Characters and Character Development: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Yes (also minor spoiler for Psychonauts: In the Rhombus of Ruin, I guess?)
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Raz Has a Fabulous Hat
This was one of the most challenging reviews to write. I wanted to present something special for my 100th and end-of-year reviews, something near and dear to my heart. I’ve known for a while that it would have to be Psychonauts. This is my favorite video game, and has been for over a decade. Yes, I hold onto it partly because I’ve been playing it since I was the main character’s age, but aside from my emotional connection to it, Psychonauts holds up as a creative, charming, innovative piece of art. It’s the game I use as a benchmark for gauging the flow, humor, characterization, creativity, level design, and platforming of almost every other game. A few occasionally come close and even surpass Psychonauts in one or more of these areas, but even those fail to hold a candle to it in its entirety.
Simply put, there is no other game like Psychonauts. Believe me, I have tried to find one.
The game is well-crafted on a component basis, but as with most media, the cohesion of these elements is what gives it its identity. Structurally, it’s a 3D platformer with a linear story, semi-open world, and a large host of optional collectibles. You control Raz, a runaway circus acrobat who joins a psychic summer camp with the intent of joining the Psychonauts, a group of psychic secret agents. He does so by exploring the minds of others and learning new psychic powers from them. The concept is pretty out there to start, and the story and world only get stranger from there. The game later features an evil plot to steal brains and put them into tanks, a lobotomized dentist in the abandoned sanitarium across the lake (you know, like any summer camp has), a giant mutant lungfish, cake, the most disturbing circus bunnies I have ever seen, and an abundance of meat. It’s an odd game, and it revels in its oddness.
However, you could probably find more disturbing and bizarre components in another game. The medium is ripe for surreal imagery and frightening creatures, and while Psychonauts has some chilling enemies, I don’t know that I can honestly compare them to the likes in Bloodborne or the Silent Hills franchise. Psychonauts would be limited in its appeal if its only ace was its dreamscapes and winding plot.
A major boon to its appeal is its mechanics, which are among the most fluid and versatile of the 3D-platforming genre. The game is really more of a combat-platformer, with Raz earning several powers over the course of the game that can be used to solve puzzles and defeat certain enemies. The meld of playstyles, and the variety of options players often have for getting through levels, makes the game feel far more expansive than its fairly short runtime would allow. Many powers are only required in the levels where they’re introduced, notably Confusion and Clairvoyance, but because they’re used so extensively in those levels, the powers feel like they provide a completely new perspective with which to play the game (literally, in the case of Clairvoyance). The platforming capabilities of the main character and the way the levels and areas are crafted to make good use of these abilities also aid the enjoyability of the gameplay, with many levels designed like a playground for the player. I’ve opened up the game more than a few times simply for the joy of running around Milla’s level on the levitation ball.
However, games that rely on flow often limit their fanbase. Plenty of people may play Fruit Ninja or Super Hexagon and enjoy them, but most put them down after a short time. There’s simply not enough content in flow-based games for them to have the longevity of massive RPGs and strategy games. This is why flow games do best on phones and other mobile consoles that are meant to be played for short periods of time and often don’t handle larger games as well as stationary consoles.
3D platformers tend to struggle on mobile consoles because they exist in the dark void between massive RPGs and simple mobile flow-based games. Often, they have too many platforming mechanics to feel natural on a handheld, but they look unimpressive next to games like Darksouls, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto. Adding collectibles, level progression, and RPG components like skill leveling and useful items is a common remedy, but it’s still rare to find a good 3D platformer that can compete with the year’s biggest games in terms of content. Most have to present expansive worlds, like Breath of the Wild, or disguise themselves as other genres, like the early Assassin’s Creed games, in order to be taken seriously.
Psychonauts has a fairly small world, short campaign, and easy difficulty, all of which have gained it a reputation for being a lovable but minor gaming experience. The thing that keeps me coming back to it, and the thing I consider its greatest asset, is its tendency to unfold. Completing the game takes about six hours, but understanding its world can occupy years.
You may have realized by now that I’m a bit of a detail-oriented person. I can step back and view the big picture if I have to, but I love dissecting things for their smaller, far less significant components. If a narrative has enough of these, and especially if they feed or complicate its main idea, I’ll play around with that narrative until it’s old and gray.
Almost everything in Psychonauts is more complicated than it first appears, and the game encourages you, without ever stating explicitly, to untangle its details.
Psychonauts is one of a relatively small number of games I’ve played that uses dialogue as an incentive for exploration. Every kid in the camp has a distinct personality, backstory, and character arc. Many of these are simple, but running around the camp and talking to every character with every object you can hold is a metagame itself. While most of these encounters are mundane and predictable, they yield utterly delightful cutscenes and lines often enough that once you start asking people about Sasha’s button, you won’t rest until everyone in camp knows that you have a button and are willfully ignoring their very clear hints about where it’s supposed to go.
This game does a stellar job of showing characterization through gameplay. As well as the dialogue options and cutscenes, a character’s design, animation, and actions key into who they are. This is most clearly demonstrated in Raz himself, whose personality and history accounts for his function as a platforming game player-controlled character. As an acrobat, it only makes sense that he should have no difficulty with climbing, swinging, jumping, and flipping. He completes the tutorial level (designed as a military obstacle course) far faster than any of the other students, not only because the platforming components are standard fare to any experienced player, but because they’re also familiar to Raz from his life at the circus.
Similar parts of Raz’s character come into play to explain his aversion to water, his ability to double-jump, and his outfit, all of which were implemented as practical considerations for the game. The developers rather famously had to change the main character design fairly late in production because the animation limits for 3D characters in the early 2000s made it very difficult to create the oversized nightcap the character was initially supposed to wear. This change is unnoticeable in the final product; Raz’s colorful aviator helmet and goggles look like part of his circus getup, maybe an old costume, while his backpack and warm clothes are fitting for a someone who’s travelling on foot. Even little animations, like how Raz can practically run across tightropes where most other video game characters would balance on them precariously, or how he makes effortless little corrections when balancing on the levitation ball, reaffirm his character.
Part Two: Shaving Just Like Daddy
A few years ago, Extra Credits made a video about how games might incorporate humor, claiming that there were many games where humor was delivered as timed beats, like in cutscenes, but few where humor intentionally emerged naturally from the game itself. Their argument was that games that use timed beats to deliver their humor aren’t really about comedy within the core of their gameplay, and thus weren’t comedic games. Much as I respect Extra Credits, I disagree with this sentiment.
I find the form of comedy used and how it fits in with the rest of the game’s pacing is much more important than whether it’s unpredictable within the game environment. The comedy that derives from glitches is pretty superficial, and funny more in the way that memes are. It wears thin after a short while, and its unpredictability becomes inherently predictable because it’s a game mechanic. In Surgeon Simulator, for instance, you learn pretty quickly how unresponsive and difficult to use the controls are, and while that’s funny in the moment, it’s far funnier for those watching you struggle to open a box than it is for you as a player. Surgeon Simulator is still a terrifically fun game, but its goofy mechanics quickly turn into more of a puzzle than a piece of comedy. The reason for this is simple: struggling to do something in a game isn’t usually a very good joke.
I’ve discussed humor before in my other reviews, but it essentially relies on the same setup/payoff cycle structure you get when trying to establish horror, tension, or general pacing. Most verbal jokes don’t have a lot of time between setup and payoff, or use environment and atmosphere alone as setup. A character saying something amusing in a serious moment is sometimes enough of a joke for the scene. Of utmost importance in comedy as a genre, especially comedies that want to be funny rather than simply lighthearted, is variation in joke structure. Marvel films are frequently criticized for introducing jokes at the wrong moment, or failing to maintain a serious atmosphere in favor of a joke, undermining the serious tone of the action.
For me, the best sort of comedy in games comes from voiceover when the player characters pass through a trigger, or in brief cutscenes used as save points or rewards for episodic sequences. The reason being, these moments don’t interrupt the flow of the game. Some amount of control by the storyteller is needed for effective comedy; the reason certain glitches are funny is because the circumstances in which they appear or are recounted lend them incidental depth. An NPC falling through the floor is a bit strange and alarming, and may be mildly amusing for its inconvenience, but it’s far funnier if the same NPC falls through the floor right after saying, “Follow me!” Strange things happening in a game are likely to be viewed initially as aggravating if they’re not visibly intentional, which is where voiceover and cutscenes become an advantage. Players trigger them and expect bland exposition about where they need to go on some quest or another, and they’re rewarded instead with a joke. This is where the Portal games derive most of their humor from, and it works pretty effectively.
