Issue 3.3: The Mindscapes We Make
A Psychological, Symbolic, and Metaphysical Analysis of Three Beloved Games
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Table of Contents (Vol. 3, Issue 3: Sunday, May 15, 2022)
Summary & Housekeeping
Feature: “The Mindscapes We Make” (~23-minute read)
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
Game & Word-of-Mouth
Today, we’ll continue our journey into the mind. Our next stop: the personal unconscious. We’ll examine the concept of “mindscapes,” and how mental worlds are constructed and portrayed in Psychonauts, Psychonauts 2, and EarthBound.
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Feature: The Mindscapes We Make
🚨🚨🚨 SPOILER ALERT 🚨🚨🚨
This post contains MASSIVE visual, story, and thematic spoilers for
If you want to play these games (which you really should) and don’t want them spoiled, beware! We highly recommend stopping here and coming back once you’re ready. You've been warned!
💡💡💡 POINT OF CLARIFICATION 💡💡💡
For consistency’s sake, this article will refer to MOTHER 2 / EarthBound as simply EarthBound, as we’ll be examining the North American localization and not necessarily the original Japanese script (unless otherwise noted).
This also applies to any character/location names and dialogue that differ between the two releases (ie, “Pokey” instead of “Porky,” or “Evil Mani Mani” instead of “Mani Mani Devil.”)
Welcome back to our “Depths of the Human Mind” adventure tour! We’re glad you’ve enjoyed your time in the conscious part of the psyche, but it is now time to move on to the next leg of our journey.
All passengers, please return to the vehicle so we may depart as soon as possible. Our destination: the unconscious.
Now, the unconscious is divided into two parts: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The unconscious is the part of your mind you’re not consciously aware of.
All systems go…
Before We Arrive at Our Destination…
I do need to warn you about our destination.
The unconscious is a strange, strange place. It is a place of secrets (both known and unknown), repressed desires, and shameful memories. It is the realm of dreams, archetypes, and out-of-body experiences. It’s where you’ll find the truth about yourself and the universe.
What I’m trying to say is that things might get a little weird. Please remember that this is normal and expected, and always keep your vial of smelling salts within easy reach at all times in case of emergency.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, please buckle your seatbelts, stow away your trays, and move your seat to its upright position. Please put on your psychic blinders until the vehicle has come to a complete stop; failure to do so absolves Game & Word Tour Operators, LLC of any liability for any ensuing psychedelic freakouts or neural neutralizations.
Touching Down in 3, 2, 1…
Welcome to the Liminal Zone
“Your heart knows things you are not aware of.”
~Magicant Innkeeper, EarthBound
Ok, we have arrived. It is now safe to open your mind’s eye.
Welcome to the subconscious, the liminal zone between your conscious and your unconscious mind. The subconscious is just out of reach of your conscious mind, but it’s not quite deep enough to fully be part of your unconscious—think of it as a transitionary zone, where the veil between the conscious and the unconscious is at its thinnest.
This is the realm of dreams, hallucinations, and spiritual experiences. This is where your unconscious mind communicates with your conscious mind. It’s where the dialogue between the ego and the self is at its clearest.
When you dream, your mind takes all the things you experienced during consciousness and encodes them into memory. As the ego feeds this information to the unconscious, your unconscious interprets it by way of symbols and archetypes.
If you’ve ever wondered why dreams are so… weird, this is partly why. The imagery and symbolism that your unconscious mind communicates in require conscious and consistent effort to “decrypt,” so to speak. And as you peel back more layers, these symbols become more abstract and harder to parse out.
Think of archetypal concepts such as truth or beauty. We all know what beauty is, but how do you describe it without diluting its true meaning? Even the act of creating a written definition constricts an archetype and creates an incomplete picture, but this is necessary for our minds to grasp its meaning in the first place.
Put another way, the further you concretize an archetype (as it moves from the collective unconscious, through your personal unconscious, then finally the subconscious and conscious) the easier it becomes for the conscious mind to understand—but also the further we get from the archetype’s true meaning or essence.
This is why people describe the mind as an ocean, or a vast astral plane. Our minds are not literally oceans. But the unconscious—on both the personal and collective level—is so mind-bogglingly vast, and we still understand so little about it. Both of those statements also apply to the ocean and space. And so, symbols and associations become codified.
But symbols hold different meanings for different people. This is because, while archetypes live deep in the collective unconscious, they’re filtered through our personal unconscious before we even become consciously aware of them. And naturally, everyone’s personal unconscious is different.
