I recently read a strange and unique visual novel called Psycholonials. It was released episodically between February and April 2021, and I caught up just in time for the ninth and final chapter, knowing very little about it except that some of my friends liked it and that I had enjoyed some of the creator’s other work a long time ago. Throughout the first few episodes, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. It’s a bit of an oddly structured story in that it begins like a slow character-driven drama, exploring a day in the life of a depressed young woman in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as she talks to friends and strangers on the internet and gradually drinks herself into oblivion. But before the end of chapter one, a strange dream and a sudden trauma that follows it have re-sparked her interest in a creative project that soon turns her into a rising internet celebrity, at the same time as she becomes a fugitive from the law—and both the pace and stakes of the story rapidly escalate from there as things just get wilder and wilder. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it all. But as I read on and started to understand more and more of what the creator was doing, Psycholonials started to become one of my favourite visual novels that I’ve ever read.
There’s a lot of political and social commentary in Psycholonials that might not be to everyone’s taste, but I was personally impressed with how well-written and nuanced most of it ended up being. In many ways, the story seems like a critique of the kind of radical leftist activists who have no strategy—people who have a lot of righteous anger about capitalism, but no real plans for dismantling and replacing it other than vague dreams of revolution—and an exploration of a worst case scenario for what might happen if a group of people like that were successful in seizing some level of power. But I also didn’t read it as any kind of denouncement of leftist ideals either. I think the main characters are largely sympathetic, and you can easily see a lot of positive elements to the movement that they stumble into leading, even if it all goes horribly wrong. And the writing also has a lot to say about where that anger comes from, and about how being crushed under an oppressive system can make you feel like it’s worth it to do whatever you can to strike back regardless of the consequences. There’s also a lot in there about parasocial relationships and how easy it would be for an “influencer” to start a cult, as well as about the complexities of figuring out your gender identity, and it’s all so naturally expressed through well-written dialogue that it never feels like the writing is trying too hard to push a message. It’s just an honest exploration of the issues these characters face in their lives, and I feel like even in its most bizarre moments, it really speaks to the nightmarish experience of living through current events in a way that a lot of other media has failed to do.
If I had to level one criticism at Psycholonials, it would probably be this: I’ve been reading visual novels for about a decade now, and I’ve seen pretty much every meta commentary on player choice in interactive fiction that they’ve got. So I didn’t think that the moment in the story that tries to address that was particularly original, nor did it really seem like it had come close to anticipating the variety of reactions different readers could have to their potential choices, even though it’s written like it thinks it’s going to surprise you. But it’s far from a major issue, as I still appreciated what it was trying to say about the meaningfulness of choice to the characters. And on a related note, once you’ve finished the game, make sure you see what happens if you try to load a save—it’s important.
One more aspect of Psycholonials that made it especially interesting to me was that it was written and illustrated by Andrew Hussie, the creator of Homestuck. I worry that that’s something that might turn a lot of people off of it, since nowadays it seems like Homestuck is best known for the biggest dramas and controversies associated with it—as well as for the behaviour of some of the weirdest corners of its fanbase—so hearing that Psycholonials is at all related to it might give a lot of potential readers some negative preconceptions about it. But if that’s the case, I urge you to give it a chance anyway, because I would hate for those assumptions to cause anyone to miss out on one of the most unique and pertinent VNs I’ve read in a long time. And as someone who was a big fan of Homestuck back in the day, it’s great to see Hussie’s writing mature and take on major issues at the same time as maintaining the qualities that made it so compelling in the first place. I hope to see a lot more original projects like this from him in the future.
There’s a lot about Psycholonials that I haven’t even gotten into in this review—for instance, the elements of dark comedy and absurdism that offset the serious subject matter—but honestly, I don’t want to give too much away. If my descriptions have piqued your interest at all, then I encourage you to pick up Psycholonials and dive right in. A lot of it is probably best experienced if you’re a little bit confused and surprised like I was. And if you follow my recommendation and enjoy it, let me know your thoughts here or on twitter. I’d love to inflict my clownsona character design on more new Psycholonials fans.