The Greatest Games: Psychonauts (2005)

Psychonauts (2005)
Developed by Double Fine Productions

The platformer has been ever-present since nearly the beginning of gaming, but rarely has the genre been used to tell a tightly-woven narrative. In something like Mario, various world designs exist more to signal mechanical changes, such as an ice world being slippery. Psychonauts goes a step further – the game stars a psychic child named Raz, and each level is an exploration inside the mind of a character. Almost every world in this game is like nothing before or since, and each is loaded with a heavy dose of symbolism to build a mesmerizing narrative presentation.

Psychonauts was directed by Tim Schafer, whose previous experience was entirely contained within the point-and-click adventure genre. In those games, gameplay was treated more as a necessity to pass as a game than a true focus. The real draw was the bizarre narratives and the goofy writing. In many ways, Psychonauts acts as a hybrid of the two ideas – there are several sequences of Psychonauts where the focus is more on figuring out how to progress than in jumping between platforms. This is better understood as a more interactive adventure game than a traditional platformer. The many Mario games and others beat it out mechanically, but few games offer this specific blend of experiences.

The early stages are all safely structured as Raz learns from psychic camp counselors who have learned to better control their own psyche. Agent Sasha Nein’s world is a single cube, as he is able to show exactly what he wants to others. Counselor Milla’s world is a colorful dance party throughout, as she wants the children to have fun while learning their powers. But buried deep inside her party is a room of screaming orphans who had burned to death in a fire. This room is there but neatly compartmentalized. Milla can never forget this fire, but she can at least put it far enough out of the way that Raz will only discover it unintentionally.

The style of these worlds take a hard shift once the plot necessitates Raz visit an asylum. Each has a distinct mental illness which they are struggling to cope with, and this is reflected in how their mental worlds form. This kicks off with Boyd Cooper’s Milkman Conspiracy, an absolutely wonderful level where Raz must explore a twisted 1950s suburban layout while being watched by agents in poor disguises. The design of this world feels like a predecessor to Super Mario Galaxy. All of this adds up to a stage representing a paranoid man obsessed with conspiracy theories, filled with stellar lines as the agents struggle to perform their roles to the point of sometimes even failing to pass as human. I loved hearing dialogue like “When my husband drinks excessively, I may threaten him with this rolling pin, though we still love each other very much,” spoken in a completely monotonous tone.

Other residents are coping with bipolar disorder, anger management, and a Napoleon complex. Each of their levels have ingenious ways of exploring these concepts. In many hands, this whole experience could have fallen into exploitation. Especially with such a goofy atmosphere, there was a risk of making fun of people with these disorders. But with how Psychonauts confronts these topics, it’s less about judgment and more an exploration of how we must learn to cope with past traumas.

There are dozens of ‘goofy’ video games. What sets Psychonauts apart is that Tim Schafer is simply a better writer than the grand majority of people working in the gaming industry. When Psychonauts tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. Raz’s backstory is hilarious, twisting the ‘running away from home to join the circus’ narrative by having Raz’s home be the circus. Lines like “I am the Milkman, my milk is delicious” are inexplicable yet unforgettable. This game is endlessly creative from beginning to end.

Psychonauts may not be the greatest platformer, but it is a simply phenomenal adventure game. Outside of a notorious finale, the levels go above and beyond in their merging of mechanics and narrative elements. This is one of the most singular games to ever exist. How many designers could pull off jumping from a stage where you terrify fish people as a kaiju to helping an aging actress cope with her inner critic? Few works have ever been so scattered yet unified; not a single level operates in the same way, and the fact it adds up to something so grand is glorious.

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