Psychonauts; A Love Story

The summer of 2005 was a great gaming summer for me.  I was home from my first year of college with very few responsibilities, and I was working at Gamestop which afforded me the opportunity to take games home as often as I wanted.  It was also the summer that my band reached the height of its popularity and, yes, we were awesome and, no, that does not have anything to do with the rest of this article.

It was also the summer that Majesco bet the farm and lost.  Psychonauts and Advent Rising both released that year.  Both were big budget titles that just couldn’t quite keep the farm for Majesco.  I still admire Advent Rising for what it was trying to do.  I am convinced that more development time would have made it a great game as most of its glaring flaws were technical.  Also, looking at the company that the Advent Rising team has become today (Chair, developers of Shadow Complex) you can tell that they are talented folks who just needed more time.

But this article isn’t about them.  I would not have bet the farm on Advent Rising. Some livestock perhaps, but certainly not the whole farm.  On Psychonauts, though, I would have bet two farms and all of my government subsidies.

My autographed copy of Psychonauts, my third most prized possession after my wife* and my cat Agro, who clearly loves to be held and photographed.

I was not deeply familiar with Tim Shafer before playing Psychonauts, but I knew of him and I knew he was loved dearly.  It didn’t take me long to figure out why.  The game started out deceptively cliche in almost all areas with things like collect-a-thon platforming and characters that, upon initial meeting, seemed one-dimensional.  There was a stupid weird kid, an overambitious smart girl, a militiary guy that yelled a lot and a bully with his lackey.  All archetypes from popular Nickelodeon cartoon shows like Doug and Hey Arnold.

The first thing that impressed me was how absurdly clever everything became.  Levels based around character psyches?  Collecting emotional baggage and figments of imagination? Why hadn’t these ideas already been explored!  This, of course, is why Schafer is so respected within the gaming industry.  It is his ability to create bizarre fantastical worlds that make immediate sense with little to no explanation.

The tone of the game quickly changes from a Doug rerun, to a dark ticking time bomb of irreparable psychological damage, all while staying legitimately funny.  And it’s not that the game is funny throughout, but rather funny when it doesn’t need to be serious.  It switches tones very easily and often quickly.

You make your way through child-hood traumas, father issues, terrifying phobias and culminate in full-on insanity.  It’s a literal exploration of the range of human emotions and psyches all in an environment of fun and humor.  All this greatness and I have yet to touch on why the game is good from a gameplay standpoint.

There is really one word that can describe why technically Psychonauts is a great game: diversity.  The core of the game is collection, but just about every other element of the game is up for grabs.  Every level is completely different and completely engrossing.  You will find yourself wrestling, bullfighting, directing a play, stomping cities like godzilla, even doing some light racing by the time you are finished.

Psychonauts is fun wrapped in a brilliant concept sprinkled with hilarious dialogue and served on a bed of cleverness.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll even ride around in the mouth of a terrifying fish named Linda.  By the time it is all over, you will be emotionally drained and if you are anything like me, you will be devastated that there isn’t more to explore.

*This of course is not to imply that my wife is a possession, she just demanded that she be held to the same level of regard as a cat and a videogame with some unreadable scribble on it.

About Kyle Hilliard
I used to be a freelancer. Now I write for Game Informer magazine. Someday, when the time is right, I will grow a mustache.

3 Responses to Psychonauts; A Love Story

  1. agodboldmath says:

    Damn, right I should be held with the same regard! BTW, Colonel Mustard has been crying all day, I’m sure it’s because he wasn’t mentioned…

  2. Joey says:

    This is, without a doubt, the best analysis of Psychonauts I’ve seen. Or read. Possibly sight read. I can do that. But I digress. I enjoyed it. With a good laugh, at that! The writer of this is on his way to becoming the Hemingway of blogging.

  3. website says:

    Could you message me with a few pointers about how you made your blog look this cool , I would be thankful!

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