Thoughts on ‘Psychonauts’

With volume 2 of Fantastic Schools (featuring a story by your humble servant) coming out soon [UPDATE: It’s alive!], I thought it appropriate to revisit one of my own favorite entries in the fantastic schools subgenre: the video game cult-classic Psychonauts.

We open with a man in an army uniform giving a speech before the projected image of a brain:

“The human mind. 600 miles of synaptic fiber, five and a half ounces of cranial fluid, 1500 grams of complex neural matter. A three-pound pile of dreams. But I’ll tell you what it really is. It is the ultimate battlefield, and the ultimate weapon. The wars of this modern age – the Psychic Age – are fought somewhere between these damp, curvaceous undulations. From this day forward, you are all psychic soldiers. Paranormal paratroopers! Mental marines who are about to ship out on the adventure of their lives! This is our beachhead! And this is your landing craft. You shall engage the enemy in his own mentality—you shall chase his dreams, you shall fight his demons, you shall live his nightmares! And those of you who fight well, you will find yourselves on the path to becoming international secret agents. In other words: Psychonauts! The rest of you… will die!”

At which point the camera reveals that he is addressing a group of small, terrified children huddling around a campfire, one of whom bursts into tears and wails that they told him this was a summer camp. Another camp counselor kindly reassures them: “Children, you are not going to die.”

Welcome to the bizarre, hilarious, and gloriously imaginative world of Psychonauts.

This is one of those games where, though the gameplay is fun and often very satisfying, it is the premise, story, and characters that really set it apart. It’s a shining example of video games as a story telling device; there’s more than enough material here that you could easily have done it as an animated movie or TV show, but the interactivity and the chance to explore the strange world undoubtedly adds something to experience.

The premise, as indicated above, is that in this world psychics exist, but are generally shunned and feared (not without reason). At Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, those born with a gift they never asked for learn to focus and control their powers and, possibly, have the opportunity to be recruited into the top-secret organization of the Psychonauts; international secret agents dedicated to preserving peace and freedom throughout the world (picture a cross between the X-Men and MI6 from the Bond films).  

Mostly, though, the kids spend their time in petty, soap-opera-like antics.

The player takes the role of Razputin ‘Raz’ Aquato, an extremely gifted young psychic acrobat who ran away from the circus to join the camp and become a Psychonaut. Since he arrives late and without his parents’ permission, the counselors – the militaristic Coach Olleander, the super-stoic Sasha Nein, and the warm-hearted, free-spirited Milla Vodello – naturally tell him that he’ll have to be sent home. But having gotten a glimpse of his abilities, none of them can resist working with him a little while he waits for his father to come pick him up. In the process Raz discovers an evil plot to take over the world using the brains of his fellow campers and soon, under the guidance of the brilliant, but mentally-shattered Ford Cruller, ex-head of the Psychonauts, he finds himself the only one capable of stopping the villain and saving both the world and his new maybe-girlfriend Lilli.

The story is pure cartoonish fun, especially combined with the witty writing and the vividly sketched characters. And since most of the game involves jumping and out of minds, many of them receive a remarkable amount of development as we not only learn sketches of their backstory, but are able to see the actual structure of their minds and personalities. Reserved, stoical Sasha’s mind, for instance, is a uniform cube floating in space, from which different aspects of his personality can be summoned at will. In contrast, the kind, loving Milla has a mind that is a never-ending dance party where you float from room to room (though there is one area of her mind that she strenuously warns you not to go into). Militaristic Coach Oleander’s mind is a chaotic battlefield which he claims is “the memory of every battle I’ve ever fought,” but which perhaps hints at something darker (more on the mindscapes in a bit). The collectables you find inside their brains, particularly the ‘memory vaults’, further flesh them out (one vault in Milla’s mind hints that she and Sasha are partners in more ways than one…or at least that she would like them to be).

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This vividness of character extends beyond those whose minds you visit. The Whispering Rock campers are a stunningly varied and often quite disturbed bunch of adolescents (their official ages range for seven to twelve, but they generally act more like teenagers). Among others are Elka Doom, a boy-crazy girl who can predict the future and annoys everyone with her relationship drama aimed at Nils, the would-be Casanova who boasts “My parents let me watch R-rated movies” and hits on anything that he confirms to be female. There’s Maloof, who is the camp underdog and most frequent target of bullies until he befriends Russian strong-man Mikhail and instantly becomes a pint-sized mob-boss (“For the meek, justice. For the abusers of power, wedgies and Indian burns. Choose your sides wisely”), Chloe, who believes herself to be an alien, wears a space helmet at all times, and spends most of the game trying to contact her ‘people’, and Dogen, a…strange boy who is sweet, but clearly not all there even by the standards of the camp and has a slight problem with making people’s heads explode (“But now I wear this special hat so I won’t have any more accidents. Wanna try it on?”).

