A Paean to Psychonauts
(Originally posted on 1UP.com, July 7, 2005.
Yeah, I liked this game quite a bit.)
I should have written this a while ago, but I didn’t have time for the same reason I didn’t have time for anything else. Anyway, the subject is Psychonauts and the predicate is “should be experienced by everyone.” If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the game for this long, you really ought to give it a try. I can’t promise that everyone will like it, but if you don’t then there’s really no helping you. It’s available on Xbox, PC, and PS2 now, which should cover just about everyone. If you plan to buy it, do look into Double Fine’s store, since they get more money that way and have a better chance of making a game like this again.
Normally I’d go on to explain why the game is actually worth playing, but Susan already covered it pretty well, so I won’t go into too much detail. I will say that it’s probably the funniest game I’ve ever played—this is a game that has its comic timing down, and often caught me off guard with jokes at the most unexpected times. The delivery is essentially perfect too (though this also applies to the more serious parts), and it all adds up to make the game genuinely good as a comedy, not just something clever or quirky. A level like Lungfishopolis would have been merely wacky in a lesser game, but in Psychonauts it left me laughing aloud every time I interacted with the lungfish rebels. I’d be doing the game a great disservice by trying to reproduce any jokes here, without context or voicing, so I won’t. But believe me when I say that most other supposedly funny games pale in comparison.
Psychonauts is more than just a comedy, though. It never drops its sense of humor entirely, but it also includes some rather deep character studies and an intricate use of symbolism that puts many serious games to shame. The levels are utterly creative and fascinating, but what makes them even more interesting is that each is contained within a character’s mind, so that every object and event really stands for something about that character. The game lets the symbolism serve its purpose, too—it never hits you over the head with blatant explanations of what everything is supposed to mean, but you’ll come to understand anyway because the symbols are chosen well and used in a meaningful way. Some particularly impressive minds are The Milkman Conspiracy, which makes little sense on the surface but at the same time lets you see exactly how Boyd’s mind works; Gloria’s Theater, an inspired, complex and elegant segment fraught with representations of the conflicting aspects of Gloria’s personality; and Black Velvetopia, with its layers upon layers of Edgar’s turmoil as well as its great sense of style.
As fascinating, hilarious, and fun to play as Psychonauts is, it wasn’t a rational analysis of these traits that made me think the game was great. No, I realized I truly loved the game a few weeks ago, when I played it for over ten hours in a single weekend. I didn’t mean to, but every time I sat down to play I simply couldn’t make myself stop until several hours had passed. On that Friday was a three-hour session, on Saturday were two three-hour sessions, and on Sunday was less, but only because I’d already finished the game. I haven’t even escaped its grip since then; a couple days ago I found myself playing for two or three hours just to collect various objects I’d missed, which isn’t even as interesting as progressing through the story. The dilemma now is that I really ought to spend time with the other games I own, but I just can’t bear to but Psychonauts back on the shelf and say I’m done with it.
I think this is the true mark of greatness. Not the “play for three hours” thing specifically, but the fact that the game impacted me in some way beyond my rational ability to explain. Now, I like to look at games analytically and see what really makes them succeed or fail, but this only goes so far. I believe that enjoyment in its deepest sense is something that can only be understood emotionally, not rationally, and the only way to know that a game is truly great is to play it and feel something special. This can take different forms—Silent Hill 3 had me wanting to applaud at the end, Beyond Good and Evil left me profoundly disappointed when it was over and I realized there was nothing new to see, and Psychonauts wouldn’t let me quit—but it’s something that only comes from the experience of play. You can’t get this through study or analysis; you just know it when it happens.
I don’t think the importance of an emotional response runs against my interest in analyzing games. After all, it is the interaction of all a game’s components that lead to the final experience, and you’re less likely to find a good game where the parts are lacking. But I do believe that games can only truly be judged holistically, and that (to use the cliche) they’re often more, or less, than the sum of their parts. For my own potential game creation endeavors, I think there’s a lot I can learn by analyzing parts of games, but I will also not lose sight of the fact that the true emotional impact—the artistry of the game—comes in how these parts are put together, and can only be understood by looking at the entire product.
Psychonauts isn’t perfect in every way (though my only real complaint would be that the last level is too hard), but it doesn’t matter. The game fits together in a way that is simply right, and the end result is clearly the best game I’ve played this year. If you haven’t tried it yet, you’re really only hurting yourself.