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On Its Tenth Anniversary, ‘Psychonauts’ Reminds Us That Identity Is What You Make It

Double Fine's imaginative debut allowed players to appreciate its characters in uncommonly deep ways.
April 17, 2015, 6:30pm

I went to a private, all-male high school. In my freshman year, I was a 14-year-old skateboarder, obsessed with punk rock and video games. I had the severe misfortune of being the polar opposite of my classmates, the majority of whom were either from exceptionally wealthy families, extremely talented athletes, or a mind-boggling combination of both.

Psychonauts came out on April 19, 2005, a month before my freshman year ended, at a point where I felt like a complete outcast at school. The game, the first from Tim Schafer's (who we interviewed, not so long ago) independent Double Fine Productions, swept me up instantly. For the first time in my life, I felt a personal connection to a video game. Razputin, Psychonauts' goggles-sporting protagonist, was an outcast too. He was a ten-year-old-psychic carnie, but I could totally relate to him.

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A decade later and I still relate to Raz, but I don't see him as an outsider anymore. Sure, he gets picked on after arriving at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, but within a few days, he is universally loved, becomes a hero and gets the girl. Compared to my high school experience, Raz had it made. Looking back, I think Raz seemed like a cool outsider because that's exactly what I needed from a video game at that time. Now I appreciate Psychonauts for completely different reasons.

It's really not

For all of its humorous dialogue and offbeat charm, Psychonauts tells a complex tale. Raz's journey throughout the game isn't one of an outsider ultimately gaining the acceptance of others, but rather a coming of age story built around the ideas of perception, understanding, and personal identity.

The first time I played Psychonauts, I never noticed just how flawed the game's characters were. No one is perfect, with virtually every important character suffering from some kind of notable fault. But this is among the game's greatest strengths, adding a level of depth to the cast that ultimately allows Raz—and the player by extension—room to see each character grow.

Sure is, Raz

Psychonauts' early hours revolve around Raz learning more about his psychic powers. Players know little about him outside of the fact the he is determined to become a Psychonaut—highly trained psychic spies—despite his father's distaste for the mentally gifted. Whispering Rock's whimsy serves as a goofy, albeit idyllic, setting for Raz to learn all the skills required to become a full-fledged Psychonaut. He must do so in a hurry, however, because like all exciting endeavors, the eventual arrival of Raz's father threatens to dash his dreams.

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Raz is able to grow as a character by learning more psychic abilities. As he comes into his own, Raz makes friends, gets asked to make out with his crush, and uncovers a plot by Coach Oleander—Whispering Rock's military minded counsellor—to harvest the brains of every camper in order to take over the world. The combination of pertinent youthful moments and dire situations are undeniably important, as these events serve as a turning point for Raz, shaping him into a proper protagonist. After he is presented with an opportunity to save others, Raz becomes a new character entirely. He is no longer the strange runaway who snuck into camp, but a capable hero.

This change, despite being subtle, represents a shift in both Raz's personal identity and how he is perceived by others. From this point on, Raz, aware and accepting of his newfound identity as a Psychonaut (though not being deemed one until the end of the game), takes his talents to the minds of others.

While the time Raz spends at Whispering Rock is a strong representation of Psychonauts' coming of age elements, perception and identity play an integral role during his journey to Thorney Towers Home for the Disturbed. The decrepit asylum is not only the location of Oleander and Doctor Loboto's headquarters, but also the home of Psychonauts' most outwardly flawed characters.

'Psychonauts,' trailer

Edgar, Boyd, Gloria, and Fred, long-term patients at the asylum, are introduced as insane. They are a haggard, troubled bunch, racked by delusions, split personalities and tormented by their respective pasts. Despite the reveal of each character implying that they may be beyond help, Psychonauts allows the player to understand the cause of their troubles through the use of the Psycho-Portal.

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A literal doorway into another person's mind, the Psycho-Portal allows Raz access into each patient's psyche. In doing so, his perception of them is changed. Inside each mind, Raz sees the characters as they see themselves.

While every one of the four committed characters are undeniably troubled, the time that Raz spends scouring their brain worlds proves that they are rarely as disturbed as they appear in reality. Much like Raz's growth from a simple psychic boy to an adept hero, Psychonauts delicately allows the player to understand and ultimately correct the cause of these patients' issues.

By uncovering the mental vaults stowed away in the minds of the patients, Raz is given greater insight into the causes of their slip into instability. This added perspective helps with the characterization of each patient. Surviving all four minds often requires Raz to quite literally destroy the cause of their troubles, allowing the patients to overcome past problems and accept their identity and restored sanity.

Few games deal with identity in the way that Psychonauts does. Video games, as a relatively new medium, often struggle with presenting a compelling narrative at all. Psychonauts, by giving its main character a chance to grow and genuinely understand and accept the identity of others, excels at crafting a story with conviction. Even ten years after its release, it still serves as a humorous yet powerful reminder that identity is what you make it. Sometimes, all it takes is a yellow-skinned boy poking around your head to keep that in mind.

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