This is why it’s almost always better to conduct your own dream interpretations, instead of relying on third parties. Especially on the internet (no, the irony of writing that was not lost on me).
The mysteries and secrets of the mind have remained highly elusive and compelling for humans since time immemorial. This is why people keep dream journals, practice lucid dreaming, and induce out-of-body experiences through magnetic scrambling, psychedelic substances, or intense prayer and meditation. This is why the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and symbology exist. And it’s why exploring the mind is such fertile soil for artists, writers, and creators of all stripes.
Deeper into the Unconscious
“You created Magicant, the realm of your mind.”
~Star Master, EarthBound
Actually entering someone’s mind is not, for the time being, possible. Good thing, too, because that would be a highly reckless, invasive, and likely harmful thing to do—for both parties!
In fiction, however, mind exploration is not only fair game, but sometimes necessary. If a story takes place within someone’s psyche, the setting will almost always be an ephemeral and surreal mental construct, one that reflects the mind that created it (a gluttonous foodie’s construct might be made of his favorite foods, for instance).
That said, this isn’t always the case. Creators also often employ outer space, oceans, or labyrinths as visual metaphors for the mind’s vastness and complexity. Some works choose a more literal route, and the heroes actually traverse the subject’s neural pathways.
But whichever form they take, they’re all forms of Mindscapes. And as far as fiction is concerned, they all serve the same purpose:
To make something as abstract as the unconscious mind easier for audiences to grasp by giving it concrete, familiar qualities;
To reveal more about the character whose mind is being explored, particularly if the story involves facing their “darker” side.
For a recent—and terrific—non-video game implementation of mindscapes, check out Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece, Inception.
But since this is a video game newsletter, we’re going to examine some of gaming’s most memorable and symbolically-dense mindscapes, focusing most of our attention on three beloved titles—one classic, two modern:
Psychonauts 2 (2021)
I know at first glance, it seems unfair to give such top billing to Psychonauts and its sequel. But both games approach mindscapes and mind exploration in a way that remains unmatched in gaming.
“It’s time you saw what an organized mind looks like.”
~Sasha Nein, Psychonauts
Psychonauts is a 3D platforming game, released in 2005 by Double Fine, the studio founded by former LucasArts legend Tim Schafer. If you’ve been reading Game & Word for a while, that name should sound familiar—we’ve covered him before, regarding his work as the lead designer of The Curse of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you can think of him as gaming’s equivalent of Tim Burton,1 in terms of both narrative and visual style.
Before proceeding, I think it’s best we whip out the ole’ dictionary again, as “psychonaut” isn’t a word most people will ever use in casual conversation… oh wait, there isn’t a definition! See what I mean?
Psychonautics (from the Ancient Greek ψυχή psychē 'soul, spirit, mind' and ναύτης naútēs 'sailor, navigator') refers both to a methodology for describing and explaining the subjective effects of altered states of consciousness […] and to a research cabal in which the researcher voluntarily immerses themselves into an altered mental state in order to explore the accompanying experiences.2
A person who uses altered states for such exploration is known as a psychonaut.
There you have it.
Ah, yes, the game. Let’s get back to it!
A Masterclass in Mindscapes
“The mind is the final frontier of humanity and we’ve only begun to explore its mysteries.”
~Otto Mentallis, Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts, as the name implies, is a game about exploring people’s minds. Our protagonist, Razputin (“Raz” for short), is a young boy who sneaks into a summer camp for psychic kids so he can make sense of his own budding psionic abilities. Along the way, he’ll uncover and unravel a vast dental conspiracy,3 make peace with his past, and help his counselors and fellow classmates sort out their emotional baggage.
Raz does this by sending an astral projection of himself into other people’s unconscious. As such, the game makes terrific use of mindscapes to show us these characters’ pasts and personalities, while also incorporating psychological and metaphysical concepts into the game’s mechanics.
For instance, Raz levels up and learns new psychic abilities (including telekinesis, levitation, and clairvoyance) by collecting tokens scattered throughout each mindscape.
Some are drawings called “figments,” as in “figments of your imagination.” These figments are different for each mindscape and reflect the psyche of the person accordingly. Others are hidden safes called “memory vaults,” where the mind has locked away significant and/or traumatic events from the character’s past.
The mindscapes themselves are also highly symbolic and tell the player a lot about the game’s characters.