Psychonauts is a genuinely funny game. Its humor is one of the qualities that makes it endearing. It uses a lot of humor in its cutscenes, of course, intermixing them with its bizarre drama and extending expositional sequences for the sake of humor. Not all of the jokes land, and a few memorable ones are utter duds, but the bulk of humor told this way holds up fairly well. As with its narrative and characterization, the humor within the game can’t simply be separated out as a single component. It’s woven into the other aspects of the game, particularly the characters, and it rarely stands in isolation. Jokes are never just jokes; while audience members can enjoy them on a simple level, they serve multiple functions.
One of the most crucial functions of humor within the game is to humanize the characters. It’s easy to like a funny character, even if some amount of that humor comes from laughing at how silly they are. The characters in Psychonauts are almost all archetypes of some sort or another on the surface, and their distinct personalities make it easy for the game to craft amusing situations to put them in.
Raz getting frustrated at the paranoid guard Boyd Cooper for not giving clear instructions and outright contradicting himself is amusing because the action and response fit both characters. From Boyd’s perspective, his instructions are crystal clear, and from Raz’s perspective as an impatient and egocentric child, this guy’s just trying to mess with him. As you explore Boyd’s mind, you get to know more about him, and that humor that was previously based only in the character’s outward presentation becomes weighted with his backstory. Boyd is still an amusing character at times, but the player comes to realize hidden depths that make his actions more difficult to quantify. Him destroying his own censors (enemies in a person’s mind that look like angry little men) is a conflicting moment. On the one hand, players have been beset by these little assholes in most of the levels up until this point, and their designs along with Boyd’s determination to destroy them is zany fun. However, within the context of the world, censors are important parts of a healthy mind — the reason they attack Raz is because he’s not supposed to be there. Boyd’s encounter with the censors calls attention to his instability and how his conditioning is causing him to literally destroy parts of his own mind.
The humor provides an in through which players can come to explore the game’s depth. By making characters amusing, it makes them immediately likable. This is one of the strengths of comedy as a whole — a character who is funny without intentionally trying to be is a character audiences will sympathize with quickly. This makes their darker aspects more meaningful, and also lends a tragedy to the character that can’t be obtained as easily with dramatic moments. Often, a tragic event early in a film will make us empathize with the character’s response or the horror of the event, but not necessarily the character themself. Humor can be much more directly linked to the character’s personality and identity.
It’s a fine line to walk, and writing mostly comedic characters is a gamble. Comedic sidekicks in children’s films run the full gamut from charming to infuriating, and the difference between the two is often wrapped up in a fair bit of subtlety. Almost all of Psychonauts‘ characters have some amount of inherent humor to them, whether in their line delivery, character design, line content, or actions. However, all of them are also deeper than that, and I think it’s this depth that serves to compliment and propel the humor.
Part Three: Mental Landscapes and Landscape Mentality
One thing games can do better than almost any medium is show literal exploration and interaction with metaphysical or intangible concepts. Visual media tend to use these elements a lot, and films even have a standard language for it. Representation of common moods and emotions are worked into everything from the camera angle to the color palate. Games make use of similar techniques, but their interactive nature provides an extra layer on which to project those concepts. This is why games are so good at frightening their audience and why the monsters in games often serve to represent more than physical entities.
While the gameplay of Psychonauts is largely structured around it being a 3D platformer, the narrative it embodies, and therefore its story-based engagement, is all about the mind. One of the fundamental narrative mechanics is Raz’s ability to go into the minds of other characters. Structurally, this is the equivalent of sidetracking to new levels in order to unlock the next area, similar to most other linear games with hub-based levels. However, Psychonauts makes use of its complex characters to turn these levels from mere platforming experiences with a boss at the end into an intimate dive into the psyche of certain key characters. Every mind is crafted around the character it belongs to, meaning the design of the level contributes to their characterization.
Cold, calculating Sasha Nein, for instance, has a mind that looks like a rigid modernist cube floating in a void. It has nothing on its surface save what Sasha wants you to see, but mess around with what is there and you can break his mind, making memories from his childhood spew forth from the interior of the cube, along with increasingly chaotic enemies. You can mess around with the new props exposed on the surface to learn about his past, and how his continued insistence that Raz maintain control of his own mind doesn’t necessarily mean he should bottle up all of his emotions.
You can’t go into the minds of all of the characters, unfortunately, but the game humanizes many of them by making their minds a core part of the experience. The game creates considerable narrative depth this way, and makes that depth engaging. In the mental levels, you have clear tasks, including the practical reason you’re going into that person’s mind in the first place. In the first half of the game, this comes in the form of earning merit badges to get to new areas or unlock new powers, while the second half of the game focuses on entering the minds of others to help them overcome a personal block so they can help you.
