Games | Xbox | Psychonauts: Mind Games

Article by Matt Cramp? | July 5, 2010


Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Majesco
U.S. Release: April 19, 2005
Format: PC

Psychonauts was Tim Schaferís big chance to prove that he was more than just an adventure game designer, and he blew it. No-one begrudges him for that; after all, Psychonauts does a lot right. But as an adventure game dolled up as a platformer, it suffers from the combination as much as it benefits.

Psychonauts started life as a concept for an adventure game sequence, according to interviews with director Tim Schafer; specifically, it was a sequence cut from Full Throttle?, in which the biker lead, Ben, would go on a spiritual journey where his internal dilemmas would play out as a series of puzzles. This sort of strong conceptual idea was Schaferís hallmark at Lucasarts, and his Double Fine games -- Psychonauts and BrŁtal Legend -- continue that trend.

Sadly, that high concept is where Psychonautsí problems begin. Itís certainly novel to play a game set in a psychic summer camp, but the scenario doesnít suggest to the potential player what the gameplay is actually going to be. Adventure games never had this problem; no matter what the scenario, what you were going to do was explore the environment, solve puzzles, and grab everything that wasnít nailed down. For other genres, though, setting is the main indicator of what how a game will play. This is why high fantasy and science-fiction space marines are so popular (or overplayed, if you prefer) in games; you know from a glance at the box art that youíre going to be hitting things with swords, or shooting things with laser guns. What exactly is a psychic at summer camp going to do thatíll be worth playing? A pyrokinetic campfire-building minigame?

The game visibly struggles with its theme; it has two overworlds: The summer camp, and the insane asylum that the second half of the game takes place in. Itís the second half of the game, where the platform action takes place in the minds of people (and fish) who have serious mental problems that need solving, that the core concept of making inner conflicts tangible really shines. In the summer camp, the minds you explore are mostly healthy, and while the levels share the excellent art direction of the rest of the game and have strong concepts behind them, the real appeal of their gameplay comes from the weak platforming mechanics. The game really should have abandoned the summer camp idea entirely and focused on the insane asylum: The concept of mental marines battling through an asylum by jumping into inmatesí heads is novel, it suggests interesting gameplay, and itís easy to describe, which makes it easier for others to describe the appeal and spread word of mouth.

Of course, that would mean losing the summer camp characters, who are all hilariously written and quite charming for the half of the game in which they feature. Itís here that Schaferís adventure game experience comes to the fore, greatly abetted by the talents of Erik Wolpaw, who currently works at Valve making their multiplayer-centric games sparkle with wit and warmth. Psychonautsí script, along with its art direction and voice acting, were the aspects that the game undoubtedly got right, especially considering the amount of otherwise decent games that have terrible writing.

Even so, Schaferís understanding of video game characters comes primarily from adventure games, where characters can be as kooky as they like because they donít also have to contribute to gameplay. Psychonauts was originally intended to star an insane ostrich, whose origins would probably have been similar to the lungfish, Linda, that features in the middle of the game. Schafer rightly decided that an insane ostrich as a main character is unappealing; unfortunately, his reasoning was that games are primarily ďwish fulfilmentĒ and so the main character has to be someone that players would like to be, if they could. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of game characters of this type. But this isnít a hard and fast rule for games; a billionaire Adonis in a massive mansion is certainly something many young men would want to be if they could, but as a game character heís very poor. On the other hand, itís hard to see how characters like Jade from Beyond Good and Evil and Half-Lifeís Gordon Freeman are wish-fulfilment characters; Jadeís a poor, relatively normal human, yet sheíd still be an appealing character in a less vivid setting than Hillys. Gordon Freeman is a cipher, his only important personality trait being that he has Black Mesa security clearance. The settings that these characters are in are exciting to explore, certainly, but the characters themselves are entirely ordinary, and similarly ordinary settings can still be compelling places for narrative, as the wide variety of dramas and comedies set in suburbia attest. The reason we donít see these concepts explored much is that theyíre not easily conducive to complementary gameplay. Eventually, I suppose, someoneís going to give it a shot; you could even argue that Shenmue already did. In any case, Psychonauts’ hero Raz is living irony, the work of a creator known for his inventive concepts who nevertheless relies on conservative thinking for portions of his game design.

The main problem with Psychonauts, though, is that while itís ostensibly a platformer, its best parts are when it abandons that genre entirely. This didnít hurt critical opinion; by the time Psychonauts came out, the adventure game genre was moribund, and an adventure game that didnít adhere to their tired formula was bound to be different and entertaining so long as the execution was solid.

Therein lies the problem, though. The platform aspect of Psychonauts simply isnít very good. The controls are sluggish, for one thing. Raz has a cartoonish leap that pauses for about half a second as he winds up, and the game soon introduces a levitation bubble that Raz can ride, which is far faster than walking but canít be easily stopped or turned once it gets going. Raz has a melee attack that pauses him for a second while the animation plays out, and a variety of ranged attacks that he generally doesnít have to use. There are only three regular enemies in the game, all of which look and act similarly. One is unique in that it fires ranged attacks at Raz instead of beelining directly towards him, but this type doesnít appear often. The game is riddled with collectibles, all of which need to be found to complete the game 100% -- and many of them are redundant, being collected purely for the sake of having collectables. BrŁtal Legend features the same kind of gameplay, and it suffers from many of the same problems. Apparently, Schafer personally likes these particular mechanics despite how frustrating they can be for players.

