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Psychonauts 2's mental health approach: Handle with care

Tim Schafer wants devs not to shy away from tough topics but to treat them with respect and thoughtfulness

Yesterday marked the start of this year's International Games Summit on Mental Health, and the conference keynote was a discussion with Double Fine Productions founder Tim Schafer about the development of Psychonauts 2, which launched in August to a warm critical reception.

Like the first game in the series, Psychonauts is an action-platformer in which each level is a physical representation of a character's mind. The young protagonist Raz explores the psyche of these characters, all the while doing battle with enemies that serve as manifestations of their fears, anxieties, and other complications.

It's a bit "high concept" compared to most platformers from big publishers, and Schafer said the inspiration for the series came from a college class he took on the psychology of dreams.

"One of the things that really inspired me was the Gestalt role-playing therapy they do," Schafer said. "They had people tell their dreams, but then they act out their dreams and all the different characters, or objects or things. And people would have these revelations about themselves in their dreams, because everything in a dream is created by the dreamer, so it has something to say.

"You think of metaphors as being the kind of thing a writer or poet would do, but everyone does it every night in their sleep. And by facing someone's fears in this other way, you're not talking about a painful topic in a really on-the-nose type way"

"But you don't just say painful truths in words. You turn it into a bear, or a scary forest. You make all these metaphors, and that's what I thought was beautiful. You think of metaphors as being the kind of thing a writer or poet would do, but everyone does it every night in their sleep. And by facing someone's fears in this other way, you're not talking about a painful topic in a really on-the-nose type way. Instead, you're representing it artistically or impressionistically, so you get the feeling of it, and I think that helps you just see it another way and maybe that helps you get some insight on it."

Psychonauts 2 is rife with those metaphors, which Schafer said in many cases were informed by the actual life experiences of the development team. While the depictions in the game are clearly not one-to-one experiences from anybody's lives, Schafer said the characters' difficulties were informed by real-life experiences with addiction, compulsion, or other destructive behaviors that Double Fine staff had seen in their families, or even in themselves.

Schafer said it's important to creators to work from primary sources like that when dealing with just about any subjects they cover in their work, but it's particularly necessary with mental health issues.

"We all have this education about mental health that we get from movies, which is stereotypes about mental health, the way people act and feel, and what causes all these things," Schafer said. "But when you actually look at actual sources, real people, our own experiences and the experiences of people close to us, I think that makes it both less harmful to people when you're telling the stories, but also better art. It makes it more real for the people viewing it. To me, any art is about making those connections between people, and to do that you have to be telling the truth and things people can really respond to in an emotional way. "

Schafer said it helped that the premise of Psychonauts lent itself to avoiding those kind of stereotypes from the start.

"You can't help but have empathy I think, once you're inside someone else's mind, seeing the world through their eyes and seeing what they're struggling with," he said. "It's that basic good advice you get hopefully when you're younger, which is to be kind to people because you never know what they're going through."

While Schafer seemed at peace with how the first game turned out, he said a lot of what the team did right in handling mental health on that project was by accident. For the sequel, they wanted to be more deliberate about it.

He pointed to one significant change as an example of that. In the original, Schafer said Raz would jump into people's minds "willy-nilly," paying no need to the inherent violation of the act. For the sequel, he gets consent first except in cases of dire emergency. (Schafer noted this also gave them an opportunity to use those dialog exchanges to normalize the idea of seeking therapy.)

"There are a lot of reasons to use consultants. The team is all too close to what they did to see how it's perceived by other people"

Double Fine also enlisted the help of mental health non-profit organization Take This to advise on its handling of the subject.

"Even with all our good intentions, we have blind spots, and we know there are things we just don't know about, words that are so common you don't think about," Schafer said.

"There are a lot of reasons to use consultants. The team is all too close to what they did to see how it's perceived by other people. And if someone on the team does raise a red flag about something, that voice can be silenced by the hierarchy of the project, or some political reason, or they're worried about their job and don't want to say anything. But an outside person can tell the truth, basically, and not worry about any repercussions so they can be more honest about the game."

While Schafer has heard people express concern about altering their creative work so as to protect a portion of the audience who would have an adverse reaction, he largely dismissed those concerns, saying good writers typically work with editors and take feedback without getting defensive about the suggestions made.

"It's a learning thing that people have to go through, realizing that intention is not as important as the impact of the words..."

"I think a lot of us are shielded and live in this bubble," Schafer said. "People who really fight for 'all that matters is my free speech and my creative integrity,' they live in this bubble where they haven't been harmed by anything like that ever. And they can't be harmed by those, it doesn't cause any memories for them to have certain words used. 'So why should anyone else care if I don't care?'

"They're shielded in their own mind by, 'Oh, I'm a good person, so I have great intentions. Therefore, I couldn't have done wrong, and you are wrong for being offended by my thing in my game.' It's a learning thing that people have to go through, realizing that intention is not as important as the impact of the words... You should consider the impact of your art and how it's interpreted, and that's the only way to make better art and also not hurt people."

Schafer ended the session by hoping that developers would embrace the extra work involved in treating subjects like mental health properly rather than be discouraged by it.

"Don't shy away from difficult topics; just try to approach them with a lot of respect and thoughtfulness," Schafer said. "I think there's a tendency to either plow in without understanding anything or else avoid it completely because you're scared of doing it. But I think you can by contacting experts, doing the research, getting a consultation, and not being afraid of handling topics because life is very broad and has lots of diverse things going on in the world, and it would be a shame to leave that out of any art, especially video games, because video games is made so much better by covering new topics it hasn't covered before."

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Latest comments (1)

Pablo Ariznabarreta Business Development Manager, Ark One Studios2 days ago
Such an amazing game! It has so much heart poured into it that it's impossible not to feel you love each and every character once the credits roll.
It's great to learn that game relied on professional consultants and I totally agree with their take on our intrinsic ability to work with metaphors.
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