Double Fine’s cult-classic adventure-platformer and the invaluable benefits of ridiculously strong writing in the face of terrible game design.
This article contains SPOILERS for Psychonauts.
The Backlog is my sporadic effort to document an ongoing journey through the unwieldy gaming backlog I’ve built up over the years. Partly to belatedly experience some classics I’ve always wanted to play but never got around to, partly to pay off having dropped not-insignificant-amounts-to-me of money on games I’m yet to truly touch, and mainly so I don’t feel bad about spending so much time playing video games instead of penning the next great American novel (by an English-person who’s never been to America). Prior entries can be found here.
There are certain games which have been officially-canonised in gamer circles as deeply-underappreciated hidden gems that never got their fair shake upon initial release by the buying public at large. The games that were overlooked for whatever reason and now live on being crowed about in Internet listicles as essential playing for any self-respecting Gamer. Read enough of said listicles and you’ll find a whole load of recurring staples. Grim Fandago (not too far down my backlog to go before I reach that one), The Darkness (played on release, loved), Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (never had a GameCube), XIII (played a decade later, liked), Oni (I cannot get into that PS2 port, it plays like unforgiving ass), Ico (not touched), Beyond Good & Evil (never finished for some reason, need to give it a new mature shot), Viewtiful Joe (bought on release, loved), Okami (bought on release, loved), God Hand… Actually, just say Anything by or Associated with Clover Studio and that covers a good third of any such lists.
One such game with a permanent slot on these sorts of things, to such an extent that it’s frankly a cliché at this point, is Psychonauts, the first release by Double Fine Productions, made up of ex-LucasArts developers from that studio’s adventure game golden age. I’ve spent sixteen years hearing about how incredible Psychonauts was, how unique its various worlds were, how hilarious its writing was, how striking its visual design remained, how brilliantly balanced its tone around difficult subjects managed to be… All of it catnip to my particular tastes. Even though I haven’t played a whole lot of Double Fine or classic-era LucasArts games, I still consider myself a fan and supporter of Double Fine and its public head honcho Tim Schaefer. Proud weirdo nerds, flying the flag for compelling storytelling in video games which try to wind that writing into the core mechanics instead of making it mere flavour text or something proper gameplay is forced to take a backseat to, and maintaining an independent spirit in the face of conglomerate AAA bloat (right up until they no longer could). And Psychonauts, a comedic platformer about a summer camp for psychics, especially sounded like my kind of fun time.
Yet, it took until April of 2021, at the time four months before the long-gestating sequel released, for me to finally pick up and play this essential cult classic. A lot of that was just due to unavoidable circumstance. The original European PS2 release didn’t arrive until nearly a year after the game completely fizzled in the US, received almost no marketing or raves even in the gaming magazines I obsessively poured over, and sank without a trace. That resultant low sales, mainstream obscurity, and it being out of print completely for years saw resale prices steadily rise to almost equal that of a new-release game by late-seventh generation, and no way in hell was I dropping upwards of £35 on a game I had no prior connection to when I could buy multiple Blu-Rays, CDs and old games for the same price.
But there was another reason, the one as to why I waited just under five years after Double Fine released an emulated port on the PS4 and even then only did the download on a sorta impulse when it went on sale before the house move. Whenever most people talk about Psychonauts, they always talk about the writing, the level aesthetics and concepts, the comedy, the characters, even the music. They very rarely talk about the gameplay and when they do it’s in very reserved tones, a kind of begrudging acceptance or heavily-caveated. The kind of talk which sets off alarm bells to someone like me, whose self-hating brain is more than aware of there being only so many hours in the day and loves to shame any time wasted on garbage, especially garbage which demands a deep time commitment, yet always insists on seeing any media started through to the end. (Again, hence this specific series of articles.)
So, yeah, it took me a while to pick up Psychonauts. But I finally did and blasted through it in just over a week’s worth of nights whilst moving into the new house pre-WiFi installation. (There’s an indicator of just how far behind we currently are on write-ups.) Therefore, I can confidently state, sans any nostalgia or critical peer pressure, that Psychonauts is one of the best-written games I have ever experienced. Absolutely hysterical, uniquely characterised and excellently performed, caustic but ultimately respectful in its approach to mental health and mental illness – and not just when compared to how other games at the time were treating it, it’s still better than a lot more modern attempts – and so very smart both in general content and weaving said writing into the game mechanics.
It’s a good thing that the writing is so strong, too, because Psychonauts is also one of the absolute worst-playing and most maddeningly-designed platformers I have ever experienced. An exercise in the kinds of niggling frustration which build up over time and threaten to almost completely ruin the whole thing. The sort of terrible-playing game that makes a recommendation go more along the lines of “I absolutely think you should play Psychonauts, but…” And I do absolutely think everybody should play Psychonauts, but that “but…” gets bigger and yappier the deeper into playing one goes and starts to turn some of the game’s positives into negatives.
Let’s deal with that questionable-to-terrible game design first, because I do want the end conclusion to be an ultimately positive one. And, to be clear from the outset, all of this criticism is done with a loving and understanding tone in spite of how much it may otherwise seem like I’m being driven up the sputtering wall. Where Psychonauts messes up in the gameplay department, it’s not due to dispassionate development or active incompetence by people who should know better. Schaefer has been very open about Psychonauts having been the entire team’s first foray into making something other than a point-and-click adventure, so they were having to learn the rules of collect-a-thon platformer design and free-camera systems – something that ever so many vastly more experienced devs can’t even get right in 2021 – pretty much on the fly. Furthermore, retrospectives have also seen the team admit that they let their ambitions and scope creep get the better of them multiple times during development, attempting to put their own unique spin on platforming gameplay despite ability, time, and available resources.
In so many words, Double Fine tried to reinvent cars before they’d even learned how to brush their own teeth and the results are expectedly an ever-frustrating mess which only get worse the deeper into the game one goes. On a standard action-platformer mechanic level, everything is just about passable when on a casual explore but falls apart very quickly when asked to do any strenuous platforming or combat. As was commonplace for the time, the camera is a pain who seems to be more in league with the baddies than the player; getting stuck on walls, obscuring enemies who take advantage of cheap hits, failing to provide adequate depth perception for riskier jumps. This gets coupled with a targeting system that despite being very necessary in combat is completely useless; any more than maybe two enemies or interactables on-screen at any one time and the thing basically shits itself, defaulting to the least threatening thing in the room and causing your attacks to miss by miles.
Movement, meanwhile, is loose and inconsistent. There’s an admirable effort to include some gymnastic flow to how Raz gets around the world, building in his childhood as a circus acrobat, which is impressively freeing for a multi-console platformer of that era and allows for slightly unconventional ways of reaching certain platforms or heights. But said flow can often be brought to a dead stop by the weirdest angles or catching a rail the wrong way, something that at best jars with the sensation of barrelling through a level on a Levitation Ball and at worst causes one to fuck up a series of high jumps which sends them plummeting back down several floors. The late-game starts demanding more precise platforming, either via near-insta-death gauntlets (as in the notorious Meat Circus) or timing-based sprints where a lost split-second sends you barrelling back multiple stages (the bull in Velvetopia), and the mechanics just are not refined enough leading to maddeningly unfair losses of progress. Throughout, there are also a large number of leaps of faith and just-barely-reachable platforms holding collectables which, bluntly, don’t seem to have been properly playtested. Particularly in the final room of Milla’s Dance Party, I can hit the same Levitation Ball-assisted jumps the same way five different times and, despite that being the clearly intended design, have it be a coin flip as to whether I clear the gap to the platform or not.
Oh, yeah. I hadn’t mentioned the collectables. Psychonauts is a collect-a-thon platformer, albeit not one where working through said collect-a-thon is necessary to beat the game. The lone exception being the grind for arrowheads and PSI levels in order to unlock the Cobweb Duster, itself a terrible piece of design since at no other point are you required out-of-mission to acquire an ability which progresses the story along; anyone who wasn’t already compulsively grabbing arrowheads in the hub world before the roadblock and accompanying switch to more dangerous night-time gets majorly boned by this. But otherwise, collecting everything is not necessary to see the true end and THANK FUCK FOR THAT. There are a lot of collectables in Psychonauts, in fact the game keeps flinging new ones at you right up until the last tower climb, but the main type and bane of every single collect-a-thon platform player’s existence are Figments.
