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Dispatches: Psychonauts, Part One; Or: Not-So Pleasant Dreams

Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t quite know what to say, yet.

I’ve come to Tim Schafer’s premier platformer, Psychonauts, with nothing but the best intentions and expectations. I know of his reputation as an adventure game designer from the LucasArts days, and I know the old adage of not judging a book by its cover. Heck, as a writer myself I tend to take it as far as you shouldn’t judge a book by the first few pages you’re likely to leaf through in Barnes & Noble, since that alone isn’t going to show you everything a piece of literature has to offer. In our Cable TV world it’s very easy to decide whether or not to watch all of a film based on the strength of its first few minutes, but nobody decides to purchase a movie ticket or DVD on that same criteria (not that you’d be able to, anyway, except if you were renting or merely ducking into a theater to play peekaboo with the projector). Therefore, I realize that I cannot render an immediate judgment of this game until I’ve sat with it for at least another hour or two more, but after this first triplet of quarter-hours, all I can say with definitiveness is this:

I didn’t have fun.

Aren't brains supposed to be gray? Like it matters.
First Playthrough– 45 minutes

Maybe it’s because it takes so long for the game’s action to begin. Now, I’ve played plenty of titles that ask you to sit through a fair deal of cut-scenes before actual interaction starts; any given MGS game could have you watching mission briefing for an hour or two before Snake starts sneaking, for example. However, most of those games gave you something to do in the meantime, allowing you to control the camera angle and perform zooms, or at least made a bulk of the expository cut-scenes fairly optional. Psychonauts, however, gives you about four or five scenes before you actually assume control of the game’s protagonist, Raz, during which we’re treated to a set-up of setting and characters that manages to be short but somehow drag at the same time.

Maybe this is only really upsetting to me because of the potential created by the game’s opening selection sequence, seen above, which stands as a nicely in-medeas-res gameplay bit. Instead of offering the same-old series of title screens and menus, Psychonauts posits the player in immediate control over Raz, standing on a floating brain which bears two doors– new or saved game. It’s a nice, though very limited, area for players to run and jump through, and something I don’t see designers building into their games very often. I wish Schafer had sold the idea further and allowed us to assume control of all Raz’ starter abilities– psychic punch, double jump, etc– but all in all it’s a good little piece of hands-on activity right off the bat, and the fact that we jump from here into a series of non-interactive moments feels somewhat unsatisfying.

Granted, on a scale of frustration that games can cause, this one’s small. Barely a blip, in the long run. What comes next, however, as you begin playing, rates much higher, unfortunately.

Now, again, maybe it’ll take a little while longer for me to get used to this game and its idiosyncrasies, but so far the main thing I’m getting from it is clutter. The game’s art design is interesting enough, though doesn’t feel entirely right to me in 3D. I’m not talking about the lower polygon rate– Schafer’s probably not working with the same budgets somebody like, say, Miyamoto is used to, and one can tell that he’s stretching that budget to push the hardware as far as he can possibly take it by overflowing the frame and levels with abundant elements and details– but rather, I find that the style in which he works seems to operate best in two-dimensional drawings, rather than three-dimensional renderings. While a lot of his design can be fairly clever (Raz’ aviator cap and goggles, Sasha Nein’s MiB style suit and sunglasses with differently sized lenses) the way in which it’s brought to life in polygons can range from awkward (the dayglo GoGo/Gypsy looking empath woman could’ve taken another stab, as she comes across less as graceful and mysterious and more as gangly and clumsy) to cliche (the semi-goth girl with the pigtails doesn’t just look like something ripped off from a t-shirt at Hot Topic, she looks like the same semi-goth girls who’d actually shop there to begin with) and just plain downright ugly (the blueskinned kid with the redhead afro– yes, I know he’s supposed to look less than attractive, but the way his polygons come together is just aesthetically unappealing.)

It reminds me of how the guy who designed the characters for Neon Genesis Evangelion, or whatever it’s called, was reluctant to work on .hack at first, saying that as an artist who’d worked exclusively in two-dimensional animation, he didn’t think his designs would be translated effectively into three-dimensional games. There’s something akin to that with Schafer, though I’ll admit he’s already made the transition to 3D graphics with the LucasArts swansong Grim Fandango. There, however, with the static camera angles he could correctly control exactly how his characters and environments would look, and make sure it all matched up to what he wanted. In Psychonauts, with its player-controllable camera, he has a far lesser degree of authority over the presentation of the game’s graphics, making everything a bit less polished and confident than other, more assured creators working under the same circumstances.

