The first Psychonauts, which came out in 2005, was a supremely interesting gem of a game—a cult classic by its very definition. The second game, which has only come out this year, is an improvement in almost every aspect of its design, especially its narrative. The level design is another standout, but what is truly outstanding is how these two aspects of design work together.
Within game design, there's this term, first coined by Clint Hocking in his critique of Bioshock, called "ludonarrative dissonance". Essentially what this term is referring to is when the gameplay and narrative are telling different stories. The easiest example comes from the Uncharted series of games. If you know anything about these games—or have played them—you’ll understand what I’m talking about, but for those who haven’t, I’ll provide an explanation.
In these games you play as a character called Nathan Drake, an Indiana Jones adventurer type guy, who is out to scavenge old ruins to find treasure. But of course, he’s not the only one looking for the gold, there’s always some old rich guy who hires a small army, and this is when the main gameplay loop of the Uncharted games comes into play. Eventually, you’ll run into a crowd of these hired mercenaries and you’ll have no option but to kill them, with all the guns at your disposal.
Sounds like any other action video game out there, but what creates the ludonarrative dissonance here is the fact that not once has anyone ever even mentioned how you’re killing literally thousands of people in each game. This means that either A. Drake, and everyone else in this game are psychopaths who can get away with slaughtering everyone in their path with no feeling of remorse, or B. the game’s writers didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal since this is just an action game. And they were right, the Uncharted games are still great because of the fun they provide, but I always thought that they could be so much more if they had addressed this problem, and this is what we can see in Psychonauts, and more recently in its sequel.
For those who don’t know what Psychonauts is, it is a 3D platformer in which you play as a young psychic called Raz, and throughout the games you enter other people’s minds to help them fight their own demons. This means that you will be helping characters stand up for themselves, find themselves, or even help characters who are living with mental illnesses.
Since the levels you are playing literally take place inside other people's minds, you are able to empathize with them in the same way the story is telling you to, which is a really hard thing to do in a video game. You know how it feels to be the characters because you literally had to see the world from their point of view, and this is where the ludonarrative elements of the game come together to create harmony. This means that the story being told through cutscenes is the same one being told through gameplay, and the result of this is a game like Psychonauts, which has stood the test of time because its ludic and narrative elements are so perfectly intertwined. This is what makes Psychonauts so special and memorable, it's the fact that you remember every single character, their challenges, their troubles, their struggles because you lived their lives, if only for a few moments. It’s because you had an active role in this story and weren’t just told what was happening. And this kind of story telling, this perfect connection with the audience and the creators, is something that could only be done in a video game.
So what have we learned from all this? Well for one, I bet you didn’t know what ludonarrative dissonance meant before this, but of course we were also able to see the importance of it, and how it affects games and the people playing them. And even though we know finding this harmony is not a necessity in game design and writing—far from it in fact—we are also able to see what it can lead to if done properly. I’ve also mentioned a couple of times throughout this article that Psychonauts has “perfect ludonarrative harmony”, and it’s worth noting that it’s definitely not the only game that does this so well, the other two standout examples being Dark Souls and Silent Hill, especially the second game, which might as well be considered perfect as a whole but that's a discussion for another day.
What Made Psychonauts Special - Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5I4vD2S01d0.
“Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” Click Nothing, https://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html.
Frederic, SERAPHINE. “Ludonarrative Dissonance: Is Storytelling about Reaching Harmony?” Frederic SERAPHINE, 1 Nov. 2017, http://www.fredericseraphine.com/index.php/2016/09/02/ludonarrative-dissonance-is-storytelling-about-reaching-harmony/.
Dodds, Richard. “An Exploration of Ludonarrative Consistent Game Systems.” ResearchArchive Home, Victoria University of Wellington, 19 Jan. 2021, https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/9421.