The campers and Ranger Cruller

The interesting thing is that you can follow the various antics of the campers all throughout the game, as almost every advance causes them to change what they’re doing and what they have to say. Early on you find Elton, a boy who wears a sailor hat, talking to the fish down by the dock. A little later Milka, a girl with penchant for invisibility, catches his eye by protecting some of the fish from abuse. After that, they can be found making out together non-stop. Raz then can read a letter from Milka on the notice board warning off the other girls from making a move on him. 

And despite the relatively little amount of time they all get, the characters often show a surprising degree of nuance. Like how Bobby, the obnoxious camp bully, reveals an awkward crush on Chloe and hints that he wants a father figure.

That’s all just the incidental characters filling out the camp. Much more focus is directed at Lili, the daughter of the current head of the Psychonauts. She affects a jaded, detached attitude towards everyone and everything owing to her having been coming to camp longer than anyone else, though she quickly develops an infatuation for Raz that she has a hard time hiding (and not just because he can hear her thoughts). And for all her sarcasm, the game establishes her straight away as a fundamentally decent person by having her comfort Dogen when he starts crying in the opening cut scene, as well as being the only one other than Raz to pick up on the ominous signs at the camp, and she periodically lets her mask slip to reveal the chipper, adventurous girl beneath her aloof exterior. She comes across quite well as a very talented, tomboyish girl (her back-and-forths with Raz are all great), but with a softer heart than she lets on.

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“No…you don’t smell like pond scum.”
“Nice. You should write greeting cards.”

Then there’s Raz’s chief mentor, Ford Cruller. Ford used to be the head of the Psychonauts and is still one of the most powerful psychics on Earth, but his mind was shattered in a psychic duel, leaving him with a split personality (he shows up around camp as a cook, ranger, janitor, and so on). He’s able to pull his brain together in his secret lair under the camp owing to a massive ‘Psitanium’ deposit (a rare element that boosts psychic powers…and can cause insanity). From there he monitors world events and sends Sasha and Milla – the only two agents still loyal to him – on their assignments. As well as “making sure you little spoon-benders don’t kill each other.”

Unlike some video game mentors, Ford maintains a continual presence throughout the game, both in terms of cut scenes and frequent trips to his lair and because Raz can psychically summon him for advice using a piece of bacon (Ford’s advice is entertaining enough that you’ll quickly learn to call him whenever something new happens just to see what he says).

Picture a more crotchety version of Dumbledore and you’ll be fairly close to the mark on Ford, though honestly I found Ford and Raz’s relationship to be the more charming. There’s more give-and-take to it than with Harry and Dumbledore, in the way Raz will make snide remarks or push back against Ford’s crotchetiness (among other things, at one point they get into a debate about whether ‘ca-caw’ is one word or two: “sure, if you’re gonna use a hyphen…”). There’s a definite sense of a surrogate grandfather figure in Ford’s rough, yet playful handling of Raz: he not only provides him training and guidance, but is able to interact with him on his own level (“only use pyrokinesis if it’s very, very important or it’s really, really entertaining”), while periodically dishing out elaborate threats of violence (“Very nice. Now set me down easy and go pick up something that won’t blow up your head if you make it mad”).

“Hey, she is not my girlfriend!”
“Oh, that makes all the difference. Just let her get eaten, then.”

Finally, we have Raz himself, the psychic acrobat who ran away from the circus to become a secret agent. Like Manny, the protagonist of Tim Schaefer’s earlier Grim Fandango, Raz is a clever, personable hero with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor to go with his righteousness. He befriends strangers easily and stands up for camp outcasts, but he’s equally ready to take shots at anyone who gets on his bad side, or just to provoke someone for fun if he doesn’t like them. He’s willing to get into fights but seems to prefer using his wits to overcome obstacles, making him a decent amateur therapist / conman (it’s a fine line).  

