If there is one thing that Tim Schafer, creator of Psychonauts, knows how to do, it’s tell a good story. This game, like his other classic adventure games, has a deep and engaging storyline with characters that the player actually cares about. And perhaps the most obvious and memorable part of the experience is the lighthearted sense of humor throughout the game. The complex story, narrative structure, and how story elements such as cutscenes are used make the play characteristics of Psychonauts predominantly narrative.
Psychonauts is a genuine platformer with some fun action-adventure elements. You play as Razputin (“Raz” for short), a young boy who escapes to Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp because his psychic abilities have made him the outcast at home. He comes to camp to train with people like himself, but when it is discovered that he snuck in, the counselors (here, psychic instructors) say that they will call Raz’s parents the next day.
Lucky for Raz, though unlucky for everyone else, strange things start to happen at the camp: students have turned into brainless zombies, the instructors have gone missing, and there is word of a monster in the lake. Raz realizes that it is up to him to get to the bottom of it all. With his basic abilities (from the first day of camp) to enter people’s minds, he tracks down people who can tell him what he needs to know and enters their mind, trying to defeat their personal demons so that they will help him on his mission.
As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, Raz finds that one of the instructors, Coach Oleander, and the evil mastermind, Dr. Loboto, have teamed up to steal the campers’ brains in order to power a psychic tank. Raz must battle Oleander and Loboto to save the camp and stop their plans of psychic domination. And if he survives this, he must battle his own demons of his father’s disapproval of his psychic powers. (As a final spoiler, Raz discovers that his father is a powerful psychic himself and simply dissuaded his son to hide his gifts to protect him from their family’s many enemies).
There is a collection of traditional plot elements here in the game. The initial complication in the story is a betrayal. Coach Oleander, the Phys Ed instructor at the camp, had turned against the camp and plotted to steal the brains of all the campers. His teaming up with Dr. Loboto is the main conflict that Raz has to deal with for the first three-quarters of the game.
As the game progresses, Raz seeks the approval of an older mentor, Ford Cruller, who we find near the end is the ultimate Professor-Xavier-like leader of the Psychonauts. Cruller is there to give Raz advice and to teach him how to use some new psychic powers. There is also acquisition of “magic” (here psychic powers) and strength. This is the combat mechanic in the game and the incremental challenges in the story that Raz must complete. Raz also gets some “magical” aid from others along the way.
The game, as so many platformers are, is a hero tale. But this tale is slightly different than others. It is a coming of age tale but this idea is a bit strange because the protagonist is a young boy of about twelve years of age. Raz, in being forced to step up and save the day, matures, gains confidence, and becomes more extroverted. On its basic level, this is a very typical story of the unlikely “school” kid doing something extraordinary. There is also, of course, recognition of evil and a resolution to confront them. Here, with twists and turns along the way, evil moves from Raz’s personal demons to Oleander to Dr. Loboto to his father.
The discovery of who is evil, what they have planned, and how to stop them are the basic narrative plot pieces found throughout the game. Since Raz is just a boy, and an amateur Psychonaut, he needs the help of others to move him along. He is helped by the instructors (Oleander at the beginning, Sasha, and Milla), Ford Cruller (who serves at the store owner-where items are purchased, psychic instructor, hint giver, and the person Raz visits to cash in his collectables-to level up and gain more psychic abilities), and eventually his father.
In the story there are also standard archetypes. Some characters include the stereotypical kid bully, shy love interest, and evil genius hell-bent on world domination. Where the story brings a unique touch is in the idea of “The Misfit.” In this game, Raz escapes home to find himself a misfit amongst misfits. At camp, he’s a normal kid. And he has to embrace his misfit-ness to eventually save the day in a sort of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” way that seems to serve as the sappy underlying moral of the story.
The psychological functions of this hero tale are also very interesting. The game (as in the majority of the levels and the major conflict) focused around fear and emotional issues. There is tension between Raz’s unhappiness at home and his comfort at camp, between the safe camp and the dangerous unknown mysteries occurring, and between Raz’s growing psychic abilities and his maturity to handle them with care.
With these things weighing on Raz’s mind, they all culminate in final battle. Here, Raz has to face his fear of his father’s disapproval. His father pressured Raz to join them as circus performers so he is forced to enter a circus-style level with an evil incarnation of his father constantly nagging him where he has to use his powers and agility to survive various trapeze, knife-throwing, and canon obstacles.
The character design of Raz lends well to the narrative mood of the game. His look, voice, and behavior is sympathetic and makes the player want to help this kid save the day. He looks odd, as do all characters in the game and in most of Tim Schafer’s adventures, which an oversized head, aviator cap and goggles, and gloves.
