After engaging in Tim Schafer’s last “true” adventure game in the previous installment of this series, I thought it’d be potentially interesting to go back and take a look at the game he produced immediately afterwards: Psychonauts, a platformer developed by his new company, Double Fine Productions, formed in the wake of the shuttering of LucasArts’ adventure game division. I found all of my install discs for it from when I bought a copy directly after it came out when I was… ten, which was a rather strange thing to find out after not playing the game for several years.
Psychonauts, while not as well-done gameplay-wise as many of his adventure games, reflects one of the concepts that so many adventure games are excellent at using: world-building, essential for creating any good setting. Psychonauts is also a bit of an interesting example in how it uses that world to reflect back on the characters, which we’ll get to later.
The game is, when you look at it mechanically, not very good on the whole; the controls aren’t tight, and the camera isn’t well-focused. It’s easy to see why though. This was a game produced after the entire “adventure game” era died, so the designers and writers had this entire new genre to develop for. Writers got off easy, but the designers (frankly) weren’t experienced in this field, so it created experiences that, while brilliant in terms of writing and concepts, lacked heavily in terms of gameplay.
And, for all of its gameplay faults, Psychonauts brings in enough unique elements around the poor base mechanics that it manages to stay somewhat entertaining without the writing.
However, the main thing that Psychonauts can teach us is, as previously mentioned, world-building. The game (mainly) takes place in two environs: Whispering Rock Summer Camp, a pastel-colored, idyllic American summer camp, filled with wild wooden architecture, gigantic trees, and psychic kids, going about their training to become government-employed psychic warriors; and Lake Oblongata Insane Asylum, a cruel piece of desolate stone, seemingly crafted by the same people who forcibly inhabited it. Along with these, you travel into the psyches of various characters you meet, encountering traumas and fears they’ve faced all their lives, eventually saving them from these issues and making them better people in the process. Whispering Rock and the asylum mostly serve as large hub worlds, linking you between the main story bits found within the mental levels of the characters.
Within these hub worlds (mostly just Whispering Rock), one can see various NPCs going about, engaging in pre-defined stories with the other NPCs. The stories of the individual NPCs, while at first completely separate from the the protagonist is doing, progress at the same rate that the main story does, so one can go around the camp, viewing the little stories that the NPCs have.
While these stories seem, at first, insignificant, they do a lot to flesh out the world of the game. In most videogames (most narratives, even) it feels like the story and setting completely revolve around the protagonist; the only things that happen involve them, everyone else is just part of the background. In Psychonauts, while the other characters aren’t as significant, they have development and progression, making the world feel… more “real”, despite the game’s very cartoony and caricatural style, like those are other people going about their own stories, rather than just meaningless constructs placed there to take up space.
It’s also quite interesting how the game uses these stories for foreshadowing. At one point, the character established to be the most boring person in existence (believe me, you’ll know who I’m talking about if you’ve played the game) is telling yet another one of his ludicrously dull tales in the TV room of the main cabin. It’s not very interesting to a first time player, but, if you’ve played the game before and you take the time to listen to his tale in full, it foreshadows the entire final arc of the game, almost explicitly.
Another interesting bit of character development you can find is on top of the main cabin at sunset. I’d rather not spoil it, but it develops two characters… really well, in an unexpected way that keys into later events in the game brilliantly.
The other thing Psychonauts teaches us (that many people have discussed in the past) is how to use the settings to develop the characters, rather than, like with the NPCs, using it purely as a backdrop.
This is something that’s been discussed in detail before, and it’s one of the things the game is most well-known for, but it bears repeating how much of a beautiful feature it is.
Since it has been discussed so much, I’ll limit myself to one example, arguably the best example of it in the game. To learn your levitation ability, you’re thrust into the mental world of Mia, one of your teachers at the summer camp. Mia’s always very poppy and bubbly, and her mental world reflects that, being a lush, neon, party wonderland. In one corner of this discotheque, nearly out of the player’s reach, is a small platform with a door. It’s nearly impossible to find unless you seek it out, since it’s so well-hidden, but I found it my first time playing it; I still had immense difficulty finding it again.
After passing through the door, you’re in a small, dark room, lit only by moonlight reaching in through a tiny window on the ceiling. The floor is strewn with a few toys, some blocks, some rocking horses. A closed toy box sits in another corner of the room, and a vault is slowly walking around. In Psychonauts, you bash these open to view memories of the people whose minds you explore, often repressed memories. Here, the vault gives you a slideshow entitled “Mia’s Children”. The slides show a younger Mia wearing a nun’s habit, playing with various children in an orphanage she’s working at. Eventually, you come to a slide where she’s returning from a grocery, a paper bag in her arms. She sees the orphanage, engulfed in flames, hearing the screams of the children inside being burned alive.
Opening the toy box and jumping inside reveals an even darker part of Mia’s mind. Fire burns around you, caging you in and, simultaneously, keeping you safe from “Nightmares”, horrible beings representing the fear in darker minds. Voices swirl around, crying for Mia, asking why she didn’t save them. Mia warns you about the whole thing, telling you that she never wanted you to see this, but that she’s managed to rein in her fears over the whole affair, but they continue to dwell deep within the abscesses of her psyche.
This area’s hidden location and its contrast with the rest of the environment provide an extremely memorable moment of character building, making what would otherwise have been a boring, one-dimensional being into a fleshed-out, sympathetic person.
Psychonauts is brilliant at characterization, like most of those old LucasArts adventure games were; it’s just applying that skill to a new genre of games that resulted in some… issues, after the death of the original adventure game style. Despite those issues, it’s an amazing piece of storytelling, showing that, even though the Golden Age is dead, the quality of narrative that that Age espoused lives on to this day.