owner. And while the game centres on exploring the experience of being “crazy,” it tells a very empowering story about facing your fears. Each asylum inmate, with the encouragement of Raz, conquers their personal demons—and these personal demons, if left unattended, will literally blow up in your face! They are spiteful, psychic-seeking time bombs that must be defeated before they explode and wipe  out all of your health.

Wouldn’t we all love to have a precocious psychic acrobat to fight off our inner demons for us and help us to move on from the negative events in our lives? It’d be more fun and cheaper than therapy! (And if having someone explore your mind sounds terribly invasive—psychics are nosy, it seems— remember: the fate of the world is at stake.)

Every neurosis or delusion that a patient is trapped by—and consequently, causes them to impede Raz’s progress in saving the world—is tied to a very negative, very human experience. For the conspiracy-theorist, it’s the memory of losing the job that defines his life. For the actress who suffers dramatic mood-swings, it’s the memories of a lonely childhood and a tragic loss. And for artist with unmanageable bursts of anger, it’s the memory of adolescent shame that has festered for years. All these doubts grow out of proportion and can turn a healthy young mind into a hellish carnival of nightmares. But, in the words of Raz, “you can’t let the Junior Varsity Pep Squad ruin your life.” And, just like the inmates of Thorny Towers, we can all face our pasts and fears. We must if we want  to order our inner worlds.


Of course too much order can be a bad thing. When Raz shuts down one part of his mentor’s mind, the Censors, who violently enforce all order and eradicate anything out of the ordinary (such as a psychic’s presence), the repressed self-censoring energy morphs into a hideous monster. Likewise, we cannot totally hide our dark thoughts. In the mind of another camp instructor, it’s all party all the time—unless you find the room that’s tucked away in a corner. This hidden room holds all of the instructor’s secrets: the painful memories and aching guilt that scar her psyche. Such thoughts can only remain hidden if you make a point of repressing them, but we all know how hard it is to forcibly forget something you wish you couldn’t remember.

At the risk of a mild spoiler (turn away now!) the final boss fight is against warped figments of Raz’s own imagination. What more formidable foe can you face than your own worst nightmare?

If the extended metaphors for personal growth and psychological healing aren’t enough for you, the way the game draws on mind-related idioms and ideas is charming. In addition to having to fight personal demons and self-Censors, each level includes a scavenger hunt for various entities that clutter up the minds you explore. Raz must sort through each mind’s personal baggage (literally bags, hat boxes, trunks, and satchels that are weepy and sad until you find their shipping tag), figments of imagination (hazy half-images of objects and people), and nightmares (scarier versions of personal demons). Towards the end of the game the Collective Unconscious opens and you can visit the minds that you were previously in to collect the last few items and finish off the level. (Fortunately, there aren’t any obvious Freudian references in the game…but then, maybe I’m only seeing them subconsciously.)

collective unconscious

Psychonauts is a smart, funny, and tremendously fun game that will have you replaying it to discover more and more. It is available on Steam and for PS3 and Xbox.

 -contributed by Miranda Whittaker


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