For example, one character, Coach Oleander, used to serve in the military and acts like a stereotypical drill sergeant. His mindscape consists of a series of war-torn landscapes reminiscent of WW1’s trenches and WW2’s aerial bombing raids.
The figments found here are a mix of barbed wire, tank barriers, military vehicles (tanks, planes), ordinance (shells), and soldiers.
Another character, Sasha Nein, is a scientifically-minded German psychonaut. He runs an advanced underground lab, and carries himself in a very stereotypically German—detached, analytical, and Spock-like—manner. His mindscape is a giant Rubik’s Cube:
Everything is nice and orderly, with platforms and constructs emerging from the different panels as needed, then retreating into the cube when done. Even the background consists of geometric, science-and-math-ey shapes.
Oleander’s chaotic, shattered, and fragmented mindscape indicates a broken mind, a psyche shattered by war and conflict.4 By contrast, Sasha’s clean and organized cube reflects his highly analytical, organized, and scientific mind.
And the sequel ups the ante, with deeper and even more intricate mindscapes.5 One of my personal favorites belongs to Helmut Fullbear, a former traveling musician. His mental world is a groovy outdoor music festival blanketed by the spirit of the 60s, covered in rainbow tie-dye swirls, and bursting with psychedelic images, sounds, and themes.
These are just a few examples. We’re only just scratching the surface here: the game and its sequel masterfully depict several highly abstract psychological concepts, such as individuation and even several forms of mental illness.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s take a look at how another classic game approaches mindscapes.
Are You a Magican, or a Magicant?
“In Magicant, there’s beauty, kindness, sorrow, and hatred.”
~Star Master, EarthBound
If you know me or have read some of Game & Word’s bonus articles, you know that I hold EarthBound in very high esteem. It’s a truly special game, my favorite of all time. But I’m not here to gush about one of the most beautiful, deep, and moving experiences in gaming. I’m here to examine how it guides us into the mind of Ness, its protagonist.
EarthBound is a trippy game. You can probably tell just by looking at the screenshots, what with its bright pastel-colored world and swirly, arabesque battle backgrounds. But none of that can properly convey how trippy it gets. EarthBound boasts a few sequences where things go completely off the rails, and they’re among the game’s most memorable moments—partly because they’re so unexpected.
One such sequence happens when Ness collects all of the game’s requisite plot tokens (in this case, eight melodies) and we flashback to a moment from when Ness was a baby. At some point, Baby Ness and Future Ness become aware that they’re both staring at each other, and the ensuing temporal/psychic feedback loop transports Ness to a strange, wonderful world called Magicant.
Magicant, also known as “Your World,” is a place that exists only within Ness’ mind. As such, only Ness—without his friends—can explore it. It’s unique to Ness, too; the game (particularly the Japanese script) implies that if anyone were to collect those eight melodies, they would enter their own Magicants. Each Magicant would be unique to, and reflective of, its host’s mind.
Magicant is filled with constructs/projections of people Ness has met throughout the game, as well as from his distant past. It feels very dreamlike, from its whimsical background music6 to the way the world’s color palette changes after Ness speaks to someone:
The world of Magicant is bursting with all kinds of symbolism, metaphors, and archetypes. Just about everything in and about Magicant carries at least some deeper meaning.
Major figures from Ness’ life—past and present, friend and foe—populate the mindscape. The palette swaps reflect whoever Ness last spoke to (and are significant in and of themselves). The dialogue each character speaks subtly reminds you that these are Ness’ mental projections—they’re not “real.” Even the game mechanics help communicate the surreal otherworldliness of this world.
Going through all of Magicant’s symbology would take hours—and I don’t have the mental bandwidth for such an undertaking at the moment. However, I do fully intend to do this, for a couple of upcoming bonus posts (hint, hint).
But for now, let’s just say that while Magicant can be a fun and carefree place, it’s not all rainbows and flowers. Ness is still a human being, with a human mind and all the human foibles it comes with. Said human mind created Magicant. Therefore, humanity’s more unsavory aspects are also woven into the mindscape.
Journey Metaphor to the Center of the Mind
“Of course, there is an evil and violent side of you. The Sea of Eden sits at the center of those feelings. It takes you to the truth about yourself.”
~Star Master, EarthBound
Despite everything about Magicant seemingly encouraging the player to take her time and soak it all in, possibly forever, at some point Ness must press forward. He is on a quest to save the world, after all.
