This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Later this month (at the time of writing), Psychonauts 2 will be released into the wild. In an unusual attempt at timeliness, I endeavored to replay the original Psychonauts before that happened, and lo, I have succeeded. Of course, I’ll probably play something else in between and not get to Psychonauts 2 until months later, but that’s beside the point. The point is that Psychonauts is still great, and I’m eager to play the sequel.
I first played Psychonauts around 2007 or 2008, a few years after its 2005 release. Playing it again now, I could hardly tell that I was playing a sixteen year old game. Really, the only hints were technical: the game scales up to modern widescreen resolutions, but this stretches and distorts the menus and other user interface elements. Luckily, that’s easily fixed with a fan-made patch. More troublesome were the random crashes when loading the frequent cutscenes. Running the game in compatibility mode for Windows 98 fixed that problem, although it also made my screenshot software go haywire, but that’s a whole other issue that won’t affect most players (and I managed to fix it). Most sane players would use a gamepad to play Psychonauts, but I’m still more comfortable using the mouse for camera control in 3D games — even third-person ones — which means I ran into mouse sensitivity issues. I had to disable vsync in the game and instead force frame limits in my graphics card drivers (which had the beneficial side effect of letting me run at my monitor’s maximum 144 Hz refresh rate, instead of 60 Hz) to get the mouse sensitivity up to a reasonable level, but even then the vertical sensitivity was lower than the horizontal sensitivity. I was unable to fix that and just played anyway. It’s not too troublesome since there aren’t many occasions when it’s important to point the camera up or down.
But once all that stuff was sorted out, and I actually started playing? Psychonauts felt like it could have been released yesterday. Its wonderful cartoon art style has aged incredibly well, its 3D platforming action is timeless, and its fantastic writing puts modern games to shame. Psychonauts tells the story of Razputin (known as Raz to his friends), a young boy who runs away from his home in the circus in order to attend Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, where kids with psychic abilities can train to join the ranks of the titular Psychonauts, a group of elite psychic government agents. That sentence alone displays more imagination than a whole sack full of modern games combined, but Psychonauts has so much more. In the game, Raz will not only explore the camp grounds and meet the other kids, he will venture into others’ minds to train his psychic abilities, or just to help them out. Each mind is wildly different, a surreal landscape grown from its owner’s psyche. Raz may start with the neatly organized and compartmentalized mind of one of the Psychonaut counselors, before exploring twisted neighborhood streets under constant surveillance inside the mind of someone obsessed with conspiracy theories. Every one of these minds is bursting with personality, with its own look and style of play. Collect disguises to access new areas in the conspiracy theorist’s mind, put on theatre plays in the mind of a famous actor, play a tabletop wargame by zooming in to ground level to explore its hexes. These are just a few examples; Psychonauts is overflowing with ideas like these.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Psychonauts comes from the mind of Tim Schafer, famous for similarly imaginative adventure games like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, and his team at Double Fine. In fact, it was Double Fine’s first game, after Schafer left LucasArts to found the studio, and sold poorly after a troubled development despite critical acclaim. Similar fates have befallen many of Schafer’s and Double Fine’s games, which I find depressing. Do people really not appreciate the ingenuity and charm on display in these games? The most common complaints I see are that they have great writing and concepts but fall short in their mechanical design and polish. As I wrote in the earliest days of this blog, I will easily forgive some awkwardness in design if a game is interesting enough. Others, it seems, would prefer a polished but boring entry in a well established genre to a game full of experimental concepts and flavor.
Psychonauts certainly has some rough edges. Raz can equip three of his eventual eight psychic abilities at once, by assigning them to different buttons and keys, but since some are used constantly — like the Levitation ability, which lets Raz roll around quickly atop his thought bubble and make high bouncy jumps — there’s really only one spare ability slot that must be constantly swapped via an awkward menu. There’s a strong emphasis on collecting things, which is mostly fun: buried arrowheads made of the psychic substance psitanium are scattered around the camp grounds, as are psi cards, challenge markers, and scavenger hunt items, and while exploring others’ minds Raz will sort out emotional baggage (specifically a suitcase, purse, hatbox, duffel bag and steamer trunk), find locked memories, and collect figments. The figments look cool, like ethereal crayon drawings scattered around the mental landscape, and make a very satisfying sound when collected, but they can be hard to see and a few are deviously hidden. Completionists will quickly be frustrated when trying to find them all, unless they turn to an online guide (as I did, on occasion).
Generally speaking, all these collectibles increase Raz’s psi rank, which unlocks new powers and upgrades, but reaching the maximum rank (which, I should stress, is by no means mandatory) is made much harder then it needs to be because players cannot return to the camp after the final level, so anything found there must be redeemed by alternate means. And that final level is also an infamous difficulty spike, enough so that Double Fine softened it up a little when the game was re-released digitally in 2011. That’s the version I played; I still have my physical copy, but also nabbed the digital version in a bundle at some point, and I was happy to benefit from the update. Even with the tweaks, however, the final level is still pretty hard.
