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FGC #601 Psychonauts 2

This article contains spoilers for Psychonauts 2, primarily in regard to a lore twist that is learned approximately halfway through the game. If you have had long conversations with Ford Cruller, you know what I am talking about. Anyway, you have been warned…

THE PSYCHONAUTS!My grandfather was the eldest of seven brothers. As confirmed by those granduncles and practically our entire extended family, my grandfather was always known as a generally kind man who was also very quick to anger. And everyone thought this was wholly justified! He had to “keep in line” his younger, male siblings with very little help from a father growing up, and then he was a navy man just in time for World War II. He spent all day on a boat with a metaphorical collection “brothers” that all had to be disciplined and controlled, and… well… I don’t know if you have ever dealt with a man before, but they can get kind of rowdy. So is it any wonder that his experiences from childhood to young adulthood stayed with him his entire life? You cannot just “turn off” the person you have been for twenty years, and if that means you occasionally must throw your drunken brother-in-law off a balcony to make a point about being civil at dinner parties, so be it (also, in my grandfather’s [legal] defense, it was not a particularly high balcony). My grandfather lived to be older than most, and, even through to the age when he was frequently napping in the living room lounger, his whole family continued to have explanations for any temperamental shouting matches. He’s always been like that. That’s just who he is.

Until it wasn’t who he was.

Today’s game is the venerable/mythical Psychonauts 2. Psychonauts 2 is here! It was released! After 16 years of absolutely no Psychonauts (Gogglebob.com does not recognize the existence of virtual reality), here is Psychonauts all back again. And it is no exaggeration to say that Psychonauts is “back”, either. If your number one complaint about Psychonauts is that it never should have ended, Psychonauts 2 has got you covered with everything from the original, and a host of quality-of-life improvements to round out an “and then some”. Psychonauts 2 starts with a Raz that already knows the essential skills from Psychonauts 1 (sorry, invisibility, I said essential), and escalates from there with confidence that the audience does not need an entire level to understand PSI blasts again. All new abilities are then introduced, challenges are expanded, and, by the end, Raz will be thought-grappling while bossing a clone around with the best of ‘em. It is remarkable all on its own that Psychonauts 2 is simultaneously exactly more of the same, and something wholly new and different. This is the game Super Mario Bros. 2 could have been! If that wasn’t awful!

Connect the thoughtsAnd I would be remiss if I did not note that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Psychonauts was one in a seemingly endless parade of collectathons that had been going strong for ten years when it was released back in 2005. But now it seems like the idea of searching environments for hard-to-find collectibles has fallen by the wayside, and Psychonauts 2 is an example of a lamented evolutionary dead-end that that did not survive to see 2021. Chasing figments or hooking hidden keys to hidden chests feels simultaneously antiquated and refreshing when the best other titles of this era can manage is a sidequest or two where you must rescue three cats. Three cats!? You lifestream-addled morons! This friggen’ foyer has 17 tickets to find, and five more scavenger hunt items just to add a little flavor. Is this the kind of gameplay that is sustainable for title after title demanding you achieve 101% to see a marginally satisfactory ending? No. Of course not. That’s why so many people in Liberty City had mental breakdowns when photographing graffiti and seeing a “1/5,000 found” notification. But now, as likely the one game this year that is going to ask you to achieve “Rank 102”, it is a much easier pill to swallow.

But a collectathon can only work if there are interesting worlds in which to do your collecting. Mario 64 had portraits that doubled as portals, Banjo Kazooie had entire realms inside its haunted castle (wait… that was just the same as Mario…), and Psychonauts has always been about exploring the mind. And abstract psychological concepts are fertile ground for a dungeon or ten! Psychonauts 1 featured bipolar disorders transformed into theatres and Napoleon complexes transferred to gigantic boardgames. Psychonauts 2 ups the ante (literally) with hospital-casinos, gameshows, and germ-riddled bowling alleys (uh… that is better than it sounds). It is a joy to explore these abstract worlds with concrete platforming abilities, and slingshotting over a gap to find some emotional baggage or sneaking under a bridge to find a bright idea is consistently pleasant. These “mindscapes” are beautifully realized from a conceptual and level-design standpoint, and every opportunity to enter a new level feels like a gift. Look, Ma, now I can jump in this crazy bee lady’s brain! Wonder what I’m gonna find there!

But there is one important difference between Psychonauts 1 and Psychonauts 2…

FGC #205 Psychonauts

So hopefulVideogames are about hope. And the truly great games allow you to feel that hope.

Every videogame has a goal. Sometimes the goal is self-inflicted (“I will beat that high score!”), but, more often than not, the goal is a concrete, objective pass/fail condition. You must rescue the princess. You must recover the sacred object du jour. You must survive. You must prove that you are the hero, the most important person on this virtual planet, or else, well, what’s the point? You’re playing a videogame to be a unique snowflake in a sea of NPCs, so you damn well better save that kingdom!

It’s easy to lose perspective on how these tasks would be pretty damn impossible in anything approaching a “real world”. There’s clearly some part of our collective unconscious that acknowledges giant turtle monsters are the natural enemies of tubby plumbers, but consider the more “realistic” game settings. Hyrule is a millennia old kingdom that has been brought back from the edge of ruin time and time again thanks to a teenage elf with an affinity for green. The world of Final Fantasy 7 was saved from a marauding celestial body thanks to a moody amnesiac. And about half the brown, “realistic” FPSs out there seem to believe democracy as we know it would crumble if not for a handful of brave soldiers fond of teabagging their enemies. We grok the completely wrong idea that history was decided by important and singular (inevitably) men, but the reality of the universe is that one kid in a tunic is not the reason the Earth is still spinning. It takes many kids and many tunics (see Crusade, The Children’s).

