The inside of the human mind is rife for potential in fiction. Filled with complex symbolism, character motivation and history, and the ability to defy the laws of reality at will, it’s kind of an author’s wet dream. That said, it’s not exactly easy to do well. People are complicated on the inside, and making individuals into more than they seem without straying into the realm of cliche or straining credibility is at best a precarious endeavor. On the whole, it’s a challenge seen as best left to the experts. Conversely, video games, as a whole, have a reputation for being puerile and one-dimensional. Perhaps because so many are based on nothing more complex than moving forward and destroying obstacles or running around to fetch random objects, they’re perceived as simplistic, and incapable of the nuance one finds in less interactive media. Certainly, therefore, a video game could not do a story of mindscapes justice, could it? And yet, Tim Schaefer and the immensely talented Double Fine crew did just that with the cult classic Psychonauts.
Psychonauts is the story of Razputin “Raz” Aquato, an adolescent circus acrobat with psychic abilities who runs away from home to attend the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. While he is caught by the counselors rather quickly, he is allowed to attend camp functions while waiting for his parents to arrive. During the course of his stay, Raz shows remarkable promise, becomes friends with several of his fellow campers, and gains the attention of the counselors who are interested in his potential. He also learns of a plot to steal the brains of his fellow campers and use them as weapons of mass destruction.
Psychonauts is a game with many hats. For one thing, as it was created by the people who made the Monkey Island franchise, it is possessed of a great deal of humor; however, the game is anything but shallow. One of the most important aspects of the game is going inside people’s minds. Every mind is unique, with various challenges and obstacles relevant to the individuals in question. Raz also learns about the backstories of the other characters by capturing their psychic baggage, and for all that a player may think they know, every character is multi-dimensional and feels like a real person.
The gameplay itself is unsurprisingly fun. Raz gains a wide variety of psychic powers as the game progresses, including psychic blasts, levitation, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and clairvoyance (the ability to see through the eyes of other characters, which is tons of fun). As the game goes on, his powers allow him to explore more of the camp, as well as the minds of other characters.
It’s visually stunning as well. The mindscapes range from downright literal to the incredibly bizarre, including a stage resembling a Japanese kaiju monster movie, a creepy suburbia, the horrifying meat circus, and my personal favorite, Black Velvetopia.
There are also all the little details which add to the game. Every one of Raz’s fellow campers, regardless of how insignificant to the story they are, each have unique personalities and reactions to every object Raz shows them. It really seems like a live-in world, and one rife with potential for expansion. Unfortunately, the game suffered poor sales when first released, and because it was such a complex labor of love, it was extremely expensive to make. Given this, it remains somewhat obscure and underground. There have been rumors of a sequel being made, but due to the cost involved, this has yet to happen. Still, one can download the game rather easily on Steam, and Double Fine has recently received quite an influx of money, so perhaps in the future there will be more.
I can’t recommend this one highly enough. If you haven’t played it and you like video games at all, you owe it to yourself to play Psychonauts!