Recently, while talking about the rare titles released on Nintendo 64, I came to the realisation that there hadn’t been a really great 3D platform game released in quite some time. Sure, there had been some great indie offerings, but nothing really came to mind that stood out as one of the great platform games of this generation.
It seemed to me that after the market was flooded in the mid-2000s, when almost every film tie-in title was guaranteed to be a generic platform (A right now reserved for action sandbox games), the mainstream industry had more or less given up on them. Sure, we’ve had lots of great releases recently; some carefully tuned First Person Shooters, some immersing, character driven point-and-click adventures, even a heap of wonderful little artistic indie titles, but sometimes you just want to be able to sit back and have some good old fashioned fun. I was itching for a bit of nostalgia, but with my old consoles locked in storage in the North Wesht, I felt I was crap outta luck…Then I realised I had a little title by the name of Psychonauts tucked away in my Humble Bundle library. Oh happy days!
For a bit of background, Psychonauts takes place in a summer camp for gifted children who want to hone their psychic gifts. You control Raz (Razputin), a runaway circus acrobat, on his quest to perfect his psychic abilities, earn all the camp merit badges and become a Psy-Cadet, with the goal of one day joining the Psychonauts. That’s pretty much the most normal part of the experience. It just gets weirder from here.
Psychonauts is the brainchild of Tim Schafer and the development team at Double Fine Productions. Originally I had only briefly played it on a friend’s PS2; I was barely even aware there was a PC release, nor did I remember much about the plot. All I remembered was an enjoyable romp through an interesting level or two and a few of the more colourful characters. It was always one of those games I wanted to sink my teeth into again, but never really had the opportunity to revisit. Well, it seemed now was my chance to get lost in the world of Raz, Camp Whispering Rock and The Psychonauts.
Oh boy, had I missed a lot when I first jumped through it all those years ago. I was less than 10 minutes into a new playthrough of the game and I was amazed at all the clever writing I had either missed or forgotten. The same characters that I remembered were still there, but now, for the first time, I was fully aware of just how unique the whole supporting cast was. Everyone brought something special to the table. This was one of the most genuinely hilarious games I’d ever played and the humour stayed sharp all the way from beginning to end. In fact, I’d argue that it even improved as it went along. Even at that, there’s a lot more to Psychonauts‘ writing than just the humour. The major characters are all deep and developed while the support all have their own interconnections, if you choose to explore them.
I could harp on all day about the quality of the game’s writing, but at the end of the day Psychonauts is a game, and as such, it should be able to stand on the merits of its gameplay, not just its writing. Thankfully, it not only held up under the inspection of rose coloured nostalgia-goggles, but managed to surpass my every memory of it. The game’s level design is incredible. Every individual area is substantially different from the last and is extremely memorable. It’s more than just a case of having a series of well laid out platforms in a number of environmentally separate worlds, it’s that each level is unique in how it adapts to the game’s mechanics. Since each level is set within a person’s mind, the world is created according to their neuroses and quirks. This is where Schafer’s grasp of mechanics as a storytelling device kicks in. You can learn a lot about a character by seeing how their mind works and how it attempts to protect itself from your intrusion.
Anyone who’s played the game will know what I mean here if I mention “Milla’s Secret Room”. The fact that each level is tied to a character and vice versa makes each element really cling to my mind; each level seeming more singular for having a related character, and each character feeling more fleshed out for having a level that lets you literally get inside their head. Few people who’ve played the game could forget the Settlers Of Catan-esque boardgame world inside a descendant of Napoleon, or the level contained in the mind of a Spanish artist, where the visual rendering is done entirely in the style of Black Velvet paintings. Overall though, there is one mind that sticks out more than all others…
“Do you know The Milkman? His milk is delicious!” This is the question asked by humble security guard Boyd Cooper in his attempts to unravel ‘The Milkman Conspiracy’. Boyd, being something of an everyman and a conspiracy theorist, has a mind styled on a typical American suburb, complete with cookie-cutter houses and Girl Scouts selling cookies. However, the conspirator part of his psyche transforms the neighbourhood into something different, literally bending the roads back on each other, creating a criss-crossing mind map of broken paths. Populating these streets are mechanical birds, bushes from which cameras will occasionally pop out and legions of G-Men. These G-Men are secret agents who make use of ‘clever’ disguises to hide in plain sight. The Milkman Conspiracy had me in tears laughing from beginning to end. It’ll be a while before a game is able to match the gut busting laugh I had when I first heard the words “I am a grieving widow, these are my flowers.” uttered in the deadpan voice of Boyd’s internal monologue. If nothing else, the game is worth checking out for these scenes alone.
Psychonauts was beyond fantastic on my second playthrough; astounding in so many ways that I’d never even have considered if I’d played it when it was first released. In fact, I loved this little gem so much, that just a few hours into it I had already made my way to the Psychonauts 2 funding page and helped push the sequel to completion. With that on the way, there’s never been a better time to jump back into Psychonauts. Double Fine Productions brought into existence a game that combines an original world with fully developed characters and one of the finest voice casts ever assembled, including Richard Horvitz, Tara Strong and Steve Blum. If you’re aching for a dollop of early 2000’s nostalgia, or if you’re a fan of Gravity Falls or Over The Garden Wall in search of more weirdness, you won’t go wrong with Psychonauts!