As such, Ness must journey deeper and deeper into his mind. And as he leaves behind the playful village where he first came into Magicant, things start to take a turn for the foreboding.
EarthBound visually depicts Ness journey into his unconscious by sending him down a narrow, winding, dark red path known as “The Red Tunnel” by fans, and officially as “The Place of Sadness.” The music changes to a more melancholic track,7 and more significantly, enemies start to spawn.
Whereas the village was safe, the Red Tunnel becomes increasingly perilous as Ness forges his way deeper. Strange enemies abound, and the further down the tunnel Ness is, the more abstract they get. Among them:
And that’s just to name a few examples. And not only are their battle sprites8 strange, so are their overworld sprites: hostile gift boxes, question marks, and the disembodied eyes I just mentioned.
And not only are these the strongest enemies in the game (so far), but Ness has to face them alone, without his friends (he can recruit Flying Men, who embody Ness’ courage, but they often fall quickly in battle). The enemies in the Red Tunnel represent the familiar becoming strange and menacing.
It’s a warning for any would-be psychonauts to tread carefully while exploring their minds. The unconscious is terra incognita, and one must take care not to venture too far, too deep, too quickly. The line between a dream and a nightmare is precariously thin, and when you’re probing the edges of awareness itself, that line tends to unexpectedly disappear. Be careful.
Anyway, after much toil, sweat, and tears, Ness reaches the end of the Red Tunnel, and the path spirals in on itself, with a silvery tentacle marking the end of the road. When Ness touches it, he’s thrust ever deeper into his unconscious.
Returning to Eden
“The Sea of Eden is filled with ultimate intelligence. You can’t go there unless you’re truly ready. It’s a place where you can touch the truth of the universe. Going there may bring sorrow.”
~Star Master, EarthBound
Wow, we’ve really wandered far from where we started, haven’t we? We’ve followed Ness deeper and deeper into his mindscape, and now, we’ve ended up here: the Sea of Eden.
This is the place where the personal unconscious bumps up to the collective unconscious. This is where Ness’ dark side—including his violent thoughts, shameful secrets, and deepest flaws—remains safely tucked away, far from the conscious mind’s prying thoughts.
And for most people, that’ll be the case for their whole lives. Indeed, as the quote above tells us, one does not simply walk into the Sea of Eden. Any who wish to do so must make a concerted, conscious effort to venture there. And even ignoring the effort required, the Sea of Eden is home to thoughts that most people would rather not think, and feelings they’d rather not feel.
And yet, for such a place of darkness, the Sea of Eden is uncannily calm and serene. Its waters are perfectly still, their only motion coming from their pulsating teal and purple hues reflecting off the surface. The background music is foreboding, but also meditative; as if Ness were treading on sacred ground.
It’s also infested with Krakens. At one point in the game, the Kraken was a feared and fearsome creature, and defeating it marked a major milestone for Ness and his friends. Now, however, Ness has grown strong enough to dispatch the sea serpent(s) with ease.
As we accompany Ness as he wades closer and closer to the Sea of Eden’s center, we can almost feel the multiverse gradually unveiling its secrets, through infinitely unfolding geodesic fractals of cosmic information, perceptible only to our Mind’s Eye.9
Whether you call it God, the Universe, Gaia, Order, Gnosis, or Enlightenment… it does indeed feel like the “ultimate intelligence,” and it feels closer than ever as we, with Ness, approach the only piece of solid ground in sight. The center of the Sea of Eden. The nexus, where we transcend the personal unconscious and plug into the collective unconscious.
But wait… what’s that, standing in our way?
Everyone in our group sees a strange figure blocking the way. But we all see it differently.
Ness sees a horned, golden statue that has acted as a proxy for his nemesis, emanating the malign, eldritch influence it’s had on so many people throughout his quest.
Link10 sees a near-doppelganger of himself, almost a carbon copy but for the scarlet-red eyes and thick, obsidian hues that give the apparition a shadowy, dark appearance.
I see me—or rather, a shorter, stockier, and more imposing version of me. And he glares. His eyes, a bottomless pit of endless and barely-contained rage, pierce through me, forcing even my Mind’s Eye to avert its gaze. He brandishes a sword, made out of every nasty insult and putdown ever uttered by anyone, anywhere.