But I wrote those last two paragraph more out of a grudging sense of duty than anything else. None of those things matter. They are trifles in comparison to the joy of exploring Psychonauts’ wonderful physical and mental locales. In fact, perhaps Psychonauts’ biggest problem — which isn’t really a problem — is that its most interesting parts all come in the second half. Early on, Raz is exploring the comparatively mundane camp, only venturing into the minds of the Psychonaut counselors as part of his training. These are fun, but the moments that mark the game as a classic come after Raz ventures outside of his comfort zone and starts exploring minds under less controlled circumstances. This isn’t to say that the start of the game is bad. Far from it. It’s good, and then it just keeps getting better. I am resisting an incredible temptation to just tell you about each mind Raz gets to sort out, because I want anyone who hasn’t played Psychonauts to experience the same awe that I did the first time I encountered them. That feeling just keeps coming. Psychonauts is great. Play it.
It’s also very funny, a common attribute of any game associated with Tim Schafer. One of the other campers, Vernon, has a penchant for telling really boring stories in a monotone voice, and in a particularly amazing moment he tells one that is constructed on the fly by splicing together different snippets of dialogue at random, and literally goes on forever. A similar trick is used at other times to keep conversations between characters interesting, and to encourage players to explore the camp anew at different points in the game to track down campers and learn their individual stories. The bit about Raz running away from the circus is more than just a gag, it explains why he’s great at acrobatics, able to walk tightropes and leap from trapezes in the physical and mental worlds alike. Rather than flatly preventing players from taking Raz swimming, as many games might have, Raz explains that he has to avoid water because psychics cursed his entire family to die in water. And that’s actually a plot point, one of the reasons Raz’s father didn’t want him to train as a psychic. There are so many more clever details throughout, with great acting to boot. Well executed humor is still a rarity in games, but such a joy when done right, as it is here.
The humor isn’t the only thing Psychonauts has in common with Schafer’s earlier games. The team’s prior experience with adventure games is clearly evident. Puzzle elements are simpler and less prominent than they would be in an adventure game, but the adventure game mindset of collecting items and trying them out on people and things will serve players well. Certain psychic powers, like telekinesis and clairvoyance, are used more as puzzle tools than anything else, bypassing obstacles that gate progress. In many minds, players must adopt the kind of “lopsided logic” thinking that is common in adventure games in order to determine how to proceed. And, just like adventure games, players are rewarded for trying out “incorrect” combinations of powers or items with extra jokes. There’s specific dialogue when picking up each camper and other character with telekinesis, for example. Even the boss fights are more like puzzles than tests of platforming skill, requiring the correct combination of psychic powers and lateral thinking to expose the boss’ weakness. They’re not too taxing either, and Raz can always ask his mentor for advice if he’s having trouble. By summoning him with a slice of bacon, of course.
I feel like I should have more to say, more raving about Psychonauts’ brilliance, but I want to leave some of that for new players to discover. So I’ll just reiterate how incredibly good it is. It’s a joyous adventure, so much more creative than the average game that it’s frankly embarrassing. Playing it makes one realize how much lower the standards are for other games. Plus you get to set things on fire with your mind. If you’ve never played it, I highly recommend you do so.
And soon (on August 25), we’ll get a sequel, after a successful crowdfunding campaign that Double Fine launched back in 2015. There hasn’t been much press about Psychonauts 2 yet, but what I have heard has been good, and given that many of the same people are working on it, I’m looking forward to another great game. I’ll likely play something else first, to spread out my doses of Psychonauts, but when I do play the sequel I’ll be sure to post about it here.
When I nabbed Psychonauts in digital form as part of a bundle, it came with the original soundtrack, composed by Peter McConnell. McConnell had worked with Schafer before, composing the score for Grim Fandango and Full Throttle while Schafer was still at LucasArts, and he would go on to score several other Double Fine titles including Brütal Legend and Costume Quest (both of which I still need to play!). He also composed the score for Broken Age, which I’ve written about in two parts on this very blog, and his score will grace Psychonauts 2 as well.
The Psychonauts Original Soundtrack features 21 tracks, clocking in at just over 43 minutes of music. Many of the pieces are done in a style reminiscent of cartoon scores, with jaunty rhythms played by an ensemble including violin, oboe, horns and piano. With the faintest jazz influence, these pieces are a great match to the silly tone of the game, accompanying whimsical exploration, tense action, or creepy and ominous locations as needed. Outside of the game, however, these pieces aren’t that memorable, losing something without the scenes they are paired with.
But other pieces stand out. The music that plays as Raz explores the camp is a wonderfully laid-back composition of twangy guitars, acoustic bass, and harmonica that instantly feels like rustic cabins in the woods. Several pieces written for Black Velvetopia, the colorful world inside the mind of a black velvet painter, have a lovely flamenco flair, full of acoustic and electric guitars to match the Mexican theme of this particular mind. There’s even some very sparing use of my favorite musical motif: the mariachi trumpet. Gotta sneak one of those in somewhere.
While those are the highlights, the whole soundtrack makes me smile. As with the best soundtracks, the pieces recall specific scenes from the game, bringing happy memories with them. I don’t think the whole score is included; it seems focused on music that accompanies playable sections, rather than the frequent pre-rendered cutscenes. But I can understand that decision, since music made to match a pre-rendered scene would have even more trouble standing on its own. And what’s here is great, so I’m not complaining. The soundtrack is a nice bonus to accompany a classic game.