Editor’s Note: This article contains spoliers for the games mentioned.
Midway through the game Psychonauts, in which you literally infiltrate characters’ minds for some hands-on therapy, the hero, Raz, encounters a security guard named Boyd. As Boyd shuffles about, babbling incoherently about squirrels, conspiracies and fortified milk, it’s clear he’s not all there and his mind has been broken for quite some time. But he refuses to let Raz pass until he can locate “The Milkman,” so the hero leaps into Boyd’s brain to determine who and where this Milkman might be.
The subsequent stage, “The Milkman Conspiracy,” is one of the shining gems in a game already crammed with memorable moments. But more than that, it’s a striking and deeply disturbing portrayal of one man’s lost battle against his own insanity. When I think “art in videogames,” I think of this stage.
Art is the method we use to quantify and express “the human condition,” the sum of those experiences which make us uniquely human. In a way, it’s a coping mechanism, a technique that sorts through our jumbled lives and makes sense of things. The achievement of art is not beauty, rebellion or social commentary (although, of course, it can include all three). Instead, art is a reflection of our experiences, through which we filter ideas of what we could and should be.
To that end, art must aim to be as realistic as possible – not in the sense that it becomes life-like, since that would be mere imitation; but that it captures life and distills it down into its vital or true essences. Particularly with works in visual media, such as sculpture, oil paints and yes, even videogames, the artist must fight a constant temptation to settle for life-like art. After all, accurate reproductions of a subject’s physical form, be it with sharper lines, increased pixel count or higher resolution, are beautiful and generally well-received. The football players in Madden ’07 drip with sweat so perfectly rendered, you could taste it. But pretty sweat alone does not make art.
The key is to partner the visuals with a certain degree of abstraction, which allows viewers to open up and interpret what they see.
In many cases, it’s actually easier for viewers to decipher abstract art, or art in which the subject’s physical form is not accurately depicted. When a graphic is too life-like, it becomes distracting in the same way that robots which appear too humanoid make us feel uncomfortable. We put up similar mental barriers. But there’s something about abstraction, something primal that makes us drop our guards, allowing the art to penetrate our psyches on a more intuitive level. In fact, abstract visuals are sometimes the only way truly difficult emotions and experiences – tragedy, sadness, love, even madness – can be communicated without seeming melodramatic or maudlin.
Take, for instance, Shadow of the Colossus. Undeniably, the game is beautiful; the towering mountains, sprawling grass plains and crystalline lakes are stunningly rendered. And yet, as lovely as they are, the landscapes are not entirely substantial. The color palette is too muted and ethereal, like a faded photograph, and the mountains, plains and lakes seem too large for the space they inhabit. The environment is utterly isolated, empty, even apocalyptic. It suggests that some great tragedy has occurred here, and, perhaps, may still be occurring.
As for the Colossi themselves, they are elegant, magnificent creatures. However, they’re so different from any other animal in our taxonomy that they seem only organic enough to be alive. Decorated with glowing sigils and aboriginal tattoos, they appear impossibly old; when they die, their twisted skeletons immediately melt back to the mud and dust from whence they came. That Wander chooses to slaughter these ancient, beautiful Colossi, only to face a similar fate himself, is a philosophical quandary. But the game makes clear that this cycle of death and rebirth cannot be averted, that struggling against it is futile.
This is why Shadow of the Colossus is not just another beautiful game. It’s through these visual details that the game transcends its purpose and becomes a work of art, where tragedy, death and resurrection are the subjects.
Psychonauts achieves the same goal, but this time, instead of tackling tragedy as subject matter, the game addresses the experience of insanity.
Arguably, the way Psychonauts experiments with color and form is ugly, even hideous. Although the characters are ostensibly human, they look more like Tim Burton creations, straight out of Halloween Town or The Land of the Dead. The children look like nightmares; Dogan, Raz’s friend, is little more than a walking robin’s egg, and Bobby, the local bully, is a freakish monster with broken, yellow teeth and an candy-orange afro. Even Raz himself looks misshapen and malformed. All this is on purpose; Psychonauts‘ character design evokes the imagery of dreams, because the game takes place entirely within mental realms, in which people are held captive by their own imaginations.
