How should game developers rectify that players will forever exist in two universes at once, remaining in the real world while engaging with a virtual one? Even the most elaborate role-players still must sit on the couch with controller in hand; no matter how much you want to fully take the leap, one foot stays planted in reality. Many games acknowledge this problem by creating similarly dichotomous settings, from the terrifying secrets within the pristine walls of Aperture Science and Black Mesa to the Zelda series’ obsession with a “dark” world lurking beneath our own. Smart games embrace a disconnect within their universes, recognizing that true immersion is easier said than done. However, these games often cast us as soldiers of truth, the only ones who can see behind the curtain and expose the world’s falsities. Far fewer titles look inward, embracing that our own perception might be just as flawed as everyone else’s. Engaging with a game – wanting to explore the fictional space of another’s creation – expresses some desire, no matter how slight, to disassociate one’s point of view from the rules of reality. Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts takes place almost entirely in this space between “truth” and perception.
Less than thirty seconds into Psychonauts, we are informed that the human mind is “the ultimate battlefield,” a lesson Schafer and his Double Fine developers know all too well. His games always feel like psychic wars against the expectations people have for video games; to Schafer and his fans, the 2005 commercial failure of Psychonauts – easily his most accessible title in terms of gameplay – must have felt like a failure for creativity itself. A key recurring joke in Psychonauts is that when the young psychics-in-training get their minds stolen for a sinister purpose, their brainless bodies still desperately want to plop in front of a television. After the title’s rejection by formula-hungry gamers, I wonder if Schafer regretted not making these zombie-like husks moan for video games instead.
What makes Schafer so endearing as an auteur is that if he’s some troubled, tortured genius, he’s certainly the last to know. If Psychonauts is included in the ongoing “games-as-art” discussion, then it’s also a refreshing affirmation that art can be extremely goofy. It might be the least serious entry in the “gifted children against incredible odds” sci-fi subgenre ever, sort of an Ender’s Game or Neon Genesis Evangelion filtered through 1990s Nickelodeon. Perhaps this is what threw people about Psychonauts upon its release: despite its off-the-wall inventiveness and slight tinge of melancholy, it is, at heart, a kids’ game. There were times when its ever-escalating silliness became too much for me (I think I hung in there until around the talking turtle), but I’ll always take an influx of personality over a lack of it. (Similarly, I think Scott Campbell’s blobby, asymmetrical character designs often tread too far into Tim Burton territory, but I respect the game for having a unique and fully realized art direction.) The trick to Psychonauts‘ tone is that it never aims for a younger sensibility to pander. Even when its jokes don’t land, they were obviously included for the simple and honest reason that someone found them funny. And like all good children’s entertainment, the humor intertwines with concepts both scary and sad.
Like most games, Psychonauts‘ story is episodic by nature, but it does a lot to connect the dots through ongoing jokes and callbacks. If this were a Saturday morning cartoon, it’d be the sort parents could wholeheartedly enjoy alongside their children, more Avatar: The Last Airbender than Street Sharks. Schafer and co-writer Erik Wolpaw know exactly what sort of story they’re telling, so even when you’re battling Mexican wrestlers in the mind of a black velvet painter, the overall stakes and arc remain clear. Our hero is Raz (voiced by an excellent Richard Horvitz), a young psychic who feels his acrobat father disdains his mental gifts; he is perhaps the only child who dreams of running away to escape the circus. He sneaks off to join Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, which despite its scenic locale and cliche camp activities like canoeing is a training ground for his secret agent heroes, the Psychonauts. Of course, there’s a vast conspiracy afoot, as one of the counselors teams with a mad scientist to harvest the campers’ brains for psychic weaponry; doubly of course, Raz is the only one who can stop them.
Whispering Rock and the nearby, not-so-abandoned insane asylum are memorable locations on their own, full of literally colorful incidental characters who are better drawn than your closest companions in most games. (Apparently Schafer filled out social networking profiles for the entire cast, and that attention to detail shows.) But what Psychonauts is known for – and with good reason – are the levels that take place inside the minds of its oddball inhabitants. Each mind is not just aesthetically suited to the character it represents, but its challenges and gameplay directly mirror his or her personality as well; a Norma Desmond-esque failed actress’ stage alters based on her mood swings, and a man with a very literal Napoleon complex requires you to play a Risk-like board game. I’m seriously tempted to describe the game stage by stage, since every level is so giddily inventive that it deserves a moment in the spotlight. If Super Mario 64 taught the world how to properly accomplish 3D level design, then Psychonauts shows how to refine it with a greater emphasis on character, theme, and personal expression. Also, Psychonauts might be the first platformer since Mario 64 where individual stages have enough depth and mechanical ingenuity that they could almost support games of their own.
Of course, one cannot talk about Psychonauts without at least a nod to “The Milkman Conspiracy,” an insidiously clever level inside the mind of a conspiracy theorist security guard. Taking place throughout a literally twisted suburban neighborhood, Raz must find the missing “Milkman” in a world where almost everyone’s been replaced by shadowy, trenchcoated G-Men. The G-Men steal the level (and possibly the game) with their hilariously deadpan, literal approximations of societal roles (my favorite is the one posing as a housewife: “Although over time my husband will desire me less sexually, he will always enjoy my pies”), and are certainly the predecessors of another Wolpaw creation, Portal‘s rambling, single-minded personality cores. “The Milkman Conspiracy” is the zenith of Psychonauts‘ masterful theming, which it uses to disguise some of its deeper flaws. The game takes item collecting to almost absurd lengths, but the items are so clever it’s not nearly as annoying as it should be. Collecting dozens of unique figments of a character’s imagination doesn’t seem nearly as arduous as going after the umpteenth generic musical note or puzzle piece in a Rareware collect-a-thon. (Plus, collecting in Psychonauts leads to RPG-like level-ups and new powers, always an effective carrot on a stick and far less taxing than relying upon items to open up new worlds.)
Psychonauts ends, as it almost must, in the subconscious circus of Raz’s fears (synthesized with the main villain’s memories of his butcher father, creating the infamously brutal Meat Circus). Over the course of the final level, we learn that Raz’s near-demonic image of his psychic-hating father might not be all that accurate. Psychonauts is hardly some deep exploration of mental instability – if anything, boiling people down to their tragicomic roots is a comment on the shallowness of pop psychology – but I’m glad that in the end, Schafer made the player character as fallible as anyone else in the game’s veritable nuthouse. It speaks to what makes Psychonauts so special; unlike the relatively stately Portal or Shadow of the Colossus, I could see someone really, truly hating this game. Maybe you won’t be roused by Peter McConnell’s excellent score, or be moved by the well-hidden, tragic secret that Psychonaut Milla keeps hidden in her memory’s recesses ; maybe you’ll question if this game will really one day be part of “the canon.” But I’m glad to see that in the twisted, slightly warped minds of a growing number of gamers, all this Schafer-brand insanity makes a beautiful sort of sense.