His voice is a bit rough a nerdy, but not in an uber-intellectual/semi-pomous way. The instructors immediately see amazing ability and potential in Raz, which musters excited feelings that the player you are controlling is somehow a “chosen one.” Raz’s personality is what hooks you, though. He is very driven and excited to study with the Psychonauts. His eagerness and his sharp wit that grounds him a bit makes the player excited to see what happens next because he genuinely seems to be.
The game does a nice job of distinguishing between characters. Aside from some frisky woodland creatures, there are no enemies in the real world so all of the characters are “friends.” This is the area for exploration, collection, and ability management, not combat. In the mental world, though, essentially everyone you encounter is an enemy. All of these enemies are easy to identify because they are either small (size-wise) characters found in large numbers.
These take the form of Censors, who are small men in suits and glasses who try to stamp out all strange thoughts and foreign invaders (Raz) in the mind, and Personal Demons, which are pesky green alien-looking critters who follow Raz and blow up around him. These are found all around the mental level. At the end of each of these is some sort of boss-the main source of that person’s fear. All of the enemies in the game look menacing and gruesome in appearance, and look nothing like other characters so distinguishing between them is no problem.
The dramatic structure in the game is fairly basic. Each new chapter of the game starts in the real world. Here you can explore the surroundings, talk to campers to get a short cutscene and snippet of their character and personalities, hunt down collectables and cash them in for items or increased rank. There are no enemies here. You are usually directed at the previous stage to visit someone in this new stage who will provide you with information or send you on your way (often an instructor). Once you find the person, there is a cutscene that provides relaxation and informs you briefly where you will be going in the mental world (whose mind) and for what reason.
Just before entering the mental world, you are typically given a new psychic power (represented as a training certificate at this point) that you briefly test out when you enter someone’s mind. In the mental world, you can collect some scattered items and you have to battle Censors and/or Personal Demons and make your way (platforming) to the boss of the stage. Once defeated, you return to the real world and are given information about meeting up with someone else. You are also officially given the psychic power (represented by a merit badge) to use when you want from that point forward. This process is repeated in each new location.
The cutscenes in the game serves all types of purposes. They can range in length from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the situation. Throughout the game, the cutscenes serve all of the basic functions. They show what is ahead (surveillance-as in showing the steps of an obstacle course). They thrust the player into a new situation (catapult-as in showing when Raz has entered a new mind in the mental world). They establish mood (mood-as in when the lake and the suspected “monster” are sort of shown to explain Raz’s fear of water). They show outcomes (consequences-as in when a kid is shown blown up after going the wrong way on the obstacle course).
They serve as a break in the action and they also serve as a treat available through success (rhythm and reward-as in when Raz is shown victorious after racing the bully). Perhaps obvious at this point, cutscenes have a major role in a game such as this where an involved story is the focus.
Psychonauts is essentially a game made story-like, but this method has consequences. As in the description, the player is prevented from changing the form, content, and structure of the game. This game, though having a deep story and some complex gameplay elements, is fairly linear in terms of progression. There is one ending (unless you die, in which case there is no “ending”) and there isn’t a whole lot of deviation from this path. There is, however, some say as to what the player’s experience is along this path. This has to do with some customizability.
You are unable to customize your appearance, unfortunately, but you can customize your level of involvement. For example, you can choose to spend large amounts of time exploring and collecting in the real world in order to level up faster, or you can choose to collect only the bare minimum to proceed. The difference here is that collecting might make the battles in the mental world much easier, but the amount of time spend in the mental world is lengthened quite a bit.
On the other hand, collecting only the bare minimum could mean a tougher road and not being able to buy certain items (specific levels are needed to purchase various items) to find more narrative elements (such as not being able to find the safes, which show memories of the person’s head you are in, giving more depth to the story and explaining some character traits).
So what does all this mean in terms of meaningful play? I believe that with characters, environments, and concepts are weird as these, narrative play is the best way to properly express these ideas. Simulation, for instance, would be difficult to conceptualize and somewhat unnecessary in a game world like this. Social play also wouldn’t work in terms of design because the complexity and variety of powers would be difficult to implement online without losing the cheesy fun factor (i.e. it would go the way of the typical “serious” Fantasy MMORPG-World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, etc).
And the fact that it is not online (and that it didn’t sell particularly well) makes the idea of a social aspect of the game moot. Psychonauts is not at all an especially difficult game and with simple controls, a deep, engaging story, and developed and lovable characters, the game works best as a game that tells a great story.