I participate in a game club with some close friends of mine. These are some thoughts from one of our recently completed games.
With the impending approach of Psychonauts 2 my game club friends and I decided to play through the original game earlier this year. I had played half of Psychonauts on Steam a few years ago, having been intrigued by it back in 2005 when it released, yet never finished (more on that later). Well, this was my chance to start fresh and see the game through to the end. There were some things that impressed me; there were other things that reminded me why I had quit before. That said, I’m glad I revisited the title because I feel exploring older games—even one that may not be your cup of tea—is a worthwhile exercise if only to expand your toolbox.
For the sake of general analysis, I will be doing my best to stay away from any “review” language and focus instead on some items I really liked and some items I didn’t care for as much. There will be some bias here—these are my notes on my experience with the game—though I will also try to keep an open mind to the pros and cons of why something may be the way it is.
First, a quick recap: Psychonauts is a 3D platformer developed by the fine gentlemen at Double Fine Productions, birthed from the mind of Tim Schafer. It was originally released on the Xbox in 2005. I played the game on PC via Steam with a DualShock 4.
THREE THINGS I LIKED ABOUT PSYCHONAUTS
Psychonauts has excellent writing. The characters are fresh and fun and play off one another well from the opening cinematic to the closing credits. This is where Tim Schafer shines. I’m left with impressions of Nickelodeon cartoons from the early 2000’s: Hey Arnold!, Rugrats, and Invader Zim. (Appropriately, the lead character, Raz, is voiced by the lead voice actor from Invader Zim so that connection isn’t arbitrary.) This humor successfully moves beyond the writing and pervades the art style, animations, and situations the player finds himself in. Characters are disproportionate; items and circumstances play off your expectations; jokes are timed well. This game made me laugh, and I enjoyed it all the more for doing so.
The second place I feel Psychonauts shines is the level design—or perhaps I should say the scenario design. The main premise of the game is becoming a psychic warrior of sorts, travelling into the minds of other people, and sorting through their mental disorders. As a result, each level is a riff on the mental state of the individual being explored. One is a battleground; one is a board game; most are messy. This is where Psychonauts takes a concept from other 3D platforms (jumping between different worlds, a la Super Mario 64) and expands on it in an interesting way. First, it allows lots of variety in between the levels. They all feel and behave differently. The mechanics in use are presented in unique ways. However, they are all still anchored in the same world. Second, it means the levels tell a story. One is a battleground because the level’s “owner” has dreams of military grandeur. By progressing through the environments, the player is taught what makes these people tick, and how can they be helped.
The “To Do” List
The third item may appear minor but I really appreciate how the “To Do” list is implemented in Psychonauts. Not only does it track each quest and side quest the player comes across, but it tracks the histories of those objectives as well.
I have a goal.
Do this thing to reach the goal
Get this item to do the thing
Talk to a person
I found this more meaningful than a lot of other objective lists found in games. The format here tells me what I’ve done recently, what I need to do now, and why I need to do those things. It’s like a log book and a quest list all in one!
TWO THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT PSYCHONAUTS
“The Milkman Conspiracy”
This is the reason I quit Psychonauts the first time I played it. For full disclosure, I am not much of an adventure game fan. The hunt for a specific item to use in a clever way to advance to the next series of play has never captivated me—I find it arbitrary and frustrating. Likewise, I find “The Milkman Conspiracy” arbitrary and frustrating. Yes, the layout of the level is interesting. Yes, the agent-people scattered about are hilarious to listen to. But the clues are limited. Solutions to puzzles are obtuse. The result is a lot of running around in circles, looking to stumble upon the solution, rather than thinking up a solution.
Nearly every time I revisit a 3D game from the PlayStation 2 or Xbox I find myself baffled by how poor cameras were back then. I feel like I shouldn’t be as harsh as I am about this—I know 3D game development is difficult and creating a way to intuitively navigate a simulated 3D world is a great challenge. With that admitted, the camera still frustrated me throughout each level of Psychonauts. There are many platforming segments set within closed environments: walls, corners, and cameras do not play nicely together. This doesn’t do the player any favors navigating the landscape. I suppose the levitate ability serves as a Band-Aid here, but Band-Aids are not cures. Nintendo was smart to build Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy primarily in outdoor environments where there are much fewer walls, corridors, ceilings, and corners to deal with.
ONE THING I WILL TAKE WITH ME
Psychonauts is a fun adventure-game-made-platformer which I’m glad I revisited. The writing and scenario design are both excellent, though some mechanics feel rough around the edges. I’m optimistic for Psychonauts 2.
What I will take with me from playing this game is the way it furthers its exposition through its level environments. This isn’t the same kind of environmental story-telling seen in Bioshock and Portal. This is much more pervasive. They are far more than just set pieces. The heart and presentation of each level tells the player more about what’s going on than the dialogue does. This is very smart design and something I will be taking with me as a designer.