Figments, in concept, are really cool. Instead of random doodads strung about the floors of each mental world Raz visits, you get sketched-out Figments of that mental host’s imagination. Many of the individual Figments are at least somewhat unique in design and all specifically relate to the world and head space of the person whose mind you’re invading. Milla, for example, has lots of swinging 60s visual aesthetics like disco balls, martinis, and the outlines of pampered socialites; whilst Gloria’s mental world is a classy yet slightly-dilapidated theatre so has Figments of arts patrons, old props, and stage lights in the rafters. Every Figment has been lovingly designed by Double Fine’s art team with the same unique care and attention to detail as the wider environments they’re placed in and there are hundreds in each level. But, and this is a “but” anybody even remotely familiar with the game knew was coming, in execution they’re awful.
Their biggest sin, the root flaw all of the others simply compound, is that Figments are translucent. In a bright technicolour surrealist game such as this, where everything is bolder than everything else, that’s a bewildering choice to make. The aforementioned detailed nature of each Figment’s design means they can be extremely hard to pick out as Figments instead of pieces of scenery at a glance unless you go out of your way to run over and inspect. That’s on the levels where nothing much is happening. In ones where the world is constantly shifting, where the background and foreground elements keep distracting one’s attention, or where the bloom effect is just too bloody high, they can be almost impossible to see. They are also, almost uniformly, coloured in such a way that they straight-up blend into the scenery, meaning you can walk right into them without realising until you get the pop notification or miss them entirely and spend forever searching for said missing Figgie in semi-sprawling levels with no indicator to help. Also also, some of them move. Usually in quite large, often lengthy cycles where you can run right past at the wrong time never knowing a missing Figment was just busy underneath the floor finishing its cycle.
Every single worst possible decision a designer could make when implementing a collectable in their collect-a-thon platformer, aside from making them mandatory to finishing the game, has been made by Schaefer and his team with Figments. It feels like something where the artistic design impulses overrode mechanical design sense and it acts somewhat as a microcosm for the game’s biggest design flaws overall. In so many words: a lot of this platformer works on point-and-click adventure game logic, where the simplest of jobs takes five obtuse steps to execute instead of the logical one.
Take, for example, the PSI Cards. These are little collectable objects scattered around the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp hub world, some just strewn about whilst others are payoffs to some feat of platforming ingenuity, and collecting nine of them is equal to one full PSI Challenge Marker which raises your level by one, in turn unlocking further enhancements to your PSI abilities. In a normal collect-a-thon platformer, and this includes ones released in 2005, you would collect those nine Cards and automatically level up, same way that collecting a Challenge Marker automatically levels you up. But in the Frankenstein adventure-platformer that is Psychonauts, you need to
1] Collect nine PSI Cards
2] Have a PSI Core in your inventory
2a] If you don’t have a PSI Core in your inventory, you must go and buy one from the camp’s shop for 10 arrowheads
2b] If you don’t have 10 arrowheads at the time, you must go hunting for arrowheads around the camp
3] Go to Agent Cruller’s secret base on-camp
4] Activate the machine at the bottom of the base – not the nearly identical one attached to it which turns collected Mental Cobwebs into PSI Cards – and then finally level up.
You have to do this every single time. The game does not tell you how many PSI Cores are in your inventory, the camp fast-travel does not take you into the building where the store is located instead dumping you out next to it and therefore tripling the number of loading screens you must sit through, and the visual clutter/lack of centring orientation in Cruller’s base means you’ll almost never find the exit first time when trying to leave. So much of the game is like this. From moment-to-moment gameplay – you can only have three PSI powers active at any one time and, since all but three are situational and rarely used, you must go through a convolutedly laid-out backpack menu to switch them out every time it’s necessary – to even the design of the acclaimed late-game stages with Thorney Towers Asylum’s residents. I lost hours on Waterloo World because, despite knowing the straightforward solution to the problems put in front of me, the game would either artificially lock off the obvious solution until I looked up the specific adventure-game-logic response I was supposed to use or, right near the start, have the intended solution simply not work for bloody ages because I wasn’t stood in the exact specific spot required for my telekinesis to grab the object I needed and could see.