His big, grimacing frown rounds out as he opens his mouth. His voice is an almost imperceptibly deep baritone. And his words create ripples in the water and shake the very firmament as they reverb throughout the cosmos:
“I am the evil part of your brain. You can’t beat me. Because you are the one who forced me into being…”
It’s my Shadow…!!!
To Be Continued…
What will become of our intrepid team of psychonauts?! How will they face and reckon with their Shadows? What even is a Shadow (with a capital “S”), anyway?
You’ll just have to stay tuned and join us next time. See you then!
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
While you wait for the next issue, I invite you to mull over the following discussion prompts. Please reply to this email with your answers, or post them in the comments—I'd love to hear your thoughts!
If your mind created a mindscape, what would it be like? Be as descriptive as possible.
How would your mindscapes differ for your persona, your ego, and your Shadow?
Do you keep a dream journal or practice lucid dreaming? If so, how come? Would you consider yourself a “psychonaut”?
Have you ever experienced anything akin to “enlightenment” or a “spiritual experience”? What brought it on, and what was that experience like?
Why do you think the mindscape of Ness’ “dark side” is named the Sea of Eden? What sort of symbolism was Shigesato Itoi going for?
How deep have you ever ventured into your unconscious? What did you see?
Legends of Localization Book 2: EarthBound by Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin — An invaluable resource for EarthBound fans and neophytes alike, this is an almost impossibly thorough compendium of EarthBound’s localization from Japanese to English. Written by a professional translator who’s perhaps THE single most knowledgeable EarthBound fan on… well, Earth.
EarthBound by Ken Baumann — A wonderful little overview of EarthBound and its eventual rise from the ashes of commercial failure to a cult classic with one of gaming’s most passionate fanbases.
The Dream Interpretation Dictionary: Symbols, Signs, and Meanings by J.M. DeBord.— Symbology and dream interpretation is a fraught and highly subjective undertaking, and most free online “dream dictionaries” are about as useful as a Buzzfeed quiz. This one, however, was written by someone who clearly gets Jung, and outlines a solid methodology for creating your own dream and symbol interpretations.
EarthBound Analysis by Nafan (YouTube)
MOTHER 2 / EarthBound by Pitchfork (Socksmakepeoplesexy.net)
EarthBound Part 16: Magicant by Metaphysical Truth in Games (YouTube)
The Psychology of Psychonauts by Gaming University (YouTube)
The Brilliant Levels of Psychonauts by KevinHelpUs (YouTube)
The Mother We Share — Our EarthBound Story by Nintendo Life (YouTube)
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#psychology #symbolism #metaphysics #spirituality
#Psychonauts #Psychonauts2 #EarthBound
Now, I want to get one thing out of the way. The Wikipedia entry, and indeed most online discourse around psychonauts, might give the impression that the only way to venture beyond the veil of consciousness is by way of certain… hallucinogenic compounds.
This is absolutely not the case. In fact, ingesting such psychically potent substances recreationally, or for self-exploration without clinical/therapeutic/shamanic guidance, is an incredibly reckless and dangerous thing to do. They are not toys!
And even conceding that hallucinogens might lead a budding psychonaut to enlightenment, they can just as easily plunge her into the depths of the abyss. Which can be a deeply traumatic experience. Think about it: are you truly ready to see what happens when the doors of perception are thrust open? Are you really prepared to experience ego death? Most people aren’t until on their deathbed, and even then it’s not guaranteed.
So let’s just stick to dreams, meditation, and games, shall we?
Yes, “dental” as in “dentist.”
Yes, I’ve finished the game. I know about Oleander’s dark, dirty secret. I also realize I’ve already attached a spoiler warning at the top. I just don’t have the space or energy to break down Oleander’s entire backstory and character arc. So for this article, we’ll just take him at face value.
And the original Psychonauts’ mindscapes were already deep and complex, so imagine how much the sequel raises the bar!
Appropriately titled, “Welcome Home”
Also appropriately titled, “Deeper Into Ness’ Subconscious”
In gaming, a “sprite” is an image that represents an asset in a game, particularly 2D, pixelated games—so anything up to and before the 16-bit era (SNES, Sega Genesis, NES, Game Boy, etc.). Characters, enemies, items, and effects each have their own individual sprites. This is in contrast to 3D games, which use rendered models instead of pixelated sprites.
Which has been gradually sharpening its perception as we’ve gotten more acclimated to these inner mental realms.
For this journey, Link is also tagged along with us, having hitched a ride after last week’s visit to Termina.