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His determination and focus make him admirable, while his playful, boyish nature (“Shooting things is fun and useful!”) make him endearing. I like how, despite his mischievous and sarcastic personality, he’s in some ways the most idealistic person at the camp. He’s the one who believes the most in the Psychonauts and their mission, who can recite the camp advertisement word-for-word, and who is invested enough in the people around him to notice when things start going wrong. Refreshingly, his whole goal is that he wants to be a hero, and he’s willing to put in the work to make it happen. Another nice detail is that he’s initially uncomfortable with blasting enemies in the mental world, until Sasha reminds him that they’re just thoughts and not really alive at all. It helps too that he’s one of the saner characters at the camp, allowing him to be an audience surrogate, though we soon learn that he has his own issues as well (crippling aquaphobia due to a family curse being the least of them).

Now, one of the most interesting aspects of the game is Raz’s relationship with his stern father. We see a memory of his father forbidding him from going to camp and tearing up his brochure, and every time he comes up Raz insists that he hates psychics and hates him for being a psychic, even suggesting at one point that his father’s been trying to kill him. At the end of the game, however, we get a revelation that not only sheds light on his father’s character, but on Raz himself. He’s revealed to be, for all his cleverness and power, ultimately still a kid with a child’s understanding of the world. Need I say that I love this undermining of the patriphobic attitude (“father doesn’t understand you! You need to defy him and show him what’s right!”) found in so many contemporary stories?  

I also have to mention the endlessly quotable dialogue. Again, just about every step of the game brings a new response from almost every character, and the oft-bizarre goings on lead to a lot of simply hilarious lines:

“Relax, this won’t hurt a bit. Unless something really very bad happens.”

“You have the insanity of a manatee!”

“There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, Goggalor.”
“No, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘squish’, so watch it.”

“Just throw my innocent bones into the cruel machine of war. I’m ready!”

“Oh no, they got Freddy. Poor Freddy. He was such a good secret agent. I mean, assassin.”

“If anyone talks to the squirrels, they shouldn’t listen because the squirrels are a bunch of stupid liars.”

“I run a nice, quiet insane asylum.”

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“Lili! A deranged madman is building an army of psychic death tanks to take over the world, and there’s no one who can stop him except for you and me!”
“Oh my God! Let’s make out…”

Now, as noted, most of the game consists of Raz jumping in and out of the minds of various different characters. At first these are primarily instructive journey’s; he jumps into the minds of his counselors so that they can teach him about his psychic abilities. As time goes on, however, he ends up in the stranger and more dangerous minds of other people (and at one point, a giant lungfish), where he has to go in to try to solve their psychological issues.

The mindscapes the game creates are one of its great triumphs. Each one is completely different, but each one makes sense given the character whose mind you’re entering. The mind-controlled lungfish’s brain, for instance, is a miniature world artificially built up, where Raz appears as a giant monster, reflecting the fact that he’s a human entering a fundamentally simpler animal brain (and giving us a hilarious parody of kaiju movies, complete with a pitch-perfect Ifukube-esque score). Manic-depressive actress Gloria’s mind is a theater whose spotlight switches the mood from bright and benevolent to dark and hostile (while her bloated inner critic presides over the whole, hurling non-stop abuse). And the mind of Boyd, the paranoid-schizophrenic security guard, is a set of suburban streets suspended in space, twisting back upon each other like the tangled threads of his conspiracy theories, while literally every bush, mailbox, and fire-hydrant is watching you.

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“Goggalor!”

For all its eeriness, Boyd’s world is also one of the funniest parts of the game, populated by sinister secret agents ‘masquerading’ in a variety of roles via the expedient of holding a single prop and talking in disjointed monotones about their profession (“I am a sewer worker. Although I often smell of excrement, I deserve your respect because I provide a useful service to the community.” “Plants need to have water poured on them because they have no hands to hold glasses of water.”).

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“What is the purpose of the goggles?”

I really have to give the game credit for how well the minds are structured in psychological terms. Not only do the structures of the minds make sense given the characters, but the way you deal with them and the issues you face likewise fits with how those problems would be dealt with. Sasha’s mind ends with his ultra-controlled brain exploding into a giant ‘censor’, reflecting the potential of an overly suppressed mind to lose its sense of proportion and just try to control everything. Gloria’s inner critic is defeated by Raz shining spotlights on him, subjecting his withering commentary to rational scrutiny and revealing his hostile intentions, while split-personality Fred Bonaparte is healed by conquering the part of his brain controlled by Napoleon, which requires Fred to actually grow a spine.