And, y’know what? I’m gonna say it. I don’t think The Milkman Conspiracy is a good level. Conceptually, it’s fantastic with some initially funny lines and an occasionally unnerving atmosphere which communicates Boyd’s fractured psyche. But playing it was maddening. Appallingly signposted leading to multiple apparent dead-ends since I had no clue what to do to bypass closed-off areas, event triggers which didn’t work properly, blinding colour and lighting choices, a tripling-down on that ‘five steps for a one-step job’ design philosophy which made said backtracking feel endless, the same two- or three-lines repeated ad nauseum never shutting up, the screwy camera leading to many inadvertent deaths… All topped off by one of the worst boss fights I have played in an age that may be conceptually cool, requiring second-person gameplay to beat, but asks too much of the inconsistent mechanics and resultantly almost made me fail the entire stage because boxes just would. Not. Hit. Her.
I could go on and on about the many game design sins Psychonauts commits – one last one: why does falling down bottomless pits immediately take away a life but falling in water, something Raz and his family have in-story been cursed to die from one day, puts the player back on dry land without a scratch? But like I said nearly 2,000 words ago, I don’t want the final tone of this write-up to be negative because, despite all of that, I did ultimately enjoy my time with Double Fine’s game. It’s a testament to how much strong personality, presentation, and writing can get me to just about overlook the constant frustrations of pushing through the game side of things.
For one, even if it can end up negatively impacting on the whole game-playing part of this game, I still love the visual designs of the many worlds of Psychonauts. They’re all so distinctive and vibrant, varied and well reflective of each character’s mental state, with strong atmosphere and clever usage of the technology-of-the-time’s limitations in detail and smoothness. If anything, this is one of those instances where the technological limitations actually enhance the overall effect: all these jagged, crooked textures and somewhat smeary colour schemes reflecting not just the fractured mental worlds but also the low-key nightmare of the real world. Obviously, the biggest influence is that of Tim Burton when it was still cool to aspire to be Tim Burton, which is also reflected in the Danny Elfman-reminiscent score by Peter McConnell, but I think Double Fine’s designers inject much of their own style into proceedings to make something unique. Sure, Lilli is a dead-ringer for a Burton deuteragonist but I’m yet to see a Burton character with the compensating exaggeration of Bobby or the kaiju spin on lungfish in their many forms. And the Figments look really cool; I enjoy flipping through the inventory book to look at each individual doodle, even though said design causes their gameplay implementation to be utter balls.
But mostly, it’s the writing which pulled me through Psychonauts. Even when the late-game had me getting near Crash Bandicoot 4 levels of “I’m pushing on through this out of spite,” the stellar writing would calm me down and remind me of just how fun the whole thing was again. It’s not exactly a surprise given that writing was where Double Fine’s expertise truly laid going into development, but what did surprise was how smart and empathetic Schaefer and Eric Wolpaw’s treatment towards issues of mental illness and abuse ended up being for a mid-00s comedy game.
After all, just re-read that last phrase. “Mid-00s comedy game.” That should be a recipe for disaster. The mid-00s were, in short, not a very sympathetic time to the topics of mental health and mental illness despite the increase in self-reported levels of mental illness, with media and general society unquestioningly throwing around ableist slurs and gleefully mocking the public meltdowns of high-profile cases. Then you have mid-00s comedy, a pretty glib and often self-centred version of the form where 90s irony and cynicism curdled to poisonous levels; this is an era where Ricky Gervais turned into one of the world’s biggest comedy stars largely on the back of ironic-but-not-really cruelty. And then you have a mid-00s comedy game which, well, I don’t think I need to go long on why that should’ve set alarm bells to DEFCON 1. Now, this isn’t to say that Psychonauts doesn’t engage in glibness from time to time, in particular with the decision to play Crystal and Clem’s suicidal depression for extremely dark laughs, but it also manages to do so with a more respectful and overall empathetic tone than the worst-case scenario might’ve ended up as.