Maybe it’s just first time jitters, jumping from point-and-click/adventure static play to platformer/action momentum, and maybe it’s something I’ll grow a bit more used to as time goes along. Schafer’s vision in this game seems as kaleidoscopic as Terry Gilliam’s has been in films like Brazil, but that’s something that doesn’t quite suit itself to the three-dimensionality of game camera control. If you’re going to present the type of density that Psychonauts does, it might behoove you to make the camera as adaptive as possible, naturally settling into the landscapes and angles you naturally want the audience to see, the way it does for titles like Ico or God of War. True, neither of those have the abundance of elements in every direction that Schafer piles in in this game, but it’s a lesson worth considering, at the very least. As our esteemed friends Stephen and N’Gai agreed before, putting the camera in the player’s control is a bit like asking them to work as a director while they’re playing the game, and in Psychonauts it’s as if you’ve been asked to be a director on the most hectic, confusing movie set imaginable.

A bit more focus would’ve helped, especially in these early sections, but hopefully as time goes on my own sensibilities will grow used to this kitchen-sink approach.

As far as gameplay goes, I must say that I found this first half-hour or so of playable material to be pretty thin, stiff and increasingly dependent upon its sense of humor, which slowly but surely is overstaying its welcome. One of the consequences of the awkward art-design and camera is that you can’t always see what you’re supposed to see– ropes, poles and climbing nets are especially difficult to find, at first. Worse than that, however, is the fact that in the opening levels there really isn’t that much to do. Challenges in the General’s mind aren’t very challenging– basic jumps, avoiding pitfalls and firetraps, yet nothing in the way of enemies besides a very short whack-a-mole training exercise, which is ironic considering the war-theme of the world. All you do is run around running through “figments,” which isn’t even as satisfying as collecting coins in a Mario game, finding tickets to afix to “emotional baggage” (which frankly isn’t even funny the first time– just like Raz’s energy being referred to as “mental health”– and becomes just plain annoying when the celebratory music kicks in for the happy pieces of luggage to dance to) and basically make it to the end in one piece. If there is any challenge here, it’s the same type of stuff we’ve played through a million times in 3D platformers since Super Mario 64, and it’s grating to me for this level to feature so much in the way of instructive design, since probably anyone playing this is likely already well-versed in the mechanics. Sure, you can have an introductory level to let players get used to the game itself, but we don’t need artificially constructed jumps and traps that are obviously geared towards rookies that don’t exist, or constant interruption-instruction screens and cut-scenes that just plain get in the way.

Now, I can understand some of what’s going on here. If this level amounts to a basic, condescending obstacle course, it’s because it is a basic, condescending obstacle course. Our abilities match those of Raz– we’re as adept at games immediately as he is at telekenetic swashbuckling. Furthermore, I can understand how this works in the pacing of the game overall, and if the game’s starting out slow now, as it did in Snatcher, it only means that things are going to get that much more hectic and demanding as time goes on. The story hasn’t actually begun yet, so that makes sense. Still, the empty space here isn’t handled quite as well as I might’ve hoped. Right now the rising action’s a very slow incline, and if this game’s going to pose a significant challenge it’d better turn into a much steeper climb relatively soon.

M.C. Escher, eat your heart out.

Second Playthrough– One Hour

Crap. And I was almost prepared to actually report back that I’d enjoyed myself this time.

See, this time I reached the mind-level of the game’s resident MiB styled agent, Sasha Nein, which proves to be the game’s winning design element so far. Remember when I mentioned how I’d enjoyed the game’s introductory brain-game selection screen? Well, I got the same feeling here, in Nein’s mind, and I believe it’s at least partly because they’re based on the same philosophy of inhabiting a self-contained, non-expansive 3D object. That is to say, both the brain and Nein’s levels are structured as little planetoids that little Raz runs around on, a little like the asteroid with the flower from The Little Prince. Nein’s level is especially interesting, constructed as a kind-of Kafka-esque Rubik’s cube, out of whose faces erupt enemies, platforms and all sorts of different challenges. Players can run across each gravity-defying side as they please, but only one at a time spews forth any of the level’s main obstacle courses. Consequently, the space is much better organized than the rest of Schafer’s sprawling, overflowing examples of overpopulated, overcrowded overworlds. Instead of density, we get deconstruction. Instead of flooding, we have focus.

Schafer does a genuinely good job designing for a 3D space here, because he realizes the sculptorly potential of the medium, rather than attempt to transpose 2D level types onto next-generation platform capabilities. Looking at these levels, it’s not impossible to imagine that Miyamoto might’ve been inspired to take a page from him when sitting down to make Super Mario Galaxies, which seems to be based on this same 3D spherical planetoid design philosophy. It’s the logical next step from Super Mario 64 that Sunshine woefully ignored, and the fact that Psychonauts picked up on its proves that it’s got a bit more up its poorly-rendered polygonal sleeves than I initially gave it credit for. Furthermore, one can also see a 2D precedent for this model in the overlooked Miyamoto gem Yoshi’s Island, which did very much the same thing for one boss-fight with flat platforming.