As indicated, the artistry and design of these levels is amazing. The game is often a visual and imaginative feast. At one point you enter the mind of an artist, and it’s a gorgeous living black-velvet painting with a swirling, multi-colored sky. Milla’s mind is a technicolor explosion, while almost everything in Coach Oleander’s brain is military themed, down to the bushes made of ammo belts. The camp itself is very nice to look at, particularly around sunset, with its blue skies and lush forests, while the abandoned insane asylum is as creepy and nightmarish as you would expect. 

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Welcome to Black Velvetopia

The gameplay takes the form of an action-platformer collect-a-thon, mixed with puzzles and combat. The player uses Raz’s acrobatics and psychic abilities to traverse obstacles in quest for a huge number of collectables to level up and gain more power. Gathering all of these, especially the elusive ‘figments of imagination’ can be frustrating (since the figments are often hard to see and can be hidden anywhere), but it’s not required to win the game; just if you want to go for the hundred percent. So far I’ve only done that once, and it required a walkthrough to find them all, but your mileage may vary.

Raz’s psychic powers – telekinesis, levitation, psy-blasts, and so on – are generally a lot of fun to play around with. Almost each power gets a different response from each character, meaning that each time you get a new ability it’s often worth just going around the camp and trying it out on everyone you meet. Clairvoyance (letting you see through other people’s eyes) and Confusion can be especially amusing (“yes…I love war…”).

I also give props to the worldbuilding. Raz can find a timeline of the camp, which is honestly rather unsettling (“75 Years Ago: Houston Thorney builds his Home for the Demented to deal with the insanity epidemic. 60 Years Ago: More residents in the Asylum than in the town. Houston Thorney commits suicide by throwing himself from the tower.”). Psychic powers, while cool, are explicitly shown to be dangerous as well, making it believable that people would fear psychics and showing why a place like Whispering Rock would be necessary. The game tries very hard to make all of its elements consistent with its world, so that there is a reason, say, for Raz having multiple lives, gaining health as the game goes on, and even for enemies dropping pickups (these explanations don’t carry on to the real world, but at least they were trying). Again, it’s goofy comic book style science fiction, but it is science fiction and the game really does explore and develop its world pretty well.  

As you can tell, I love this game. It’s one of my all-time favorites. But it does have some serious problems, mostly involving the final level. The Meat Circus (a blend of Raz’s own mind and the villain’s) is a nightmare, and not just in the way that was intended. Frustrating platforming challenges blended with an escort mission and a wonky camera lead to the player dying again and again and again. Trying to make your way up the platforms while the little kid you’re supposed to be escorting wails about being attacked and his life bar goes steadily downward is like being stuck in traffic with a crying three-year-old. Not fun at all. Neither is the platforming challenge that follows, where thanks to the perspective and the structure of the challenges you sometimes have to just trial and error it to figure out what you’re supposed to do.  

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One of the most infamous levels in all of gaming

The frustration factor has since been mitigated by a patch that effectively gave the player infinite lives for this one level, but it’s still extremely annoying. From what I understand, they ran out of test time, forcing them to ship the game with the final level insufficiently edited, and I can well believe it. It’s a striking blot at the very end of an otherwise great game (though the awesome final boss battle and continuing great humor helps make up for it).  

Beyond that, my main complaint is simply that I wanted more. I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters, in this world, learning more about their backstories and quirks, seeing them follow through on their arcs, and just discovering what else they get up to. Again, you could easily make this into an animated TV series or ongoing comic book. But I suppose it’s much better to leave the audience wanting more than overstay your welcome.

Fortunately the game’s cult status means that we are getting more at last! First there was a short VR follow-up called ‘Rhombus of Ruin,’ which I haven’t played, but have seen playthroughs of. I think I’ll give that one its own rundown. And now we’re finally getting Psychonauts 2, supposedly coming out next year. It’s too early to tell yet, of course, but previews promise the same stunning imagination, wicked humor, and great characterization, along with more worldbuilding.

In summary, Psychonauts is simply a great game. It’s a delightful story told with wit and boundless creativity, tackling a rich premise and mining it for all its worth. This is a world and characters that I’d love to explore further and always enjoy revisiting.  

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*thinking* “When are you gonna shut up and kiss me?”
“Um…I can hear that.”
“I know.