In fact, since I’ve already brought them up, let’s look at Crystal and Clem as an example. Introduced as incessantly chirpy cheerleaders pushing their sloganeering joy upon anyone in the vicinity regardless of whether said cheer is wanted or not, even player character Raz can barely stand their presence. It’s a funny gag but something always seems… off about those two. The rictus grins, the bulging eyes, the slight desperation in their voices, the seeming obliviousness to how detested they are by almost all of the other kids. But actively seeking them out around camp as the story progresses and interacting with them slowly reveals cracks in the façade, ones which make it clear that they are deeply unhappy and the constant cheering is just as much for themselves as it is for others. Later still, you can meet them on the cafeteria roof seemingly mid-suicide prep, talking about how everyone who was mean to them is going to pay and expressing a deep despairing cynicism about life in general. It becomes clear that both kids have undergone severe trauma growing up, that they haven’t received the support necessary to process said trauma, and the thoughtless bullying from their fellow psychic children has left them feeling isolated and ostracised to the point where it seems as if nothing will help them feel better.
Some of this is indeed played for laughs, but Schaefer and Wolpaw also recognise where the line separating an empathetic series of jokes about these two’s capacity to annoy and bullying them for mental illness & trauma they have no control over lies. And because the entire game is expressly tackling these subjects everywhere, that switch into acknowledging the much darker facets of these characters’ mental health does not become jarring or tasteless. In fact, the more time spent at Whispering Rock, the more the realisation sets in that everybody is carrying severe emotional baggage they’re not able to fully process and that the Camp sees the worst of adolescent behaviour mix with the overstretched and under-organised adult staff into a cocktail of dysfunction which hurts just as often as it helps. For such a character-centric story, and a comedy one at that, Psychonauts does make some very unfortunately-still-vital points about the need to invest in and educate regarding mental illness and trauma on a grand societal level. Dolen Boogen is a boy who should be properly helped, not dumped into the care of army training and left to explode poorly-communicative squirrels.
There’s a lot to chew on, thematically, and a lot of it is done well with the best being actively woven into the gameplay. For example, I really appreciate the fact that you as Raz don’t exactly “fix” anyone, per se. In the campers’ case, they go through their own arcs in side conversations you have to actively seek out in order to see unfold – something I always enjoy in my hub worlds ever since Mass Effect 2 introduced me to it – or off-screen but in a manner which insinuates other stories happening outside of the player’s purview and checking in on them ends up being a small but not unappreciated act in everyone’s growth. In the case of the big proper levels, mostly located in the second half once night falls, Raz acts more like an assistant guiding the host mind to self-actualisation rather than the sole fixer.
Missions predominately involve clearing out the obstacles most immediately preventing that person from being able to take the step required to overcome their crippling baggage. Gloria needs her inner critic brought down to manageable size so she can believe in her own talent again, Fred needs to see that his brother was not infallible in order to regain confidence in his sense of self, and Edgar needs to see his high school trauma-inducers for the pathetic sociopaths that they were so he can stop obsessing over the idealised past and live in the present. Raz is an aide but not a fixer, the onus mostly remains on those he aids to take that last step themselves and, even then, doing so doesn’t fully “fix” them as their last appearances once freed from Thorney Towers insinuate. As somebody who has been dealing with mental illness for a significant amount of their life, a lot of it sans any outside help, this little touch is what I most appreciated and helps make the game’s overall tone come off respectful even as it plays most things for laughs. That’s also what makes certain scenes and threads surprisingly moving, such as the resolution of Raz’s relationship with his father which I found resonance in.
Oh, did I mention that Psychonauts is also screamingly funny at times? I should probably do that since we’re well past 4,000 words and I need to wrap this up at some point. (Sorry, there’s a hell of a lot to talk about with this game.) Film critic Mark Kermode likes to use the “six-laugh test” when reviewing comedies, five proper full-blown belly laughs from him during the runtime means that the film is a keeper, and if there were an equivalent for video games then Psychonauts would pass it with all the multi-coloured stars. There’s a great Saturday morning cartoon absurdist character-centric view to how the comedy is written, a mixture of mining the inherent ridiculousness of the situation and utilising the clearly defined personalities of the extensive cast to react to and create situations in which comedy happens. The voice performances and delivery timings of these gags are also mostly great, the latter of which can be especially hard to do in the medium and especially on older hardware. This game managed to make me bust a gut at the old “character speaks with an unexpected ill-fitting voice” standby twice, in case you wanted some specific evidence of how rock-solid the comedy is.
