E3 2002: Psychonauts archived preview

Yes, it’s possibly the weirdest game I saw at E3. Quite definitely the best adventure game. Err, action/adventure? Whatever.

Psychonauts may not be a pure adventure game, but a quick glance at Tim Schafer’s portfolio speaks volumes: he co-designed Maniac Mansion 2: Day Of The Tentacle, wrote and designed Full Throttle, not to mention the all-time classic Grim Fandango. Tim now gets to wear two hats, as he is also the CEO of his own company Double Fine Productions, which he founded after he left LucasArts in 1999.

Thanks to our friends at Mixnmojo.com, I was able to see a presentation of Psychonauts behind closed doors. (Yes, they locked the door and forced us to watch this twisted game. The horror!) We were invited to the Microsoft meeting rooms, since this game is going to be X-Box only. PC users will really want to petition for a Windows port.

Psychonauts is probably the kind of game you have to see for yourself. Whatever I write here isn’t going to do justice to the bizarre story, surreal levels and ingenious little gameplay touches that we got to see. But I will try, anyway.

The main character is Raz, a psychically gifted kid who against the wishes of his acrobat parents goes to a psychic summer camp, with the hopes of joining an elite force of psychic superheroes, the Psychonauts. By entering people’s minds and dealing with their own dreams, traumas, or fantasies, Raz can earn various types of merit badges necessary to become a real Psychonaut. Meanwhile, an Evil Madman [TM] hatches a secret plan to kidnap psychic children and steal their brains.

Each level of the game is a representation of a character’s mind. For example, when you enter Raz’s girlfriend’s mind, you arrive in a level composed largely of meat. Tim pointed us to a subtle pattern in the meat texture that looked like a bunny. At the end of this level, you will have to fight an insane and oversized butcher rabbit. You can be assured that the levels make much more sense when you hear the reasoning behind it. In this case, Raz’s girlfriend has problems with her father who is a rabbit butcher, and you’re here to battle her trauma. Instead of using the same building blocks throughout the game like many level designers do, each level in Psychonauts will look completely different. Among the levels you will visit are a fantasy recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, a strange world made out of black velvet, and what appears to be a city populated by lungfish.

“What I like about video games is that you can do abstract, surrealist stuff,” said Tim Schafer. “Mario is, in a way, very much like abstract surrealism. A big bullet with a face on it chasing you around while a mushroom morphs into it is cool, but they never really become more than a bullet or a mushroom. They are just wacky shapes.”

Tim explains what is different about Psychonauts: “We can do all the wacky surreal things we want, but it actually informs you about the mentality of the person. You’re in their mind and you’re understanding how they feel....when you come out, you know that character is so much more.”

The design team wanted to focus on the jump-and-run elements of the game first, since they have less experience with that style of gameplay. Tim Schafer reassured us however that there would be more puzzles in the style of Grim Fandango, particularly in the summer camp where you return to after each mind level.

In order to complete a mind level, the gamer has to overcome certain obstacles and enemies. Most obstacles can be solved by applying the right psychic powers such as levitation, telekinesis and invisibility. The different powers can be selected from a thought bubble interface that appears over Raz’ head. In a surprising twist, the thought bubble can actually be picked up and used as a parachute, a springboard or even as a landmine.

There isn’t always an enemy threat, so you can often take your time to figure out the puzzles. The enemies that appear along your way are just as wacky as the levels themselves. A creature you might encounter often is the brain censor. (There was some confusion whether its correct spelling is “sensor” or “censor”, which both make sense, but rest assured I did my research.) The brain censors run around trying to stamp a red sign on anything that doesn’t belong there, all the while repeating the word “no” over and over again. These fellows truly made me laugh out loud.

What we got to see was a work-in-progress, but it was obvious how much potential this project has. If there is anything I didn’t like about the demo, it might be the dialogues. The snippets of conversation we saw between Raz and his female mentor were a little bit too childish for my taste. However, at an E3 where many games just blurred together because of their similarities, Psychonauts proves that there are still game developers who can create unique worlds and interesting stories. We will be keeping a close eye on this one.


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