Psychonauts and Other Confusing Nonsense

So, I just finished Psychonauts… years too late, and I couldn’t honestly tell you how I feel. Let’s start with… you should play it. If you’ve got Steam, then you should grab a copy of this game, but make sure you’ve got a controller around to play it with, otherwise you’ll probably run into some trouble.

I first ran into this game early on in my gaming career when I was working at a locally-run game shop. The manager and owner were, respectively, like the Shepard Book and Mal of my Serenity in those early years. I could barely string two words together, and I didn’t really play that many games. I certainly liked them, but I wouldn’t have called myself a good judge of game-play. So, when they both whole-heartedly recommended that I play Psychonauts (this was when the Game Cube was still a recent thing), I can’t really tell you why I didn’t.

Next, when I was beginning to study game theory, I kept hearing people refer to it as one of those classic games that should be played. Critics seem to universally praise it, even if they admit that it has problems. It didn’t sell well when it was first released, but it was definitely a sleeper-hit. By all accounts, I really should have gotten this game.

Recently, I heard a retro-review of the game, realized it was on Steam and snatched it up, luckily, in the Double-Fine bundle. I loaded it up and fell in love. Then, cruel mistresses that games can be, she stabbed me in the shoulder. I held her, bleeding profusely onto her sob-racked frame, and realized that, even though it hurt, I was finishing this game. Tonight.

I sit here now, on the heels of a single-sitting play-through, with everything fresh in my mind, and all I want to do is whinge. So, let’s start shovelling Psychonauts’ grave, before we begin the vile rituals to resurrect it, flaws and all. Dat plat-forming. Early “action-adventure” titles like this feel like the precursors to games like Assassin’s Creed. Your movement is pretty free, and agile, even though you’ll run into your share of buggy physics and invisible walls. There’s a section late in the game, when you’re jumping around the outside of a flaming fence, spiralling upward, that I almost took a break on, because the controls got so buggy. More than once, you will fall to your death (or frustration) because the distance didn’t quite make sense, or an ability didn’t drop and let you grab the ledge. I even got caught sliding down a leaky pipe… forever. I had to load out of that one.

The plat-forming and movement are buggy, but they leave you enough room to experiment, and find solutions to problems from multiple angles. Hell, sometimes you can solve a puzzle simply by climbing to the highest spot and hang-gliding downwards in the direction you need to go. The fetch-quests are alright; they don’t feel too repetitive. Even collecting the game’s currency and its experience was interesting. The puzzle solutions are intuitive and the abilities work well. They’re all very well thought out, and we’ll get back to that in a minute, but first we’ve got to pick on the enemies.

Enemies in this game are either ridiculously easy, or stupidly hard. There are invincible cannons and rats that will piss you off. Just a heads up. The rats live in a facility with many entrances and holes in the walls, so chances are they’ll emerge in an area pretty close to you. Then, they’ll try to run up to you and kamikaze your ass by exploding into confusing-fumes. Be careful, because, at that point, trying to dodge the remaining rats may cause you to walk off the top of a very long climb.

Choppy platforming and bad enemy difficulty curves… even one part with a knife-thrower… but, let’s move on to the rest of the game, because it’s good. This game feels very much like it was agonized over. All of the parts of the game work together. Yes, even the choppy platforming gives you a sense of hope that you can just glitch your way to victory. All of the powers and enemies, the currency curves and mini-games, galvanize into an amazing atmosphere. Every single character is fleshed out in some way. They’ve all got full personalities, even the ones whose brains you stay out of. Hell, there’s a lady that shows up for only one boss fight, and she has twice the personality of the guy from Rage. The world is practically breathing, and just big enough without being too big. And, the story. Oh, that story.

The world makes the story come alive, and its presentation is amazing, even if the creepy, drool-filled teeth-marks of Sigmund Freud are all over it. I don’t want to ruin it any more than by mentioning Freud, so play it. It’s charming, fun, and frustrating as all hell. You’ll finish it. Trust me. I give it a Rainbow-wigged Clown-skull out of an Astral Projection of Steve McQueen.

BUT wait, there’s more! This game is full of what seems like nonsense. That’s okay, because it’s used correctly. Context is ever-so important. If you trust your audience, then you’ll find that there are many symbols and ideas that you can use to tell detailed stories without shoving their faces in it. The figments are a good example. You’ll see what I mean. I really just want you to explore and enjoy this game. It’s quite an experience. Very much like stepping into another person’s brain. However, what I mean by nonsense is that the game makes rules up and sticks to them. They make sense within the world without being explained. Part of this is audience trust, and the other is understanding nonsense.

Remember, nonsense is only nonsensical in our world. Committing to the atmosphere of a game (see Devil May Cry: ANY of them… 1 – 3) can really add something to it. It means that you don’t have to faff around explaining shit. If the audience is engaged, then they’ll accept it. It has to have a context, a reason, though. It has the serve the game and the narrative. Dead Space had a lot of weird shit, some of which made sense, but it worked because it served the game. That is, until you question it for one second… The mechanics will explain it for you (flailing, up-raised arm weak-spots and Line-Guns), if you make them mesh. Katamari had a bunch of random stuff, but it was essential to the quirky atmosphere. I’m having trouble thinking of a counter-example at this early hour, but if you’ve ever run into an immersion-breaking wat. moment, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. OH! Like when you get married to the evil woman in Fable and it seems like you’re going to team up to conquer the world, but she just sits around and makes fun of you all day. Evil, over-the-top villain seductress… with no point beyond maybe a bride for the darkly-powered gentleman. Nonsense is not useful in itself. When I say that Psychonauts is well-crafted, part of what I’m talking about is how lean it is. Every bit of random nonsense was thought out and means something. So, I suppose what I really, really mean is that it doesn’t matter what you put in your game, what crazy shit you decide is essential, as long as you think it through, and use it well, your audience will thank you for it. Most of all, they’ll understand, as long as it makes sense.

Look at Silent Hill 2 ❤ “There was a hole here. It’s gone now.” Wat.

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