What the hell was that?So we, the players, don’t really consider the “hope of the world” that rests on the average videogame hero’s shoulders. Samus Aran is going to save the universe, and we don’t even consider the child huddling in a corner of SR-389, praying to whatever god will hear her that a floating jellyfish monster doesn’t turn her entire town into dust. It’s just an assumed piece of the narrative that Hero #3,561 will save the day, and the player only has to hope there isn’t some bizarre and unnecessary rhythm game segment between here and the final boss. Hope is irrelevant, it’s all about the mad skillz, yo.

But Psychonauts can still remind us that hope is intrinsic to the videogame experience.

Yes, Psychonauts is ultimately about a teenager child saving everyone from a maniacal general and his plan to tank over the world. Yes, this is pretty typical “young adult” fair, with adults that don’t listen, “the lady doth protest too much” girlfriend, kindly/crazy grandpa, and maybe a giant monster that is based on a “tall tale” and must be defeated. Actually, complete with the unusual heads and Nickelodeon voice actors, I’m pretty sure Psychonauts could be an episode of Hey Arnold. Has the plot for that movie been worked out yet? Because I’ve got an idea that involves bunnies…

But, on a more personal level, Psychonauts is more about its protagonist, Raz, than anything else. Razputin escapes from his overbearing and overprotective family to join a group of people that he believes to be his true contemporaries. Raz then has 48 hours (“We called your dad, he’s on his way”) to prove that he really does have what it takes to be a Psychonaut. Bobby the bully might get in his way, and Lily might leave Raz a tweak confused, but all we’re dealing with here is a child attempting to achieve his private goal. Saving the world is secondary, Raz just wants to make his world better.

And he does that by making everyone else’s world better, too.

Young loveAfter the initial “training” segment of Psychonauts (which does take up approximately half the game), Raz begins diving into minds of… let’s say “damaged” people. Actually, we don’t even start with “people”, Raz’s first patient is Linda the Hulking Lungfish, a poor soul that was mutated by hideous experiments. After that, we have the denizens of the Thorney Towers Home for the Disturbed, many of whom have also been adversely affected by the Thorney Towers staff. While Raz is just trying to move forward in his quest to save his friends, he heals each of these hurt people in turn, and, along the way, manages to assuage more psychological disorders than Prozac.

In short, a ten year old boy manages to solve everyone’s issues, including his own.

And, in a way, that is the most important part of Psychonauts. Everyone remembers the clever mindscapes, humorous situations, and the occasional flaming bottle of milk; but what’s really important about Psychonauts is the part that got into your head, the subconscious message that there is a solution to these problems, that there is an escape from even the tightest of straightjackets. It might not be the focus of the adventure, but every step Raz takes, every arrowhead he digs out of the ground, and every mind he heals all leads to one, subtle moral: there is hope, even in the darkest of sanitariums.

Psychonauts’ greatest trick was implanting the idea of hope in your mind.

Yeah babyAnd, lo and behold, hope springs eternal with Psychonauts once again. After years of lamenting the fact that Psychonauts sold about seventeen copies and was such a retail failure it put Majesco out of business, it seemed unlikely that we would ever see Raz and friends again. But the glorious x-factor of crowdfunding suddenly made Tim Schafer some kind of finance god, and his divine eminence granted us the opportunity for Psychonauts 2. So we tossed a few million bucks at ‘em, and said get to work. So, in a year or two, we’ll have the sequel to Psychonauts we never thought possible back in the days when the best the game could scrounge up was “critically lauded”.

So, from stem to stern, Psychonauts oozes hope. It’s about a child fulfilling his dreams, saving others, and saving the entire world. It’s also about insurmountable troubles being conquered, and even low sales figures being ignored. It doesn’t seem possible, but Psychonauts triumphs in every conceivable way.

Maybe we’ll see the same in Psychonauts 2. Hopefully.

FGC #205 Psychonauts

  • System: Playstation 2 and Xbox initially, and then every system ever because some companies don’t just ignore a game five minutes after it’s released. Tim Schafer, Patron Saint of Remembering Games Exist.
  • Number of players: We hang all our hopes on only Raz.
  • STOMPY STOMPYBrain problems: Without a doubt, the best parts of this game are the mindscapes, and, while the “camping” area is pretty alright, it’s a far cry from ruining Lungfishopolis as Goggalor. As a result of this, on my first playthrough, I didn’t interact with the other campers any more than absolutely necessary, and made a beeline for whatever whacky thing was gonna come out of these heads next. Unfortunately, this led to a weird situation wherein, later, when Raz is collecting his friends’ brains, I hadn’t even met half the kiddies involved. Oh, some pithy remark about Kitty being into nasty stuff. Who the hell is Kitty!?
  • Favorite Mindscape: Boyd’s Milkman Conspiracy wins for rather expertly blending platforming, humor, and adventure game rules. You don’t see that very often! And the milk is delicious! Velvetopia and its running of the bulls gets second place exclusively for color usage.
  • The goggles do something: I don’t mean to tell anybody what to do, but if Raz forsakes his signature goggles for his official Psychonauts uniform, I’m boycotting everything, forever. Food, videogames, whatever. The goggles must stay.
  • Did you know? Raz was originally going to be named “Dare”, and that’s why Coach claims his name starts with a “D” when attempting to read his mind during the opening cinematic. Psychonauts is so clever!
  • Would I play again: This is one of the few randomly chosen games that I was rather excited to replay. I’ll probably take at least a year off, but I’ll inevitably be playing Psychonauts again.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bushido Blade for the Playstation! Now there’s a fighting game that’s a cut above the rest. And then it died from that cut. Please look forward to that!