One Giant Leap, 2005: Psychonauts

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: A legendary adventure game developer branches out with Psychonauts

I have mentioned a few times before in this series that the platformer as a genre developed primarily on consoles rather than PCs. Which is not especially unusual; especially pre ~2010 the two spaces were pretty divergent, with different genres finding homes in only one of them, or else having to significantly alter themselves to crossover (compare console FPSes to their PC counterparts). One genre that was tied to PCs about as much as platformers are to consoles is the point and click adventure game. This is a genre based on sharp writing and puzzles rather than real-time action, and in the 80s and 90s it was thriving. One of many household1 names to come out of this space was a man named Tim Schafer. Schafer worked at LucasArts in the 90s, co-writing smash hits like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle before becoming the project lead on Full Throttle and Grim Fandango.

But adventure games as a genre fell on hard times as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, with even highly acclaimed titles like Shafer’s Grim Fandango failing to live up to sales expectations. It was clearly time for a pivot. So Shafer left LucasArts and founded his own studio, Double Fine, and also left the adventure genre behind for something more modern. Or, well, I’m sure that was his intention…

I have heard before that Psychonauts was originally intended to release in 2001, as an Xbox launch title, before entering development hell. It was certainly meant to release several years before it ultimately did. And to a certain extent that’s obvious based on the game’s genre. We haven’t yet seen the signs in this column, but by 2005 the platformer was not the dominant force it had once been. Developers were far more interested in riffing on games like Halo or Grand Theft Auto III than they were Banjo-Kazooie. So, a man escaping a dying2 genre choosing to start a new chapter with a collect-a-thon platformer late into the PS2 era is sort of darkly funny.

But we wouldn’t be talking about Psychonauts if it were just some behind-the-times throwback. Double Fine’s roots in adventure games aren’t just a fun way to open an article, they show up pretty clearly in Psychonauts itself. We’re on a bit of a streak of “games with the best writing we’ve seen featured in this column so far” here, as Psychonauts once again raises the bar in this regard. This is a very funny game. In addition, the words are well-realized; the main conceit of Psychonauts is that you’re a psychic entering the minds of other people, and the game’s levels are made to reflect their host. For instance, one memorable level sees you entering the mind of a paranoid conspiracist, and his mind is a literally twisted suburban neighborhood filled with shadowy secret agents and secret societies entangled in a web of lies that you have to uncover.

Gravity shifts alongside the street, which the game handles surprisingly well

But beyond the writing we see adventure game roots in the gameplay as well. The bread and butter mechanic for adventure games is the inventory puzzle, where the player collects items from one part of the game and uses them in another to progress, and we see some of this in Psychonauts. Going back to the Milkman Conspiracy level3 large areas of the level are roped off by G-Men who are “in disguise” and will only let you through if your disguise matches theirs. You have to collect the proper disguise items from one part of the level in order to bypass the blockade in another; in other words, the most basic form of inventory puzzle.

The disguises are hilarious as well. Here we see a normal plumber, doing normal plumber things and definitely blending in

Unfortunately, all the creativity in the world couldn’t save Psychonauts on the sales charts. A brand new IP from a brand new studio in a declining genre didn’t exactly grab players en masse. This game tanked hard, driving publisher Majesco away from video games forever and nearly killing developer Double Fine as well. But, thankfully, just enough people played it for the game to begin a second life as a cult hit, a game that built a reputation by word-of-mouth. A few years later a mildly updated Steam port would be released that would sell a bit better, and eventually4 the game even got a sequel. But that’s a story for another article5. For now we remain rooted in 2005, a year in which a vibrant new platformer absolutely belly flopped. This…does not bode well for the genre’s immediate future.

Stray Observations:

  • Psychonauts has a lot of characters for such a short game. There are 16(!) tertiary campers, not counting Raz and Lili, and they all have their own subplots happening if you pay attention. Again, this is a very adventure game-ass platformer
  • This game has a reputation for having mediocre mechanics as a platformer, and I have to say I don’t agree. The mechanics here are perfectly fine. Raz controls as well as any PS2-era platformer character, and frankly controls significantly better than the era’s Mario game.
  • Heck, there’s even a mechanical standout here! The levitation power lets you run faster and jump higher by essentially playing a little Super Monkey Ball. The momentum is inherently fun, and the fact that you can fully stop at any time by simply ceasing levitation means you don’t have any runaway loss of control issues. The game feel here’s good!
  • The obligatory romance between protagonist Raz and most prominent girl Lili feels surprisingly well-realized, in the sense that I actually understand exactly what Lili sees in Raz from her perspective (she’s a jaded cynic who’s secretly a huge dork, Raz is naïvely enthusiastic and brings out Lili’s vulnerable side) and we see her feelings change over the course of the game. The bar for video game romance may be “ah shit I knew we forgot to buy a bar” but Psychonauts gamely leaps over it anyway.

Other 2005 platformers of note:

We’ve talked Jak II. We’ve talked Warrior Within. We’ve demonstrated how common it was for platformers of this era to go darker and edgier in order to appeal to an older demographic. But despite this context, Shadow The Hedgehog is still infamous. It wasn’t any edgier than the other games I mentioned; in fact it was far tamer. But unlike Prince of Persia Sonic is a series for kids, and unlike Jak and Daxter it had been around for long enough that its initial child demographic wasn’t on the cusp of teenagerdom and thus the exact right age for this sort of nonsense. In an objective sense, there isn’t a huge difference between “I’m going to kill Baron Praxis” and “Where is that damn fourth Chaos Emerald?” But it just hits different coming from a Sonic game.

Check out this song from actual real-world band Powerman 5000 though, who SEGA hired to sing “Heaven can’t save us, Hell is a joke, no place left to go” in a Sonic game. Beautiful.

Elsewhere, the Homestar Runner Flash game Stinkoman 20X6 is a surprisingly good Mega Man riff. Unfortunately, as of press time it remains unplayable, at least officially, thanks to the death of Flash, alongside countless other games of this era. An entire section of gaming history is lost to history because Steve Jobs didn’t want competition for the iPhone app store. It’s not the reason he’s in hell but it’s on the list somewhere.

Next Time: Mario returns to his 2D roots in New Super Mario Bros.