This latter goal is curious, and perhaps a bit unnerving. The ability to mess around in someone’s head is pretty invasive, and almost all of the characters in the latter half of the game whose minds you explore have stated mental illnesses. The game needs to tread carefully, and being a comedy with weird character designs and abundant archetypes, that’s a hefty ask. How well the game handles mental illness is subjective, and in any case, it has an inherently fantastical approach. One of my critical responses looking back on the game initially was that the idea of magically fixing people’s mental illnesses through fun puzzles is a bit reductive. Not everything that results in neurodivergence is an illness, and even when treated, many mental illnesses don’t just go away.
However, I’ve heard a couple of responses from neurodivergent fans of the series who see Psychonauts‘ approach to mental illness in a favorable light. Something as simple as humanizing the characters in a sanitarium and showing them to be complex is a step in the right direction. There’s also something immensely empowering in the idea that you can directly combat your own mental illness and fight it like any other video game monster. It can be therapeutic to literally punch depression in the face, or a representation of it, anyway.
I also don’t really think the game is about Raz “fixing” the other characters’ illnesses. He helps them overcome personal problems, sure, but there’s no Beauty and the Beast-style transformation of the mind where it goes from “broken” to “normal.” On the contrary; most of the characters keep the core elements of their minds that were directly associated with their illness in the first place. Fred’s mind still has the French countryside and Waterloo World as a backdrop even after he’s no longer fighting with his inner Napoleon. The Spanish villas, bullfighter’s house, and sewers showing Edgar’s high school are still in place, even after he’s no longer obsessed with bullfights or his teenage love life. Boyd’s mind is still as loopy and chaotic as before, just a bit emptier now, and whether or not that’s even an improvement is up for debate. Perhaps most telling, Gloria, who’s bipolar, still has a functioning mood swing light in her mind long after Raz has helped her.
These elements are functional within the game; it’s an important part of any collection-based game to be able to go back to areas to look for missed collectibles, and it would be a huge hassle to re-create every level with an “after” state that differed considerably from the “before” state. However, in this case, that limitation works to the game’s advantage, demonstrating, even if unintentionally, that the characters aren’t suffering because their minds work differently. Rather, it’s certain aspects of their minds getting out of control that causes them problems, and often, destroying those parts entirely isn’t the solution. Raz helps them reign in those aspects to make them more manageable, showing Edgar that his high school sweetheart was an asshole, shrinking Gloria’s inner critic so that its complaints are less intimidating, and helping Fred finally win something so that he doesn’t feel like a constant failure.
Ultimately, despite its goofy sensibility, the game is highly empathetic toward all of its characters. Antagonism comes from the mental representations of figures, particularly in the final level when Raz and one of the villains both have to come to terms with their mental representations of their fathers. In Raz’s case at least, we find that it’s not his father who’s the source of his problem, but his misunderstanding of him. The only truly two-dimensional character in the story is the primary villain, Dr. Loboto, and even he gets fleshed out in the VR semi-sequel game.
Psychonauts is imperfect. It’s a bit short and most of the levels aren’t especially challenging, despite the presence of a few notable portions of the game that seem to exist mainly to slow players down. A few slurs occasionally work their way into the kids’ dialogue, which can be jarring given that some of these terms have become far more widely known as derogatory than they were in 2005. That, combined with somewhat cliched depictions of mental illness, may turn some people away from the game. I don’t judge if that’s the case for you; a well-crafted experience doesn’t always hold together when some of its components are careless. Games can and should do better.
However, while I accept that parts of the game may be rightfully termed problematic, for me at least, there’s enough to respect in the care taken elsewhere to make the experience fulfilling overall. Several games of the past thirteen years have taken inspiration from Psychonauts, and with good reason. The concept is innovative, the mechanics are fluid, the integration of story and gameplay is still largely unmatched by many AAA titles, and its visuals still hold up while many games from the same era look cringe-inducing.
At the end of 2015, the long-awaited sequel was announced, and just a few weeks ago, its first trailer came out. The game is still widely considered to be Double Fine’s best, and perhaps even the best game Tim Schafer ever worked on (which, given his early work on the highly influential Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango is not faint praise). Sequels are a tricky thing, but if the teasers, trailers, and recent VR game are anything to go on, Psychonauts 2 should at least be interesting. It has a lot of pressure on its to do well, but I’m cautiously optimistic about it. Even if happens to fail, though, the quality of the original will still shine.