This week, during one of my more intense exam-procrastination sessions, I completed Psychonauts for the first time. It is a game created by Double Fine Productions, a relatively small development studio some may recognise from titles such as Brutal Legend, and more recently for their Kickstarter-backed adventure title, Broken Age. Psychonauts, the first game released by Double Fine, is loved by its followers, and for good reason. It’s an intriguing story of a ten-year-old boy who runs away from home to join a Summer camp for psychically-gifted children and gets embroiled in a conspiracy to use the minds of children to raise an army to take over the world.
During the first half of the game the player follows the boy, named Razputin or Raz for short, through some tutorial-style levels gaining psychic abilities such as pyrokinesis (set stuff on fire), telekinesis (throw stuff), levitation (large jump and glide) and marksman (shoot psychic beams). Raz gains these abilities by entering the minds of the staff on the camp, all beautifully characterised and their character is, as it is throughout the game, reflected inside their minds. For example, one of the characters whose mind the player enters is Sasha Nein, an organised and controlled person never showing much emotion, and whose accent and name are faintly German. Inside his mind is very organised and compact, resembling a massive cube from which Sasha can summon any object or memory at will. In contrast, his colleague, Milla Vodello, is a bright, beatiful and cheerful character with a lot of energy and passion. Her mind is one massive party with her appearing on imaginary TVs since, in her words, hair as beautiful as hers belongs on TV. Each character is so unique and no two levels are completed in the same way. In one mind, Raz disguises himself as a grieving widow simply by carrying flowers, and in another he fights Napoleon Bonaparte in a board game.
While the characters are truly great there are a few minor problems worth mentioning. Playing the game now is a little buggy since the game initially came out in the PS2-era (which I’ve just realised is two generations ago!) but none of the few bugs however are anything more than slight inconveniences (though at time of writing the sound does not work on my Linux install but this may be my set-up).
Another problem is the sound. It can get more than grating, particularly towards the end of the game where Raz must protect a child, whose voice actor does a fantastic job of being child-like almost to a fault and who insists on spouting the same few lines over and over, while another character is repeating another set of lines over and over. It’s an indication of the game’s age as nowadays it would be cut as soon as focus groups started to notice it, but the same could, tragically, be said for the entire game.
It’s a shame that in an age where graphics are finally not the driving force of the industry, they are still treated as the driving force of the industry. The current generation of consoles (PS4, XBox One) were sold and marketed based on their power to deliver better graphics, and Psychonauts is living proof that graphics do not make a game better. The original Killzone, before Sony took it over as its flagship hardware-pushing IP, had arguably the best graphics in the PS2 era, but Killzone had horrendous problems with it that had nothing to do with the graphics and everything to do with the gameplay. Psychonauts shows that interesting, varied gameplay mechanics and imaginative, thought-provoking level-design make for much better experiences than graphics ever could.
I can’t say that I loved every minute of Psychonauts. Some levels are arbitrarily difficult or tedious, the child characters’ voices are intensely irritating and the difficulty curve suddenly shoots skyward in the latter half of the game. But it is still a wonderfully-written, funny and thoroughly enjoyable experience that I would recommend to anyone.
Psychonauts is available on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux.