Mention the words "Tim Schafer" around most gamers, stand back, and let the slack-jawed reverie ensue.
Tim is a god among the hardcore. He's one of the few bona fide auteurs in our medium, a man who has done the unthinkable: He makes the kinds of games that he wants to make.
They're angsty. They're chatty. They're unafraid to deal with issues like existentialism and nihilism.
He's gaming's Woody Allen.
Critics adore him. Yet the Call of Duty/Halo-loving public, by and large, is indifferent. His games typically don't sell well. But you can't argue with the fact that, during a time of rampant focus-group testing, when games are being streamlined and dumbed-down to appeal to the maximum number of people possible, including your parents, Tim Schafer is a most welcome aberration.
He is a thumb in the eye of the Wii-ification of our medium.
So all hail, etc.
Which brings me to Psychonauts, Schafer's little game about a sleep-away camp for psychic kids. You might not know this, but the game nearly vanished into the ether -- it was forsaken by publisher Microsoft -- and at the eleventh hour, when all hope was lost, Majesco came through and published it in 2005.
A couple years later, Schafer posted a petition on his blog urging Psychonauts fans to push Xbox Live to include the game in its Xbox Originals category. People responded. Xbox Live conceded. The game went up. (Which is where I played it for this review.)
A few years after that, Brütal Legend, Schafer and Double Fine's most recent game, was dropped by publisher Activision during the merger with Vivendi. Once again, after much Pepto swigging, the game wound up being picked up by EA Games.
Seems it's always uphill for Tim. Probably always will be.
Raz poses for a photograph next to this weird-shaped moon.
Psychonauts tells the story of Raz -- short for Razputin -- a child psychic who wears goggles on his head and a scarf around his neck that make him look like he's dressed as a biplane pilot for Halloween. Raz desperately wants to become a government agent who uses his psychic abilities to defeat evil-doers, aka a Psychonaut.
He runs away from the circus -- don't most kids threaten to run away to join the circus? -- and heads for the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, a U.S. government training facility disguised as a Meatballs-style summer camp.
Once he arrives, dark stuff begins happening. The brains of children begin disappearing from their heads; strange wolf-beasts appear on the camp's walkways at night. It's up to Raz to figure out what's going on. To accomplish this, Raz, equipped with psychic merit badges that range from Telekinesis to Levitation, must infiltrate the psyches of various camp denizens and confront each person's fears and fantasies to get to the bottom of things.
The game is structured like a typical third-person action-platformer, with the camp itself functioning as a kind of overworld and the psyches of the various characters as an underworld. Raz must travel back and forth between the camp and the psyches in the name of resolving the characters' psychological issues and nudging the narrative forward. That's right: It's Super Mario 64 by way of Freud.
[Minor spoilers ahead.] Naturally, the camp's old-buzzard janitor, Ford Cruller, turns out to be the person who knows the most about what's happening. He's helpful -- well, mostly helpful -- during confusing moments; he's the game's Obi-Wan Kenobi, only far less reliable. Cruller was apparently the greatest leader the Psychonauts ever had, until a psychic duel with a rival destroyed his psyche, leaving him with no memory of his past.
The best way to reach Cruller at any time is via a piece of bacon. That's right: a piece of bacon. On that note, welcome to Tim Schafer's psyche.
The characters, and their psyches, include a Norma Desmond-like theater actress, a war veteran whose psyche manifests itself as a dangerous military training course, and a misunderstood lake monster with a curious name. Here's a bit of dialogue from the game:
Lake Monster: You may now call me by my name, the name given to me by my people.
Raz: And what name is it, noble lake creature?
Lake Monster: Linda.
[Linda walks back into the lake.]
Raz: What a magical lady.
Inside Linda's psyche, Raz discovers that Linda's greatest fear is that he (Raz) is actually the monster that is terrorizing her.
Psychonauts is a series of contradictions. It's both sophisticated and puerile; it's playful and serious.
It's also erudite and chatty. Tim and his team have clearly read a book or two in their day. And it's articulate, sometimes to a fault. Despite the unique achievement I think Psychonauts is -- there's really nothing else like it out there -- I feel that the game's biggest flaw is that it occasionally says too much, or explains too much.
Videogames, like children's books, typically work best when rendered as metaphor. Psychonauts is too -- ironically enough -- self-conscious. It's the videogame equivalent of Lemony Snicket, which obviously has its own charms. Yet I still prefer the much simpler, less self-aware art of, say, a Dr. Seuss.
Miyamoto, for example, probably can't explain why his game has a plumber in it, or why turtles attack the plumber. Miyamoto sets out to make a compelling experience, and I doubt he spends much time mulling over why he's doing what he's doing. Vice versa, all Tim Schafer and his people at Double Fine do is mull over what they are doing and why they are doing it. They're obsessed. They are -- and I mean this as a compliment -- neurotic.
The Psychonauts experience is more cerebral than visceral, thanks to Tim's neuroses and thanks also to the game's somewhat crude gameplay mechanics. As a third-person action game, it simply can't stand up to the best in the genre. Every leap feels like a leap of faith; button presses feel inexact. I can leap toward a rope, or press the Y button to unearth an arrowhead, but unless I'm standing exactly where the game wants me to stand, nothing happens.
While the game's boss fights are generally forgettable, bits of dialogue, facial expressions and tiny scenes stay with me and continue to resonate. Example: I loved the G-Men trying to disguise themselves as misogynist "road workers," saying in robotic deadpan voices, "Look at that woman's breasts. They are large."
If only the gameplay mechanics were half as polished as the game's superb writing.
This corpulent creature is one of the game's many bosses. It looks memorable. It's not.
Some of the levels, like "The Neighborhood," along with a couple of the more obscure puzzles, had me conceding defeat and scrambling to GameFAQs for the answers. That's never a good sign. If not entertaining, puzzles should at least be logical. But some of the puzzles in the game are little more than exercises in trial and error. (This is one of Schafer's Achilles' heels. He commits the same type of error at an early point in Brütal Legend, when the gamer is told to lower a gate by breaking chains that are holding a pair of car engines aloft. Solving the puzzle requires you to do something that makes no sense whatsoever. The game rewards the gamer only once he guesses correctly. This is total B.S.)
In the end, Psychonauts probably pissed me off and frustrated me almost as much as it delighted me. But that delight? Man, I'm here to tell you that there's nothing like Tim Schafer's brand of delight. Nothing.
One odd thing that Schafer's games always make me do: I actually write down bits of the game's dialogue on a piece of paper while I'm playing them. Looking over my notes, I found lines like, "I'm not going to bring you any more brains if you're going to be so mean to them," and (G-Man pretending to be a housewife), "Although over time my husband will lose desire for me sexually, he will always love my pies."
Where else can you find content like this in the game store? Where else can you find a game that lets you use a piece of bacon as a communication device, or features lungfish monsters named Linda, or a level based on a black velvet painting come to life?
I'll tell you where: Nowhere.
Trust me: I've looked.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the Xbox game purchased by the reviewer.
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