I really admire Schafer’s recognition of how well this Rubik’s Cube approach works for designing 3D levels, and while I view this design a vastly superior to the relative slopiness of the rest of the game’s disorganized environments, I’ll admit you couldn’t really pull this off as the game’s only level variety, at least not unless you didn’t want this to stand out. All that being said, though, this playthrough has got one big, gaping flaw in it, something I’ve never had to deal with before in any of my console gaming, and it’s one which the game really has no excuse for.

Midway through the Sasha Nein level, the game froze.

I’m serious. This has never happened to any of my games from the NES all the way to the Wii. Sure, there’ve been games I haven’t been able to start playing, period (at least not without about an hour’s worth of blowing into the cartridge), but I’ve never seen a console game just plain freeze like this. That’s a technical glitch, of course, but it’s a pathetic one. Because of that, I’m going to have to play this hour all over again, the first forty-five minute’s worth stand as the same wretched mess before the gem of the Nein-Rubik level. I’m sorry, but for a big, triple A title to be released nowadays with a bug that friggin’ big just feels unprofessional to me, and even if all it proves is that Schafer might’ve been unfairly rushed to test this product and get it out the door, I really can’t take this kind of botch-up as an acceptable loss. Way to make sure a game’s playable as possible, guys.

Anyway. Next time, hopefully, I’ll get past these problems and move onto the next set of challenges the game provides, which will also, hopefully, stand up to the example of Schafer’s Rubik Cube approach, rather than the rest of his cobweb-addled maps. Until then, pleasant dreamers, take a deep breath, keep your fingers crossed and placed squarely on the reset button, just in case…

5 Comments

  1. Charles wrote:

    Dude, I hate to break it to you, but games freezing usually isn’t a problem with the software. My guess is that that isn’t a bug, it’s your Playstation (or XBox) overheating. I’ve played the sequence in Psychonauts several times and it’s never crashed on me.

    Monday, July 23, 2007 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    I’d checked the system when the game froze to see if that was the problem when I had to press reset, but it didn’t feel any warmer than usual. Frankly, my PS2 has never overheated on me, even on much longer playthroughs, lasting several hours instead of barely one. Anything’s possible, I’ll grant you, but considering how glitchy the rest of the game is so far, I remain skeptical of your assessment.

    Monday, July 23, 2007 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  3. frank wrote:

    I am the milkman, I deliver the milk.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 5:15 am | Permalink
  4. 1 wrote:

    First off, you are wrong about the art direction- Psychonauts’ characters and environments are a breath of fresh air after all these games featuring basically the same protagonist and war-torn battlefields that make you wonder if you might be colorblind.

    Your problem is that you think of Psychonauts as just a game, a platformer with familiar controls (and if you ask anyone, they will eather blink or agree). I noticed that you mentioned the game’s sucky character models and long intro cutsceens, but you avoided describing the content of these cutscenes, or that the crudly rendered wire meshes that you loath so just happen to have souls. You credit Schafer for many things, such as the startup screen and the artwork, which are truely the work of artists and startup screen dudes, but you ignore his real contribution: His writing nearly each of the dozens of characters’ dialogue. The thing about those character models; every one of them is alive. Their snappy comebacks to you punching them make them more vivid than any realistic AI in Oblivion. When you play the game again, you will notice that behind the dialogue and monologues lie the characters thoughts, histories, and ambition. When you actually go inside their heads you will not find any “levels;” you will find other worlds, diferent, unique, and real enough that only someone who lurks in the Sea of Sarcasm would snear and say “Crappy platforming.” Psychonauts is not a platformer, it is an experience, a trip to camp where counsolers levitate and mad scientists steal brains with the help of giant lungfish. That, professor, is beyond your precious game design.

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 2:39 am | Permalink
  5. Charles wrote:

    I picked it up and started playing some old save files again and I have to say that the Achilles Heel of this game is definitely its first few hours. The middle and end levels all seem like these really interesting experiments with space, in a similar way to the Rubik’s Cube. I have to applaud this because it really is something that you don’t see very often in 3D games, which are all pretty Cartesian. It’s also different from hwo I used to remember it, which was mostly as a funny script inserted into a pretty bland platformer. Now it seems more like a strangely daring platformer/adventure with a funny script that is unfortunately ham-strung by coddling and terrible graphics.

    Thursday, August 9, 2007 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

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