App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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Psycholonials is a visual novel by Andrew Hussie, the mind behind MS Paint Adventures, including Homestuck. When I booted up the game, I wasn't sure what I was getting into, as Homestuck is mostly something I heard about in passing as an impenetrable, crudely drawn webcomic with a cult following. After finishing Psycholonials (an experience I took my sweet time with), I relish the opportunity to dive into Hussie's other works. Psycholonials speaks the language of modern online discourse and stretches it out to absurd proportions, all while telling a deeply human and relatable story. It's an incredible read.
Losing it in lockdown
Psycholonials tells the story of Zhen, a depressed twenty-something who finds herself isolated from nearly everyone in her life due to the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown. Her only real connections to the outside world are her midly-popular social media persona and her successful influencer friend, Abby. The story opens with Zhen starting another day of drinking alone and cringe-posting before a string of events inspires her to reinvent her online presence, which ends up having far-reaching consequences.
I hesitate to give much more away about the story than that. This isn't just because Psycholonials is a visual novel where "finding out what happens" is basically the only driving force it has. This story goes in wild directions that are hard to predict, and are both completely ridiculous while still following a certain string of logic that hits home particularly for anyone who is trapped on Twitter or other hellish social media environments. If you want a taste, just know it features clowns, Post Malone, political revolution, and a horse.
Spiraling stick figures
The visual aspects of Psycholonials are hard to describe. Obviously, looking at individual stills shows you that its art is low-res with characters that look like they were drawn using MS Paint, but there's so much more to this game's style than crude drawings. Hussie makes excellent use of highly-compressed photography, motion-comic style animation, and a gorgeous soundtrack, all of which heighten the drama and absurdity of Zhen's journey.
The beating heart of Psycholonials--the thing that makes it work--though is its writing. Andrew Hussie has a knack for tapping into the subconscious of anyone who has undergone or witnessed a political awakening by way of internet culture and applying that mindset and language to situations that might happen if more people actually tried to take their newfound ideologies beyond the tiny steps of changing how they talk online or vote in elections. All along the way, Zhen and Abby reflect on their own actions and their relationship in a way that feels really geniune and grounds the whole tale, even when it starts talking about intergalacitc imperialism.
Message in a bottle
The nine chapters that make up Psycholonials are all pretty substantial, so this isn't a game you can just breeze through. All told, it's probably about a six-hour read. I, however, found myself taking a lot of breaks from the game, mostly to reflect on its messages, but also because I was savoring it. I legitimately did not want Psycholonials to end, and I knew part of finishing would also require me to articulate why I enjoyed it so thoroughly.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is that Psycholonials feels like the first piece of media that acknowledges the COVID-19 pandemic in an all-encompassing way. It doesn't just say "masks, amirite?" for the sake of set dressing. It squarely acnknowledges and examines the geopolitical machinery that led to the extended quarantine that reaches far beyond shallow critiques of the Trump administration. To read and engage with something that wades into the deep waters of online political ideology while always staying focused on its characters and their relationship feels both incredibly refreshing and validating, as it somehow encapsulates so much of my experience being trapped at home for so long despite the fact that it's such an outlandish set of events.
The bottom line
I can't recommend Psycholonials highly enough. It strikes an impressive balance where it is both aggressively heady and online, but also charming and ridiculous. Zhen and Abby's dynamic capture the feelings of anger, depression, and absurd comedy that have been reflected in many online circles over the past year, and reading it has been one of the highlights of my year. Do yourself a favor and give it a read.