Date of Award
Master of Arts (AM/MA)
The cult-classic video game Psychonauts (2005) and its acclaimed sequel Psychonauts 2 (2021) are known for their depiction of mental illness and trauma. However, the depictions in each game reinforce different disability narratives: the first a “cure” narrative and the second an “accommodation” narrative (Mitchell & Snyder 2000; Howe 2016). Each level occurs within the mind of a different character, allowing the player to interact with manifestations of the character’s cognitive disability, such as fighting enemies called “Panic Attacks” or sorting their “Emotional Baggage.” The scoring for each level reflects the respective character by drawing from existing musical genres to mark them with a unique sonic profile. The genres heard include examples of popular music genres, like psychedelic rock, but they also include references to styles from popular culture, such as midcentury children’s television theme songs. These allusions function as “genre-topic[s]” (Lavengood, 2019), evoking extramusical associations that incline the player towards either a positive or negative perception of each character.
In this paper, I analyze cues from four levels— “The Milkman Conspiracy,” “Gloria’s Theater,” “Compton’s Cookoff,” and “PSI-King’s Sensorium.” For each cue, I identify and outline the x historical background and sonic markers of each cue’s genre-topic and examine how the allusions may impact the player’s perception of the character. Additionally, my analysis outlines how the scoring, in conjunction with visual and narrative elements from the game, reinforce the two differing disability narratives presented by the games. As part of the larger accommodation narrative, for example, the sensory associations of psychedelic rock are used to illustrate the acceptance process of a character desensitized by trauma. My analysis shows that in the first Psychonauts, genre-topics are obscured by musical markers of disability, contributing towards a negative view of disabled characters that encourages the player to seek to “cure” them. In the second game, genre-topics are not obscured by markers of disability within the scoring. The clarity in the scoring, coupled with disabled characters having greater agency in the game, contribute towards a sympathetic view of disabled characters that more closely resembles an accommodation narrative. My analysis of these levels highlights the shift in scoring and representation of cognitive disability that occurs from Psychonauts to Psychonauts 2.
Chair and Committee
Dr. Benjamin Duane
Dr. Todd Decker, Dr. Paul Steinbeck
Wetzel, Sophia, "Music and Mind Games: Disability and Genre in the Psychonauts Series" (2023). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2967.