Each of those mental realms in Psychonauts becomes a physical manifestation of a character’s mind, in which intangible concepts assume corporeal form. Figments of the Imagination – or dim, shadowy figures of people, plants and household objects – haunt each brainscape like imprinted memories. Purple Mental Cobwebs grow in unused corners of the mind. Secret Memories that shouldn’t be shared are stored in armored Vaults, which lightly gallop away from Raz whenever he approaches. And the only enemies you encounter are the Censors, whose job is to protect the mind from unwelcome or intruding thoughts – like you.
Thus, by representing these intangible concepts in easily digestible, cartoon-like images, Psychonauts depicts brain mechanics in a way a player can actually interpret. Had the brainspaces in Psychonauts been made of gray tissue, with electrical networks mapped out in vector form, sure, it might’ve been more accurate. But then it wouldn’t have made as much sense, or have been as intuitively real, as this abstracted version.
Using this setup, the game explores the various forms of insanity by assigning each to a different character’s brainspace. For instance, former actress Gloria, who suffers from bipolar disorder, acts out her worst memories on an internal theater stage. Shellshocked Oleander’s mind is a thicket of trenches, barbed wire and land mines. Fred, afflicted with multiple personality syndrome, is locked in a room without doors, losing endless board games against his alternate personality, Napoleon Bonaparte.
And then, there’s Boyd.
Boyd appears to suffer from deep paranoia; his brainspace is a quaint 1950s suburb, drenched in oppressive pastels and punctuated by identical subdivisions. Behind every hedge and inside every mailbox lurks a cameraman snapping photographs. Black helicopters patrol in indeterminate routes, too far away for the player to identify where they’re looking, but close enough to remind you that you’re always being watched. Men wrapped in trench coats with blank, green faces – possibly government agents – have assumed every occupation, from telephone repairman to homemaker, in an endless hunt to find The Milkman. It’s clear from the architecture of his mind that Boyd feels he is always being watched, that someone out there constantly conspires against him.
But the most disturbing piece of this mental puzzle – the part that makes “The Milkman Conspiracy” more than just some eerie, demented vision and transforms it into art – is the fact that Boyd is right. There is a conspiracy, and Boyd himself is the one behind it.
Buried in a tomb deep underground rests The Milkman: the physical manifestation of Boyd’s brutal, ultimately unstoppable rage. Out of the remains of his sanity, Boyd has erected a defense mechanism – the conspiracy – to protect the whereabouts of this anger, so that for his own safety, he cannot access it. But the overwhelming number and the persistence of the trench-coated men, whom Boyd has also created, indicate that he is desperate to unleash it once more. Boyd’s paranoia is not his true mental illness. It is merely a symptom of his psychotic rage.
But without the benefit of this surreal mental imagery, from the trench-coated men to the sinuous suburban roads, it would be impossible for a player to understand Boyd’s particular experience of insanity. The graphics here are not particularly realistic; they’re not even that pretty. But they are real. The visuals resonate with the inescapable truth of what they represent. And it is this disturbing reflection of insanity that makes Psychonauts a work of art.
Great art is a mirror, bouncing our experiences back toward us. Through the funhouse mirror of Psychonauts, we see our minds as a child might see them: distorted, hyper-real and in colors almost too bright to bear. Ugliness and beauty intertwine, as if they are one and the same, and we see what’s important – what’s real – in a way that makes it more easily digestible. Psychonauts is a tapestry of madness, which few other games – or even other works of art – could match. Through it, we learn to appreciate the potential of the human psyche for corruption, dysfunction and even heroism; the experiences it shares feel far weightier, far more relevant than those from a mere game. We feel them innately, on a subconscious level, resonating in the depths of our souls.
As Boyd would say, the milk is indeed delicious.
Lara Crigger is a freelance gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes “The Short, Happy Life of Infocom” and “Escaping Katrina.”