But the best gags, the ones which have stuck with me for their simple genius in the months since playing, were the ones which took full advantage of the medium in their construction. The more obvious one came during Gloria’s Theater. In order to progress, Raz needs to put on various plays which cause the stage to shift and reveal a way up to the catwalks so he can confront the mysterious Phantom who keeps sabotaging Gloria’s performances. To do this, you need to collect scripts and then match the correct backdrop and mood lighting in order to activate the trigger required for progression, not coincidentally also revealing more of Gloria’s tragic abusive backstory in the process. Now, the correct solution required for progression is not that hard to decipher, sometimes it may even just accidentally be triggered first-try, but every wrong combination (each play has four potential set-ups with only one correct answer) comes with its own unique performance, each hilariously acted by loud stilted children who are so very (purposefully) terrible. You can blitz through correctly or you can go out of your way to set-up these additional scenes and laugh at the malfunctioning props, bad improv or outright tantrums. It’s a (series of) jokes that could only be pulled off in this way via the medium of video games.
My absolute favourite gag, however, came in the very first world and it’s going to make me sound like an easily-impressed rube when typed out but I’m not sorry. You’re platforming through Coach Oleander’s Basic Braining course when you reach this WWII paratrooper aircraft with a kid called Vernon and are instructed to break through the door and jump out. Vernon is a square-shaped kid with a droning nasally-voice who fancies himself a storyteller and, with his life flashing before his eyes, decides now would be a good time to tell Raz the story of when he and his dog Lady went on “The Longest Walk of All-Time.” It is a staggeringly dull story which after the initial set-up just goes on and on with seemingly no direction. “And then we walked three miles.” “And then we walked half a mile.” “And then I fell down a manhole and had to reattach my arm into my socket.” “And then we took a slight left.” “And then I had to bend down and tie my shoe.” I stood there listening because this was already very funny and I like to hear every possible line of incidental dialogue in games like these, but then a full two minutes passed without it ending and something hit me… This deliberately never ends and the story is nonsense because all of the dialogue is randomised. At which point I proceeded to cackle hysterically for a solid minute at the deceptively clever dumb joke I was experiencing. It’s genius-ly stupid and I am envious of Schaefer & Wolpaw for coming up with it.
That’s not even mentioning the actual punchline where you finally have enough, bash open the plane door to continue, and Vernon keeps trying to tell his story whilst being sucked out into a freefall. A punchline, again, that the player controls the timing of for a joke only doable in this medium.
Those are the parts of Psychonauts I choose to focus on when reminiscing on my time with the game. The wicked sense of humour. The fantastic characters. The daring fearlessness and surprising tact with which it explores mental illness without going all Very Special Indie Game about it – not to disparage those sorts of games, of which I have enjoyed several, but you need that variety in approach otherwise things just get boring and stigmatised in different ways. The winning visual design & aesthetics and distinctive personality.
Double Fine may have made some truly infuriating creative decisions when it comes to the game design, again to such a degree that I must caveat any recommendation with a note about it playing like utter arse, but, as No Straight Roads (a game we’ll hopefully get to covering in due time) made abundantly clear, I can in fact just about tolerate gameplay jank so long as there’s exceptional charm everywhere else. And Psychonauts has oodles upon oodles upon oodles of charm. I want to return to this world and these characters in spite of everything the original does wrong, which is why I’m excited to pick up the next week’s sequel hopefully sooner rather than later. I mean, sixteen years should absolutely be long enough for Schaefer and co. to have learned how to put together a decent-playing platformer, right? If this standard of writing could be applied to even an above-average platformer (collect-a-thon or otherwise), then Psychonauts 2 could be one of the best games I’ll ever play.
Oh, god, I do not like tempting fate like this.
Next time: a two-fer as a surprisingly middling return to Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered gets paired with our first DNF, Serious Sam 3: BFE.