Difficulty in Games: Psychonauts 2's Invincibility Experiment

pyschonauts 2

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Difficulty in Games: Psychonauts 2's Invincibility Experiment

August 30, 2021

By: Anson Chan

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Publisher
Xbox Game Studios
Release Date
August 25, 2021
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Whenever a new game comes out, everyone loves to focus on things like the art style or level design or specific mechanics that make the game stand out from its peers. After all, it's perfectly natural for one's attention to gravitate towards the features that have an immediate impact on how much one would enjoy a game. However, much can also be said about how gameplay difficulty can alter one's perception of games. While there's plenty of examples that come to mind where developers seemingly got a kick out of punishing players with impossible tasks, there's not a whole lot of instances where a game had features that made things significantly easier. Of course, this meant that it was inevitable that a developer would eventually come along and challenge the status quo, and this challenge came in the form of Psychonauts 2.

By most reasonable metrics, Psychonauts 2 is a fantastically creative and witty experience that also touches upon some serious subjects in a rather unique way. However, there is one curious feature that the developers at Double Fine included that made some waves prior to release, and that is the addition of an Invincibility mode. As the name implies, Invincibility mode is a built-in setting that you can toggle at any time that makes it so that you're literally invincible to enemy attacks. There's also a setting that disables fall damage and a setting that lets the player do significantly increased damage, but the basic idea is that these settings exist so that anyone can play the game and experience the full story no matter what their skill level is. 

Naturally, you may be wondering why Double Fine felt that it was necessary to include such overpowered options. Frankly, it is a little superfluous as Psychonauts 2 isn't particularly difficult, and it has a very generous checkpoint system. If anything, announcing that the game has an Invincibility mode gave the impression that the combat would be a lot more difficult than it actually is. The average person can almost certainly finish the game with minimal frustration so long as they can figure out the platforming segments. By the time that you get access to some upgrades to your psychic abilities, combat becomes a walk in the park too. In that sense, Invincibility mode does seem a little excessive when a traditional easy-hard difficulty setting would suffice. 

On the other hand, it is very convenient to have an instant Invincibility toggle. Plus the game isn't going to play game itself. You still have to go through the same motions to finish Psychonauts 2 regardless of whether or not you are invincible. Enemies still need to be vanquished to progress the story, and the boss fights are functionally the same. No amount of fall damage mitigation can make the puzzles solve themselves, nor will it help you in the platforming sections. With how much platforming you have to do, there is little difference between Invincibility mode and a theoretical easy mode outside of semantics. If nothing else, it is pretty considerate that Double Fine considers Invincibility mode to be an accessibility feature rather than a cheat. After all, skill-gating what is effectively a story-driven platformer is pointless at best. At worst, you're making it needlessly difficult for people with disabilities to participate in a hobby. Not to mention the fact that skill is a very arbitrary measurement that can be based on almost anything if you want to be nitpicky enough. 

 
 
psychonauts 2 panic attack
Panic Attack fights exist just to demonstrate how overpowered the Time Bubble ability is

Of course, there's going to be claims that activating Invincibility mode is akin to robbing yourself of the true experience of the game. Which would be true — if content were actually removed. That's what Cuphead's Simple Mode basically did, and it is probably the worst way to handle difficulty since boss phases were removed, among other things. Again, Psychonauts 2's Invincibility mode doesn't appear to change the game's content in any way, so that argument goes out the window. No one's going to claim that high difficulty is part of the experience a la Dark Souls either, seeing as how Psychonauts 2 has such comparatively lenient combat mechanics. If anything, an Invincibility mode would probably benefit Souls like games by both allowing more people to play it and by allowing people to practice with no risk involved, though the latter obviously doesn't align with the whole purpose of the game.

All things considered, Psychonauts 2's addition of a built in Invincibility mode is such a nonissue that it could've easily been called easy mode and no one would've noticed. Call it convenience, call it accessibility, but more options is never a bad thing. Granted, outright invincibility is a radical approach that would really only work in a game like Psychonauts, but it will be interesting to see if developers for similar games of the genre adopt identical accessibility settings. There's a certain cleverness to the implementation of Invincibility mode too, as it shifts the focus entirely on the platforming and storytelling aspects of Psychonauts 2, which are features where the game is at its strongest. Not every game should have a built-in invincibility option, but Double Fine has proven that it is a viable approach to accessibility in games where combat isn't the main defining feature.

Hi :)
Staff Writer

Hi everybody! I've been playing all kinds of games for decades now, from FPSes to city builders to the occasional platformer, and if nothing else, it's taught me that games are the ultimate form of art. 

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