The problems with Psychonautsí platforming mechanics reach their nadir in the final level, the Meat Circus; intended to be a climactic platforming challenge, the levelís instead a frustrating, broken mess. Its level design seems to have been built by someone with complete ignorance of the gameís physics. Rail-sliding sequences send Raz shooting off into space; enemies constantly knock him off tightropes as heís hanging from them, unable to react; and the most infamous obstacle, a cylindrical mesh that Raz is supposed to climb around, is built for jumping from section to section -- a feat heís actually incapable of doing.

Sadly, the adventure game elements donít mesh naturally with the platforming, either. Raz has an inventory that comes into play in different ways throughout the game, particularly in the asylum half. The strongest level in the game is the Milkman Conspiracy, set in the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic named Boyd. This world looks like a picture of í50s suburbia, twisted into itself and populated by trenchcoated G-men poorly masquerading as plumbers, telephone repairmen and, hilariously, housewives. The level is fantastic, with strong atmosphere and shifting gravity as you walk around the neighborhood. The gameplay of the level also has a strong concept: you need to investigate the conspiracy, by infiltrating the G-men groups and investigating special areas of the neighborhood (where you dig up graves and sneak into sniper-filled book depositories, clever allusions to other conspiracies).

Unfortunately, this is where the adventure game bulk of Schaferís design experience starts to take away from the platforming: Infiltration is executed by holding an item and walking up to the G-men. Imagine, for a second, how Mario would handle the same situation. Heíd probably infiltrate the plumbers without much trouble, but for the other groups heíd have to move like one of them. Platformer gameplay is based around movement: You succeed or fail by your ability to jump at the right time to the right place. An infiltration sequence that feels native to a platform game would take the same approach, being primarily about movement. In turning its own infilitration elements into a simple matter of having the right item, Psychonauts turns a promising sequence into a lock-and-key adventure game puzzle. Itís novel to see in a platformer, and the writing in the level makes the infiltration amusing... but not being based on platformer design, it lacks any sort of challenge.

There are other examples to be found in later levels. Gloriaís Theatre takes place in the mind of a manic-depressive, and it begins almost entirely as dialogue. Once the dialogue is complete, the action remains fixed on one small stage for the first half of the level as the player solves puzzles to advance a play retelling Gloriaís childhood. Eventually, the play reaches its last scene and the player is able to climb a tower backdrop to reach the stageís catwalks and resume platforming. Itís a tedious level, and its glacial pacing kills a lot of the gameís momentum.

Another level, Black Velvetopia, takes place in the mind of a man whoís driven himself crazy over losing his high school sweetheart. The level itself is very inventive and metaphoric: It takes place in a Spanish city themed around cards, with the underground sewers physically resembling the high school that underlies the metaphor. Itís a great instance of a unique narrative device that works well in a game, and itís a vindication of Psychonautsí core concept. Once again, though, items appear when theyíre frequently not needed. Hooks for black velvet paintings are located throughout the level, and mounting a painting changes the world, causing vines to grow or windows to appear. The paintings are only used once or twice for puzzles -- you generally use the last painting you acquired on the next hook you see, though a couple of secrets are tied to paintings, and thereís one place where you have to choose between one of two paintings. Itís unclear why these paintings were implemented in the first place, outside of encouraging you to talk to NPCs whoíll explain the levelís metaphor to you.

Whatís especially odd is that other parts of the level take a more streamlined approach: Thereís a series of four minibosses that need to be defeated to finish the level, and each boss drops a Queen card that gets immediately handed to the character that wants it. On its own, this would be a minor quirk. Considering the other levels where the adventure game influence is stronger, though, what it all smacks of is Schafer failing to effectively implement his concepts using platformer design and turning to adventure games as a crutch. This awkward hybridization let him keep the big concepts to preserve the gameís novel feel, but it also suggests that Schafer can only design a game so long as he works out a way to turn it into what he already knows. Heís an excellent writer and conceptualist, but as a game designer his skills are lacking.

Psychonauts famously flopped at retail after being dropped by Microsoft Game Studios and scooped up by Majesco. Between it and the bomb that was Advent Rising, they were forced to retreat to handheld systems, where they lucked upon Cooking Mama. Nevertheless, Psychonauts was at least a critical success, and it certainly boasts one of the best scripts of the generation. Still, itís not hard to see why it didnít perform to expectations: While it looks unique and has great writing, voices, and music, its plot and premise are hard to explain and sound unappealing to most gamers. And while it does new things -- ĒnewĒ meaning ďcreating a hybrid of adventure and platformer gamesĒ -- it doesnít get all the basics right, and doesnít make a strong impression until a few hours in.

Then again, maybe Iím just bitter that I spent so long getting all the collectibles. You hear me, Schafer!? Thatís three hours of my life Iím never going to get back!

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