Innovative Adventure! A Tim Schafer Retrospective: Part Two- Psychonauts
In honor of the upcoming release of Grim Fandango Remastered, we're going to be taking a look at all the games Tim Schafer, nerd-hero-number-one, has directed. For day two, ready your psyches, because we're heading into the mind of the man himself.
Publisher: Double Fine
Release: April 19, 2005
Platforms: Windows, Xbox, PS2 - later re-releases on Steam, PS3, Xbox 360, Mac and Linux
Playing Psychonauts for the first time in nearly a decade, I was struck by how much it wants to be something else: a television show. It is the rare game where the story outstrips the gameplay, and the gameplay is still quite good. Tim Schafer - who worked on several of the best adventure games of all time (Monkey Island, for instance) - is a storyteller in the highest regards. He is, in my mind, the game developer equivalent of Joss Whedon - beloved, cultish and misunderstood; and Psychonauts is his Firefly: underloved at the time, but has found a new audience in the years since.
The game begins with a Patton-esque overview of the titular Psychonauts, a secret government agency that is tasked with handling the biggest of big problems. The fun part about it - and Psychonauts is always fun - is that Coach Oleander is delivering the doom and gloom message to a bunch of kids away at "summer camp". The game's main character, Razputin, or Raz - who has run away from the circus to go to camp - is discovered and instead of being kicked out, is allowed to stay.
As Raz explores Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, interacting with the colorful cast of characters and learning new psychic powers, he starts to become ensnared in a dastardly plot to steal kid's brains (literally, I might add) as part of a dastardly plot to take over the world.
The story is both grand and intimate. By allowing Raz to jump into other character's minds (and even his own), Schafer and the team at Double Fine can explore character as if in an adventure game, while still advancing the plot. The game literalizes many psychiatric concepts, such as emotional baggage and personal demons, and allows you to confront them with the best weapon imaginable: FIREBALLS.
Well, an arsenal of psychic tricks, actually. For all of its kid-friendly artstyle and location (the game is based partly on Tim Schafer's own experiences at a summer camp...highly exaggerated, of course), Psychonauts is an extremely mature game that explores a lot of complicated psychological relationships. Or perhaps we simply wish that our own baggage and psychic lesions could be fixed by actually fighting them.
According to Schafer, since 2005 Psychonauts has sold only 400,000 physical copies. The game was released by closed developer Majesco and cost roughly $13 million. The poor sales of the game may more than likely directly contributed to the company's deciding to abandon the premium console market, which it did shortly after.
While Psychonauts did not sell well, it was much beloved by fans of Schafer and platform games, and has enjoyed a long life via Steam since the license expired and Double Fine picked it up.
In terms of gameplay, the title does nothing truly as far as innovation, but it plays well enough. The length can get to you, especially with other Schafer titles clocking in at much shorter play times. There are only so many puns you can make before even I start rolling my eyes. But it is never not engaging, even if by the end you kind of want the whole thing to just get on with it already.
Psychonauts is a deeply personal game, one that Tim Schafer claims no one but Double Fine could have made. In an interview back in 2005, he said that "people... they're often afraid to put themselves in their games or to stand out and be different." That note rings true. Psychonauts is indeed a different beast altogether.
The end of the game has Raz, Sasha, Milla and Coach jetting off on their first official adventure together, as cliffhanger-y an ending as any. While a sequel was rumored to be happening back in 2012 with Notch (of Minecraft fame), that sweet, sweet Microsoft money had yet to fall and the project never moved forward. I am sure if a Kickstarter were to happen, it would meet its quota in about five minutes.
I like to think that the game directly influenced Christopher Nolan for Inception, with the idea of jumping into people's minds to "fix" things and confront the demons of the past. In fact, one intrepid Youtuber even mashed up the trailer to Nolan's 2010 masterpiece with footage of the game.
The Best Moment:
It is hard to pick a best moment in Psychonauts. The level design is solid, but it's really a game that showcases Schafer's wit and brevity. Every other second is someone tossing off a one-liner. What makes it all work is Schafer's gift for character, worldbuilding and storytelling.
Running around the camp, you can't help but really want to see a 13-part animated show about Raz's stay at Whispering Rock. The world is so rich and detailed and the history of it comes out naturally that you can watch the entire game (in cutscene form) and feel fulfilled.
But, to actually pick: the encounter in Sasha's mind. A perfectly ordered world is torn to pieces by an overenthusiastic Raz. That's when you realize that this game can anywhere it wants, because there is nothing limiting the imagination.
The Worst Moment:
Pinning down a worst moment is equally as tough. The game does feel long in the tooth, and the climactic battle between you and what is the subconscious of your father is a little...underwhelming, given the weight of what's occurring. It's as if Schafer knew they had to move things along and wrap things up, so it feels a bit rushed and repetitive compared to the earlier stages.
The Best Easter Egg:
While the game doesn't feature a lot of callbacks to Schafer's previous titles (none that have been corroborated), there is one particular scene that stands out. When inside Milla's mind, you can discover some of her locked demons about her past. The results are... terrifying.
Psychonauts' gameplay looks damn fine on the recent digital release. The cinematics haven't been updated, so they have this kitschy, mid-90s kind of appeal to them. It's not terrible, but you do notice the sudden changes between game and cinematic. And you will notice them a lot, too.
Where You Can Buy It:
NEXT UP: The most metal game of all time, Brutal Legend.