This week, in honor of The Escapist's Game Circle game of the month, Yahtzee throws down on Psychonauts and you, the consumer.
I want you to take part in a little practical demonstration for me. I want you to find a pen, or some other similarly dimensioned object in the Cheeto-scented detritus surrounding your computer keyboard. Pause the video and get one. Seriously, do it. Don't keep watching waiting to see where I'm going with this; just do it.
Right, once you've got one, insert it between the second and third fingers of one of your hands, as shown. Now when I'm finished talking, pause the video again and use your other hand to squeeze your fingers inwards towards the pen.
You may have noticed that this really fucking hurts and that you are now in a great amount of pain. Congratulations, you have just received your punishment for not buying Psychonauts. I'd like to know how you think gaming is ever going to adapt as an art form if people go out of their way to make original games, but fuckwits like you never actually buy them because they're too busy inhaling furious amounts of dick. (If you did buy Psychonauts, please disregard the preceding.)
The mind behind Psychonauts belongs to Tim Schafer, a luminary of LucasArts in the days when LucasArts was the foremost developer of clever, smart, funny adventure games like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle before LucasArts decided to axe the Cleverness Division in favour of the "Milking the Star Wars License Until Its Udders Turn into Little Black Stalactites" Department. So while LucasArts dedicated themselves to fondling George Lucas improperly for the rest of his life, the jobless members of the Cleverness Division went out and founded new companies, one of which was Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions, whose first release was Psychonauts.
The story goes that while working on Full Throttle for LucasArts, Schafer envisioned a sequence wherein the main character underwent a peyote-fueled psychological dream subconscious journey-thing, but the bigwigs rejected the idea because it wasn't "family-friendly" enough. Incidentally, the released Full Throttle featured hardcore biker gangs, bludgeoning murder and more than one person getting chainsawed in the face. So perhaps this was the early warning sign that LucasArts bigwigs are all a bunch of chimps with Down Syndrome. But that idea festered and eventually blossomed into Psychonauts and because no one buys adventure games anymore since the stupid virus epidemic of the late 90s, it was made into one of those hard-to-classify games that usually get uninformatively termed an "Action-Adventure" by the invisible pigeonholing council.
One of the themes running through Schafer's humour is the juxtaposition of a mundane situation in a bizarre or fantastical setting (see Grim Fandango), and Psychonauts continues this tradition by being set in a summer camp for psychics. The story follows the adventures of Raz, a child acrobat who, in deference of tradition, runs away from home to escape the circus rather than join it, and whose natural psychic talent allows him to insinuate himself into the camp without paying tuition fees. Shortly however, karma bites him in the arse when he finds himself embroiled in a sinister plot and having to explore strange, ethereal worlds based on the subconscious minds of those around him. It's all kind of like if Tim Burton knocked up David Lynch in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and he did meth right up until the birth.
Psychonauts seems like a rather polarizing game, in that some people seem to think it's the kind of thing Jesus would make if he was alive and wasn't a pussy, and some other people feel it's a chunky vomit milkshake severely over-hyped by the people in Party A. Which group you'll fall into depends on whether you're the kind of misty-eyed games-are-art hippie who can allow things like excellent story-telling and charming artistic direction excuse a few gameplay issues, or if you're the kind of twitching, Ritalin-popping Xbox owner who falls into a narcoleptic coma when they go without killing something for forty-five seconds.
There are gameplay issues indeed. In embracing action, platform, adventure bollocks, this is Schafer's first attempt at any genre other than adventure unless you count the godawful combat sequence in Full Throttle, and the inexperience shows. The platforming handles a bit dodgily at times, the side-quests are all just scavenger hunts at various levels of unfairness, the combat is meh, and it has a really weird difficulty curve - virtually the entire first half of the game consists of training missions and towards the very end, the difficulty suddenly jumps like it found a tarantula under its toilet seat and the last few levels are exercises in controller-snapping frustration. But I obviously like the game or I wouldn't have made you cripple yourself at the start of this review, so let's move on to the good bits.
It's tempting just to write "everything else" and knock off for lunch but I like to think I'm more professional than that, so here goes. Firstly, it's something original in an industry that seems to be built on ripping off everyone else. Secondly, it's genuinely funny, while most video games attempting humor are like unanesthetized bowel surgery. Thirdly, every single character is well defined with their own quirks and personalities, even the tiny unimportant bit part players that get less screen time than Christopher Lee in the last Lord Of The Rings film. And lastly, it's fun. Remember that? Fun? What we used to have before gaming felt like a second job?
I'm just going to list out of context some of the things that occur in Psychonauts: A telekinetic bear. A dentist who harvests brains. A sequence wherein you become a giant Godzilla style monster and terrorize a society of talking fish. And a shadowy trench-coated government agent who disguises himself as a housewife by brandishing a rolling pin and talking disjointedly about pies. A game that features all of these things simply cannot be criticized. It's against the law or something.
Psychonauts was released on every console that matters and the PC version is available on Steam now, so your next course of action should probably be to buy it if you haven't already. I like to think we're not all so jaded that we can let a few handling issues ruin our enjoyment of a game that allows you to set squirrels on fire, so stop whining and just enjoy it for what it is, you craven douche.
Ejected from the nostrils of Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw.
"Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix
"I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly
Also I found that photo of Tim Schafer on google image search so I don't know if it's still accurate, he might have lost weight or grown a beard since then.
Stop telling me what you think twing twang means.
- The Zero Punctuation episode of the game (originally released on July 21, 2011) was taken down from YouTube due to a copyright dispute with the music of the intro and outro, so it was eventually fixed up and re-uploaded on August 14, 2021, over ten years after the original airdate on YouTube.