Psychonauts

psychonauts-battlefieldPsychonauts is one of those games that I’d heard people raving about. And yet somehow it seemed to hit the bargain bins pretty quickly, and is already on Gametap. I don’t know why. It might have something to do with the character designs, which are caricatured to the point of grotesqueness. As always, this is something you get used to over the course of play — by now, I’m actually able to see the protagonist, Raz, as handsome and well-formed 1 Raz actually kind of reminds me of a young Michael J. Fox, but I think that’s more a matter of his earnest manner than his physical appearance. , because he’s really one of the least distorted characters in the game. But seen for the first time, he’s a spindly hypercephalic freak, and I can see that turning off some potential buyers.

The premise provides some reason for making the characters freakish: it emphasizes the fact that they’re not normal. The whole thing is set at a summer camp which is really a secret training ground for tomorrow’s elite psychic warriors. It’s kind of like Harry Potter: kids behaving like kids while at the same time displaying abnormal powers, adults who have mastered those powers giving classes, some kind of secret plot unfolding in the background that only the child hero can unravel.

Structurally, it’s a lot like the Harry Potter videogames, too: you’ve got a largish school/campground hub area containing secrets and collectibles, and various challenge areas accessible from it. The challenge areas in this case are the abstract worlds inside people’s minds. The first such world, in the mind of a drill-sergeant-wannabe coach, is war-themed, by which I mean that the Ditkoesque floating platforms are covered in barbed wire and concrete bunkers and fragmentary bomber fuselages. Interestingly, this level doesn’t contain any actual fighting: war is presented, not as a situation in which you have the opportunity to triumph over an enemy, but merely as a situation of constant danger.

Later scenes do contain combat, but the game is basically a platformer — a fact that must have come as some surprise to fans of Tim Schafer, the creative lead, who’s best known for his work on graphic adventures. (Psychonauts has some adventure-game elements, but what doesn’t these days?) The sense of humor, though, definitely hearkens back to Monkey Island. I’ll note in particular one bit where an unpopular kid with an incongruously deep voice tells a humorously long and boring story: “…Then we went up a hill. Then we walked four miles. Then we walked two miles. Then we walked three miles. Then we walked half a mile. Then we made a U-turn. Then we stood still for a while…” Past a certain point, it’s constructed from randomly-selected phrases, but they’re still delivered with perfect comic timing. That means some coder took the trouble to tweak the delay in a loop for maximum comic effect.

Alas, I’m probably missing similar timing elsewhere. Much of the dialogue in the game occurs in the hub areas, where you can talk to the other kids or show them inventory items or try to set them on fire with your mind or whatever, and in those areas I’m suffering from framerate problems. Presumably this is because the campground is harder to render than the mental worlds, being more open and more detailed. It’s not so bad as to make me stop playing, but characters’ mouths often become noticeably out-of-sync with what they’re saying, and the audio playback pauses to let the video catch up. I wish I knew where the bottleneck is here — whether it’s the CPU or the video card or what. All I know is that altering the settings in the in-game video options panel doesn’t seem to help.

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1. Raz actually kind of reminds me of a young Michael J. Fox, but I think that’s more a matter of his earnest manner than his physical appearance.

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