[Games of Summer is a recurring seasonal retrospective highlighting those magical titles that evoke wondrous thoughts of warm weather, carefree days, and discovery. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll reflect on said titles and analyze why they meant so much to us then -- and just as much now.]
I’m only going to briefly touch on the seasonal element of this article. Psychonauts takes place part of the time at a summer camp for psychics. That’s all I’ve got to tie this in with the other Games of Summer articles. I some time in the spring as I recovered from my wisdom teeth extraction. I played it only once, and it doesn’t have any replayability gimmicks written in to manipulate you into another twenty hours, so it’s not one of those games I remember fondly playing year after year.
That one time, though, was amazing. If you haven’t played Psychonauts, I’m only going to say this once. Play it as soon as you possibly can. On your next day off, buy it off of XBLA and play it. Drop whatever plans you already had. Go on hiatus from whatever game you’re already playing. If you care even a little bit about video games as art of story telling devices, you need to play Psychonauts.
In screen writing classes, they tend to point to Tootsie as a masterfully written comedy. I’m not sure why. Maybe it just pushes all the right buttons in the right order. Maybe it’s designed with some specific formula for success, like a Quincy Jones song. Anyways, Psychonauts is Tootsie. Don’t you see? This is, I think, the exact point where you decide whether you’re going to do what I tell you or completely ignore my heavy-handed coercion.
In the interest of making this article worth reading, I’m giving you some reasons to play the damn game. Here we go:
1. It’s by Tim Schafer. If you don’t know who he is, you’re a bastard, but I’ll tell you about him anyway. Tim Schafer is a damn good humorist, and he is the funniest man writing video games today. Monkey Island, his first game, has just been re-released with fancy new graphics. His newest, Brütal Legend, is coming out later this year. All the games in between are gold. Not only are the scripts phenomenally funny, but he also goes to the effort of making the games fun. I’m already demanding you play one game, but I’ll kindly suggest you do what you can to play his others, as well. You cannot go wrong with Tim Schafer.
2. You go in people’s heads. Most of the levels take place inside the heads of other characters. This is a concept that could easily be phoned in, but in Psychonauts, each character’s mind is a drastically different landscape. No two levels are alike, and the way you play each level even has to change from space to space. In each level, you bounce around collecting stuff and using neat mind tricks, sorting out the level/character’s emotional baggage and fears, and then there’s usually a boss fight. Then you pop out of their brain and they just feel super.
3. I really don’t want to spoil anything, but a few specific details must be mentioned in the interest of selling the game. I had the huge pleasure of knowing absolutely nothing about the game when I played it. If you’re already sold, don’t read the rest of this section. If you’re on the edge, prepare to be shoved. I mentioned that Psychonauts has some sick levels. Here’s a few examples. There’s the part where you’re a big kaiju monster, tearing ass through a city of ugly fish people. Later, you run around a floating, Escher-esque, twisted suburb, avoiding C.I.A. agents. Also, there’s the part where you move play a strategy game on a giant hexagonal grid against Napolean. Plus, you set things on fire with your mind. It’s all pretty boss.
4. The game gets difficult. The learning curve is strange. At first, it goes up very slowly. You think, “Damn, this is easy,” and then all of a sudden it spikes and you have to put on your serious hat. It’s easy to think of this as a negative quality. On one hand, it’s a design flaw to have inconsistent difficulty. But on the other hand, and this really might just be me, varying difficulty makes a game more fun. I’m a huge fan of alternating between the godlike power and humbling frustration. If the same game can make me feel like I’m good at it while also making me run through a challenge more than a couple times to get it right, the feeling of accomplishment from such an experience is perfect. Sometimes we beat games and think, “Thank God that’s over,” or “10 hours? I want my money back.” Psychonauts hits the sweet spot in between.
So that’s all. Go play it right now. It’s available on XBLA and Gametap. Or you could buy a physical copy of it, I suppose. Whatever floats your boat. My boat is floated by teleki-goddamn-nesis.