The hindsight-driven popularity of Psychonauts has grown in leaps and bounds as a cult classic thanks to support from popular critics like Yahtzee and others. The game is a clever combination of adventure gaming with platform elements. Although both Yahtzee and Wikipedia point out that the idea of the game started out as being a peyote hallucination, creative director Tim Schafer’s appearance on the 1Up Podcast explains the final product a bit more clearly. The peyote idea was the start but it eventually evolved into attending a summer camp of psychics and visiting people’s internal dreamscapes. Citing a course in psychology he took at Berkeley, Schafer explains that he found it fascinating that otherwise unpoetic people could develop these elaborate metaphors and modes of expression about their problems. Carl Jung, one of the founders of dream analysis, explains inMemories, Dreams, Reflections
, “Paranoid ideas and hallucinations contain a germ of meaning. A personality, a life history, a pattern of hopes and desires lie behind the psychosis…At bottom we discover nothing new and unknown in the mentally ill; rather, we encounter the substratum of our own natures.” It is this concept that Shafer turned into a game—a game that, if you can get past some gameplay issues, manages to explore subjects far outside the norm.
One of the great strengths of a point and click game is that you have to fill the world with a lot of details. Since the player is going to be looking at and fidgeting with everything, it means that all manner of things have a purpose and story behind them. Doing this makes your environment seem richer and more fulfilling, particularly if the player is able to engage with those details in some meaningful way. Psychonauts’ main hub, the campground, is filled with campers who can all be directly spoken to and be seen interacting in dozens of random conversations. Since these sequences are usually initiated by the player or are only starting when we’re walking around a passive environment they don’t feel as intrusive as cutscenes sometimes during active combat can. Combine this with the outlandish coloring and cartoonish appearance of each person, and the campers are easily distinguishable both visually and by their personality. For example, Chloe is marked by her space helmet and desire to contact aliens, Mikhail has a weird obsession with wrestling bears and Elka is easily recognized because of her constant ramblings about her boyfriend. A game with 25 active characters that are all recognizable and easily differentiated is no small task. These characters are then scattered about the camp and have their own story threads that can be ignored or followed. The game is basically creating an emergent camp drama for its first half. Until you complete a certain mission and night time falls, all of these details and events can be missed or seen by the player. The game itself does not suffer should the player choose to skip them, but the world becomes richer and fuller if they observe them.
On many levels, this peaceful camp setting forms a stark contrast to the chaotic minds that the player must enter psychically. Outside of the occasional wild animal, the camp is a safe place. Once we enter the dreamscapes of the various characters, however, we encounter a world that is no longer orderly or rational. The opening training level is an amalgamation of the battles of Coach Oleander’s past. In a nod to Jung, his primal memories are bizarrely tame and only show his victories and happy memories. We aren’t made aware of the oddness of this normality until we enter subsequent minds and begin to realize that, unlike Oleander, everyone has issues. Every mind has emotional baggage scattered about, which is reflected in the game design by being another item that can be collected by the player. This point is emphasized because the baggage is often loudly crying. Each person’s mindscape will even contrast with the loud sobbing coming from this baggage, such as the party world of Milla Vodello whose internal world makes her into a superstar. Another example would be the orderly mind of Sasha Nein which is mostly grey and dark. The baggage contrasts this color scheme and sticks out aesthetically just as much as it does with the sound. The game design encourages us to notice this because it is collectable and unlocks content, but its emphasis lies in realizing that everyone has issues. Jung comments on the extreme problems of meeting people someone who claim to have no problems and are normal, pointing out that normality is often a shield people put over greater issues that are hidden deep in their psyche. Later on, Oleander’s deceptively “normal” mind will eventually reveal its true nature in the last level when we reach the true mindscape that Oleander was hiding.
