Psychonauts was originally released in 2005 on the Xbox and was met with limited commercial success despite being received with critical praise, which raises the question: how did consumers know to avoid the game? Prescience would be the most fitting answer—perhaps the discs were printed on psitanium— but it’s far more likely that Majesco simply did not market the game as well as Double Fine would have liked.
Recently, the game was included in Humble Indie Bundle V which, as a gift, brought the game to my immediate attention. I had heard good things about Psychonauts for several years before I finally had a chance to play it. Even though it could be better, I would hesitate to call it a bad game.
The premise of the game is that Razputin, a psychic who escaped from his family’s circus, has run off to Whispering Rock Summer Camp to become a Psychonaut; the camp teaches young psychics how to harness their powers. There is a conspiracy afoot to harvest the brains of the campers, and it’s up to Raz to save the day. There’s a bit more to the plot than this, but the actual plot isn’t important right now.
A story in three acts
The story’s biggest problem is that it’s poorly structured. Raz will say on more than one occasion what is currently going on in the plot; it makes sense within the context of the game world at first because Raz needs to bring the Psychonauts—Ford Cruller, Sasha Nein, and Milla Vodello—up to speed regarding what Coach Oleander is up to. However, the exposition doesn’t stop when supporting cast is brought up to speed! Instead, they take their time to explain events that just happened and outright state what weird symbols and sightings mean. It kills any suspense and comes off as being campy.1
If the story was well-structured then perhaps the excessive exposition could be excused. There are very few natural breaks in the story that indicate now would be a good place to stop playing; if the player was expected to be taking breaks, then the exposition could ostensibly serve to remind the player what happened last time they played. But Psychonauts has a three-act story, and the only good stopping points are four hours into the game and twelve hours in; the ends of act one and act two, respectively.
The first act encompasses Raz arriving at Whispering Rock, Basic Braining (a war-themed tutorial level set in Coach Oleander’s psyche), and his exploration of his own psyche thanks to Sasha’s Brain Tumbler. As I just explained, all of this happens in about four hours, which means you’re just finally getting settled in the world of Psychonauts—and unlocking your first psychic abilities—when the game suddenly goes into the second act.
In the second act we see Dr. Loboto, a mad dentist that harvests brains (who could have seen that coming with a name like LOBOTO?), harvest Dogen’s brain, battle with the first of Oleander’s psychic death tanks, the subsequent reveal that Coach Oleander is up to no good, and the continued abduction of campers. All of these events are prolonged over the course of about eight hours, during which we unlock a few new psychic abilities but never really get a chance to use them.
Act three begins after Raz meets Linda the Lungfish and is brought to the asylum wherein Raz must then locate and collect the missing brains of his fellow campers. Following a confrontation with Dr. Loboto (who had been stealing the brains for Oleander), Raz then fights Oleander in the largest psychic death tank; this is then followed by a romp through Raz’s circus-themed psyche.
The problem with this structure is that minor events just keep coming and nothing major happens until the act changes, causing the player to keep playing until those natural stopping points. Dr. Loboto stealing Dogen’s brain is a great stopping point because we’re no longer familiarizing ourselves with the game world and the stakes are raised: there is evil afoot at the camp. Linda taking Raz to the asylum is the other great stopping point because the stakes are raised even further: we know who is behind this evil plan, we know where the stolen brains are, and Lili—Raz’s newfound girlfriend—has been kidnapped by Loboto.
The story structure is a really big disappointment considering the quality of the writing otherwise. The dialogue is absolutely fantastic. The writing team—composed of Tim Schafer and Erik Wolpaw—has won awards, and deservedly so. The bad story structure stings even more in retrospect considering the work Wolpaw has done since Psychonauts: he wrote Portal and Portal 2, which were amazing. Furthermore, Wolpaw also wrote for OldManMurray.com, a site which many games journalists have cited as huge inspirations for their careers.2
Okay, so the story is poorly structured. How about I talk about something players actually care about? I think that’s a fantastic idea, so I’ll talk about the gameplay.