The Long Road to Finishing 'Psychonauts 2' Was Paved With Empathy

The original 'Psychonauts' came out in 2005, before ideas like "self care" and "mental health" became dominant. Double Fine's come a long way, too.

Jul 19 2021, 2:00pm

Psychonauts 2 is almost done. Double Fine's 2005 original action platformer introduced us to a weird world of psychic secret agents, and its cliffhanger ending always suggested a sequel was being planned. But plans have a way of going awry, in the same way the Psychonauts was originally an Xbox exclusive before Microsoft decided to move on from the project. Decades later, Microsoft would then buy Double Fine and publish Psychonauts 2

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"I bring it up every day! 'By the way, remember when...!!'" laughed director and Double Fine founder Tim Schafer during a recent interview with Waypoint, after giving yours truly a chance to play a few hours with the game. (I liked it quite a bit. More on that next month.)

Schafer pointed out how in the aftermath of Psychonauts leaving Microsoft—the game was later finished thanks to the now mostly defunct publisher Majesco—Double Fine continued to collaborate with Microsoft on a number of projects, like Iron Brigade (ruled), Happy Action Theater (one of the best videos I was involved with), and Once Upon a Monster (very cute).

"I would love it to be a lot more dramatic," he said, "but the industry has its funny ups-and-downs and stuff."

Development on Psychonauts 2 started in 2016, following a successful crowdfunding and investment campaign that raised nearly $4 million on the platform Fig. At one point, Schafer explored the possibility of having designer Markus Persson, who sold Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, fund the game. It didn't happen—phew. Schafer announced the studio's intention to raise money for making Psychonauts 2 in 2015, which means Double Fine has, in various forms, been thinking about and working on this sequel for a long time.

"I'm excited," said art director Lisette Titre-Montgomery, who joined Double Fine in 2017 as production on Psychonauts 2 was beginning in earnest. "When your team is heads down for this long on something, putting your hearts and souls into something, hoping that the world is going to love it—and starting to get that affirmation that it was all worth it."

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But as the team at Double Fine is applying the finishing touches to Psychonauts 2 before its release next month, I found myself struck by the way the game introduces itself to players:

"Mental Health Advisory: Psychonauts 2 contains artistic interpretations of serious mental conditions including addiction, PTSD, panic attacks, anxiety, and delusions. There are also images that may be upsetting to people with dental phobia. These conditions are usually presented in a light-hearted or even comical manner, but still might be distressing to some players. Ultimately, Psychonauts 2 is a game about empathy and healing. If you find yourself experiencing a negative reaction to this content, or if you need mental health resources, please visit TakeThis.org/mental-health-resources."

It struck me, then, how much the conversation around mental health has changed since 2015 and 2021. How often did you even hear a term like "mental health" in 2005? The world remains far from perfect, but the discourse and availability of resources has vastly changed.

"It just exemplifies the difference in how we think about these things now compared to during the first game, even though I think in the first game there are things we got right, things we didn't get right," said Schafer. "But I think deep down, the general way we approached things on the first game was to treat people, even the villains in the game, [as people]. Empathy is built into the game mechanic. You jump into someone's head, you literally see what it's like through their eyes."

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In both Psychonauts and Psychonauts 2, the player spends a lot of their time jumping into the minds of various characters. It's what allows for the wild and inventive environments the series has now become famous for, but it's more than just for the sake of a nifty-looking space to jump around in. In Psychonauts, players are there to help people through trauma, coming to grips with their own anxieties, hangups, and quirks and how they define "you."

"Psychonauts, though arguably poking fun at particular mental illnesses, takes a more positive approach," wrote game critic Edeline Wrigh in a 2015 essay for Kill Screen contrasting Psychonauts and Nintendo's sanity-focused horror game Eternal Darkness. "It says everyone’s mind is its own world, and 'getting better' means handling our issues in the ways that make the most sense for us while embracing the rest of our eccentricities."

Schafer pointed at the way so many other video games other-ize their villains, calling them "crazy" and "psychopaths" as a way to rationalize why it's okay to shoot them in the face.

“The general way we approached things on the first game was to treat people, even the villains in the game, [as people]. Empathy is built into the game mechanic.”

But Schafer admits some of what Psychonauts did was by accident, a mark of how empathy as a design trait created good results. With the sequel, there was a lot more intentional care. 

"Oh, that's the part we got right, we should definitely do that part again," he joked.

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Walking down that path involved working with the mental health organization Take This, and the expanded resources of their new owner, Microsoft. I previously profiled how this same division of Microsoft helped the Grounded team at Obsidian find a way to include spiders as one of their central villains while giving folks with arachnophobia ways to play the game, too.