The symbolism of the game is equally strong. The opening screen of the game depicts Raz standing on a brain, which represents the player’s mind, so that the game world itself is our own personal dream being played out. When Raz enters his internal dreamscape, he enters the carriage he was born in and emerges from an egg, the symbolic representation of his own life beginning. When we enter the mind of a lungfish who has been mutated to far beyond its original size, we are reminded that it still perceives us as larger than itself. In that dreamscape we are a giant creature despite the boss battle we have just had with this creature. In the game’s most hilarious and clever level, we enter a deranged Milkman’s mind who is obsessed with conspiracy theories. Using the clairvoyance ability, the people in this dreamscape perceive us as 2-D and defined by the items we carry. It shows the simplified worldview and lack of real perception the man’s mind utilizes. The actress whose level consists of people acting out her childhood traumas requires you to defeat the evil critic who is constantly dragging her down. His weapon is a pen. The wrestler whose rage at being dumped in high school manifests into a complex interplay between his rage (which is a bull) that knocks over the tower of cards he is building to his neglected lover. Once the main plot is put into action and the campers have been kidnapped, it becomes night time in the game world. This is a nod to Jung’s dream analysis as well, where night time is the symbolic element of danger and confusion for dreams involving darkness. True to form, the camp will be filled with monsters and devoid of the immersive narrative that we enjoyed during the daytime there.
Marring this excellent game are a few complaints about gameplay and technical issues. When researching this article I could never find much consent about what anyone means by this. Both Yahtzee, the 1Up crew and various forums typically agree that the game’s wonky camera and clunky but easy combat certainly exist but also aren’t deal breakers. What does stick is the difficulty curve of the last level. It isn’t that the camera is causing this problem because by this point you’re used to actively swiveling the thing. And you didn’t get to the last level (The Meat Circus) without already being able to negotiate the game’s flaws anyways. Personally, throughout the game whenever I got stuck with a platforming problem I was always reminded of Insecticide (which you should play if you liked Psychonauts) and a trait that games which meld adventure elements with action always have. They tend to think of the platforming section as a puzzle rather than an act of skill. The developers want you to do one specific thing or use a power in one way to get through the obstacle. In most cases, this is the only thing that will work. The problem is that this goes against the failure feedback of a platforming game: the reaction to failure when jumping is to try to do it better, not try something new. To give an example, the worst moment in the Meat Circus is a circular series of nets you have to jump around while water is filling the tent. The only way to beat it is to use the float ability. The problem is that most people’s impulse is to just double jump since the net is right next to them. Rather than try something new the player thinks they’re not skillful enough and they keep trying again, resulting in a broken feedback loop where the player is failing more than they should.
The last level is a fitting end for a game dealing with psychology and dreams. Raz, while helping the villain confront his father issues, must in turn deal with his own. Throughout the game Raz’s father has been a looming specter, he is coming to take Raz away from the camp and drag him back to the life he is trying to break free from. When confronting the psychological manifestation of Raz’s father in the Meat Circus, the player must jump through various obstacles in an impossible attempt to impress their father. At the end of the level, Raz’s mental impression of his father accuses him of cheating and ignores this accomplishment. It is impossible to win the approval of this awful persona. When the real father arrives using his mental powers he sees firsthand this terrible depiction of himself. He asks Raz, “Is that…really what I look like inside your mind?” The father explains that he was only looking out for our best interests and that he only wanted us safe. The psychological delusion has been undone, the father issues that have been so prevalent in Raz’s mind are resolved and Raz is now liberated from his own personal issues. Jung, while discussing a “normal” patient he encountered, had to discourage the man from pursuing a career in psychoanalysis. Jung comments, “Do you know what it means to be an analyst? It means that you must first learn to know yourself. You yourself are the instrument. If you are not right, how can the patient be made right? You yourself must be the real stuff.” True to Jung’s standards, our reward for conquering Raz’s own issues is to become an official Psychonaut. In this way Psychonauts excels at not just being a wacky game to explore, but also a psychologically hilarious one.