Wednesday, July 4, 2018

PSYCHONAUTS: On Unreliable Narrators and Psychic Dad Issues

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the games Psychonauts and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. The statute of limitations is pretty heavily over for these, but if you still don't want spoilers, play them before reading on.

My friend Ginger is a major fan of Psychonauts, and I enjoyed what little I knew of it. It took her coming to visit and me watching her play — since it comes of a very specific era of game design that gives me Just That Right Amount of Vertigo — to get through to the end of the story. The whole thing was a couple of sittings, and I took a few guesses to the ending as I went.

There were some telltale bits dropped in: our hero, ten-year-old Raz Aquato, ran away from home to become a Psychonaut. By his own admission, his father (a circus performer) hated psychics because of a curse put on their family that dooms them all to die via drowning, and might be a latent psychic himself. By all accounts, there seems to be some serious grief in there.

Partway through the game, I started putting the bits together: a family cursed to die by drowning (water can be both a symbol of change and emotion... so we have a family either stuck in its ways or scared to share feelings), and a son trying to free himself of his father's influence. Fairly straightforward coming-of-age story, and I guessed that Raz would end the game having to fight his father or a father figure.

I had no way of guessing that it would be more a case of Raz having to fight his own flawed perception of his father, fused with a mental image of someone else's father, in a giant meat circus. But there are some things in this life you really just can't account for.

The Unreliable Protagonist

If you're an Invader Zim fan, you'll recognize Richard Horvitz as Raz in pretty much no time. (There are tons of amazing talents in this game, incidentally.) As amazing as Horvitz is as a voice actor... well, he's a grown man doing a cartoon kid voice. So while we are regularly reminded that he's a kid, and while he absolutely looks like a kid, hearing him speak can sometimes make us forget that we're not listening to a somewhat older character.

I'm not saying that as a critique, largely because I'm not entirely convinced that we weren't meant to make that subconscious mistake. We're playing as Raz, after all: an extremely talented psychic, someone who wants to be a hero and use his powers, and if we're going to play enthusiastically as him, we have to believe in him 100% of the way. His aptitude and quick learning reinforce that.

Then we get to the end of the game, and we see Raz encounter a mental projection of his dad: a hideous, angry man who taunts his son and forces him to run obstacle courses, while berating him for being one of those filthy "spoon benders."

And then we see his real dad. Who... like... doesn't hate his son being a psychic at all. Who is a little distressed at Raz's mental image of him. Who is, in fact, a powerful enough psychic himself to equip his son with an Eleventh Hour Superpower.

That's when you remember... Raz is ten years old. And while if we were talking about a real in-person ten-year-old it would be important to listen to his story and check into it, we're talking about a work of fiction. And the age of a protagonist in fiction is important. Raz may be finding his way and evolving, but this isn't a coming-of-age story in the traditional sense... because, quite simply, he's ten and not, like, thirteen.

Sound silly? It's not really. Think of magical girl shows, giant robot shows, etc. How old are the protagonists? Usually around puberty. Because the discovery of their powers and the defeat of some great evil feed into the narrative of growing up and self-discovery. There's absolutely some self-discovery for Raz, but it didn't start to come together until I completely ditched the idea of a coming-of-age narrative.

The Family Aquato

A mechanic of the game is that Raz can't go into water. Step foot in anything other than shallows one too many times, and the Hand of Galochio will grab you and pull you under. That's as close as we get to seeing the influence of the Aquatos' psychic rivals in-game, but it's a pretty powerful one.

My original thoughts on Raz's inability to enter water had been viewing water as a symbol of change. Think baptism. When we only had Raz's word to go on re: his father's personality, it made more sense. A family of people killed by water -- the concept of change -- and a man who didn't want his son to be a psychic.

But the real Augustus Aquato cancels that whole concept out. His fears are for Raz's safety, and he himself is a psychic -- so a psychic in the family wouldn't be any sort of change.

That said, water is also a symbol of emotion and the subconscious -- which starts to fit a lot better. We've got a ten-year-old boy with an extremely caring father who is proud of his son's gifts but wants to keep him safe, but this son views those actions as being uncaring and hurtful and a sign that his gifts are despised.

I feel like a lot of this could have been handled by talking with each other.

We never see Raz or his dad in each other's company until the end of the game, at which point their respective opinions of each other cause two major cases of outright shock. Raz can't believe his father doesn't hate him; Augustus can't believe his son mistakes his care and caution for hatred. It's clear that a lot has gone unspoken between these two, and not out of spite... because they're both obviously very good and caring people.

Perhaps that's what we can take away from this drowning curse, then: the idea that this is a family that, for whatever reason, shies away from emotional confrontation and discussion. And to be fair, that really is quite terrifying, besides being something that fathers and sons aren't always primed to do in the first place. We can't know what the Aquatos' family life is like, save for being a literal circus, but between a strong symbol of emotion (water) existing within the game solely as a death trap and a parent and child with literally no understanding of each other's feelings... we can get a fairly decent idea of what hasn't been happening before now.

So that's the journey we end up taking: not a coming-of-age story, but rather a coming-to-terms one. Two family members finally getting to speak openly about each other's feelings. Maybe next time they won't wait until one of them sneezes their brain out and becomes half of the core of a psychic death-tank first.

Coda: In the Mind of Dr. Loboto

Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin was a VR experience meant to bridge the gap between the first game and its eventual sequel: non-essential, but still with some story points and to show how things would look with a more robust engine. The show piece of the experience is Raz's journey into Dr. Loboto's mind, in which he comes to understand the history of the first game's villain.

And, you know, I couldn't help but notice that a lot of things that Raz thought were happening to him actually happened to the young Caligosto Loboto. The echo of stereotypical spoon-bending (the fake Augustus used "spoon-bender" as something like a slur in Raz's mindscape), the fear and confusion, the lack of appreciation for what's a truly good gift.

In the end, Loboto is (as you may have guessed from his name) lobotomized by his parents to "fix" him. The visual storytelling behind Raz's moment of realization is heartbreaking. I highly recommend giving at least this scene a look if you haven't.

While I'm sure Raz and his father have come to terms between games, I found it interesting that his major psychic journey in the VR experience was into the mind of someone who had genuninely suffered what Raz thought he was getting. That said... even though Rhombus of Ruin is meant to take place literally right at the close of the first game, I feel like Raz is in a better mental state now to appreciate this sort of parental behavior for what it is. And, who knows, maybe let it help remind him that he does have a loving parent after all.

If you haven't played Psychonauts despite reading this far, I highly recommend you do. It's on deep sale on Steam (until 5 July 2018) for literally a buck fifty. Even not on sale, it's only $10, and you definitely get more than $10 of gameplay out of it.

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