One problem? The game's opening is about going inside the mind of the game's original bad guy, an evil dentist named Loboto. The psychonauts are trying to figure out who the bigger bad guy is, and that means exploring a level filled with teeth and other dental nightmares. The question facing Double Fine, then, was how to square this circle—or if it even could, because dentophobia, or the fear of dentists, is absolutely an issue for many people.

"We don't want to remove our creepy level about teeth...? What's the right way to handle it?" said Schafer. "We felt that it was appropriate to give some people advance warning that this is going to be happening and hopefully earn their trust."

I've played it. It's a creepy, though not to the level of what we'd usually call horror, level. You cannot, so far as I can tell, skip it. You're warned about what's coming, and if you want or need an easier way to make it through, the game comes with the option to flip on invincibility. The existence of this feature started, to borrow a Loki term, Nexus Event recently on Twitter.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

This exists alongside turning off fall damage, because you jump a lot in Psychonauts 2, and a toggle for what Double Fine calls "narrative combat," which basically means Raz can destroy enemies without much trouble to "keep the focus on the story." There are a ton of different accessibility options in Psychonauts 2, as outlined in a recent video by the studio:

The replies to Double Fine's original tweet are a complete mess, filled with tryhards who fixate on how others play video games.

"If you can't lose, you can't win either," wrote one philosopher on Twitter. "There isn't one without the other."

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"I do, at times, find myself bumping down difficulty modes depending on my mood," said Titre-Montgomery, citing the lack of free time as one gets older. "I find it's made the total gameplay experience more enjoyable, not just for Psychonauts, but in general. I think more and more support for these accessibility features is only good for the industry at large."

"Not to name drop it, but have you ever heard of Jack Black?" said Schafer in response.

The topic triggered an old conversation Schafer had with actor Black, who starred in Double Fine's rock-filled 2009 action strategy mashup Brutal Legend. Schafer and Black became friends on Xbox Live, and Schafer noted how often Black was online playing different games.

When Schafer prodded Black about the amount of time he was spending with some games, Black admitted he plays every game on easy—from start to finish—the first time through.  

"It never even occurred to me," said Schafer. "Because he really would play it again once he knew that he liked the end—that it was worth it, there was stuff in there to find. He's like, 'yeah, now I'm going to buckle down, I'm going to play it again on hard.' I think the best thing that's happened in the games industry is people opening up to [the idea that] there's not one games industry. There's not one way to play games, there's not one market, there's not one style or genre."

Lessons like this have been littered across the many years of Psychonauts 2 development, some of which took place over the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to unfold worldwide. Both Psychonauts games are, as Double Fine puts it, about empathy. Few qualities have been more important during COVID-19, as quarantine created new anxieties and exasperated existing ones. It helped underscore the series' themes to the team itself.

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"I think this year has definitely been an exercise in that [empathy]," said Titre-Montgomery. "Learning to understand the team is just trying to deal with what's going on in the world that day and not necessarily pushing when we don't need to. And I think overall, it just really clarified how important the messages of the game are."

Schafer noted how the individual circumstances of each Double Fine employee suddenly took on greater significance, as some dealt with a house full of children with nowhere to go, others struggled with the inability to find alone time or, alternatively, too much alone time.

"Everyone's dealing, I think, with being tired in different ways," he said. "No two were the same."

Double Fine tried some of the now-normal moves, like having parties over Zoom. Schafer joked about COVID-19 convincing the team to add a video conference level set in Zoom. (It's not true.) One of the more surprising revelations was how accommodating most workplaces are for their remote employees, when the majority of people are working out of the office.

"We've had remote employees the whole time," he said. "We've always had up to five or more employees that work in different states. They've always been in our calls, but they often [say] 'I can't hear what anyone is saying!' I feel like we've always done our best to include them, but I think since we've all been in that position, I feel like it's helped us realize what it's like to be a remote employee."

It's had smaller impacts, too. Towards the end of a game's development, Schafer frequently leaves his office and plays the latest version of the game they were working on in a conference room. It was, for the most part, a reason to leave his office and be elsewhere. It was rare for anyone to join Schafer in these last-minute examinations, largely because, he noted, "that feeling of physically being away from your desk would stress them out."

Now, however, Schafer does these sessions from his desk and streams them internally, allowing other people at Double Fine to watch when they have a free moment or, more commonly, drop it onto a secondary monitor and check in when something comes up.

The key to all of this—mental health warnings, difficulty options, remote work—is options.  

"Even though this stuff might be heavy and serious," said Schafer, the goal is to communicate "that they're in good hands where we will treat it with humanity and empathy."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)

Tagged:

mental health, Xbox, Psychonauts, Double Fine Productions, Psychonauts 2

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