I’m sure many of you remember when adventure games were a big deal. The arrival of a new adventure from Sierra or LucasArts was monumental, equivalent to a release from Valve today, including the subsequent domination of the sales charts.
Before massive shake-ups at the company, Tim Schafer was responsible for some of LucasArts’ greatest classics: Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and more. But since leaving, he hasn’t been up to much. Psychonauts is the first release from his Double Fine Productions.
“Pure” adventure gaming has meanwhile dwindled to nothing. The one remaining bestseller is the Myst series, and even that’s being wrapped up (in theory) with Myst V. What gamers are more likely to play is an action-adventure such as Resident Evil, where puzzles are intermingled with twitch sequences. A majority of these are actually more action than puzzles.
I mention this because while Psychonauts is an action-heavy platformer, I could swear that Schafer is secretly trying to revive pure adventures by slipping old-style puzzles into the formula. The results are mixed. Above all, the game manages to recreate the humour and sheer strangeness of his earlier work.
Exhibit A: storyline. The player becomes a kid named Raz, who sneaks into Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. The camp is really a training facility for future psychic secret agents, i.e. psychonauts, so the counsellors want Raz’s father to pick him up as soon as possible. But given that Raz has such strong psychic talent, they’re willing to train him in some basic powers until it’s time to leave. He ends up saving the world, naturally.
Raz spends a good portion of the game inside other people’s brains, crossing levels that reflect the personalities of their owners. Coach Oleander’s mind is a battlefield; faded actress Gloria von Gouten is, literally, replaying her childhood in her head. The puzzles and action come out of these themes. So in Coach’s mind, you’re climbing obstacles and dodging machineguns. To “fix” Gloria you need to persuade the “embodiment of her youthful spirit” to perform in a stage play.
There’s a surprising amount of thought and exploration required to make it through Psychonauts. It’s not spoiling things to say that to pass von Gouten’s level, you need the right combinations of sets and scripts, which aren’t immediately apparent. Likewise the brain of a conspiracy nut is protected by G-men in (extremely) flimsy disguises. To get anywhere, you have to find matching disguises from all over the map. In most games this quest would be dull after a minute, but partly because it is an action game, Psychonauts manages to hold interest.
The other part is probably the sly sense of humour. The G-men are instantly quotable in their Dragnet monotones: “I am on the road crew, this is my stop sign.” “I am a phone repairman. I could choose to listen to any conversation, but because of my sense of professionalism, I do not.” “While I often smell of excrement, I deserve your respect, as I perform a necessary service.” The game is littered with the kind of funny moments that used to mark LucasArts’ reputation. It’s pretty clear now that Schafer was more than a marketing sticker for them. He’s helped by the art direction of Scott Campbell, who echoes the deranged cartoon look of Day of the Tentacle. Rarely do any two characters or levels look alike.
One of the joys of the game is how much content exists outside of the plot. Unlike most platformers - an understatement if there ever was one - there are plenty of characters to speak with. In some cases there are full-blown conversation trees, but even if it’s only a line or two at a time, the characters can be hilarious. Speaking of which, Raz’s psychic powers can be tried on just about anything, including people and animals. It’s fun discovering how squirrels or a snotty, boy-obsessed girl will react to Pyrokinesis. Whispering Rock itself is broken into sublevels with plenty of nooks and crannies to hunt in for power-boosting bonuses.
It gets to be a bit much, actually. Psychic arrowheads are an incentive to explore at first, but collecting them becomes dull soon enough, and at one point you need to collect hundreds to complete an objective. Picking up psi cards and mental cobwebs is mildly more tolerable. I did like the (literal) emotional baggage however, if just for that catharsis when a duffelbag goes from teary to happy.
Psychonauts’ greatest problem is that it was obviously designed for consoles before the PC. The menu interfaces don’t work smoothly with a mouse, and in fact you can’t select some options by clicking on them; you have to switch to the keyboard. More importantly, a lot of situations in the game seem to call for analog sticks (i.e. when using Levitation) or gamepad buttons. Those hundreds of extra arrowheads I mentioned? You have to locate them with the dowser. To operate the dowser, you run around until the sonar starts pinging rapidly. Then you start mashing the Action key/button as quickly as you can until a meter tops off and the arrowhead “vein” is extracted. This mechanism shouldn’t have been used at all, but I imagine it’s easier to live with if you’re mashing a shallow-sprung gamepad button instead of a keyboard.
Poly counts and texture resolutions are very low, considering what the PC and Xbox are capable of. Whereas characters like Raz and Lili get competent treatment, secondary ones can look rough or downright out-of-place in a game from 2005. Terrain can be blocky and blurred on top of the deliberate abstractions, to the extent that honestly, Unreal (from 1998!) sometimes looks better.
Two final complaints of mine are that a few actions levels would seem to permit are impossible (primarily, grasping some ledges outside of the way the designer thought you’d approach them), and that solutions to some puzzles are needlessly obscure. It’s one thing to produce a difficult puzzle; it’s another to deny the player hints.
But all told, I’d rather spend my nights playing Psychonauts than a Myst or Resident Evil title, barring perhaps Resident Evil 4. It’s livelier, funnier, and more original, in an age when sequels are the only safe bets for publishers. Had a little extra work been done, it could’ve been a new adventure classic.