Psychonauts: Meat and Brains

psychonauts-meat1The final level of Psychonauts is called “Meat Circus”, a fusion of the inner landscapes of Raz, whose father is a circus acrobat (explaining where he gets his platforming skills from in true Schafer fashion), and another character whose father is a butcher. Now, most of the things I had heard about this game in advance were positive, but this is the one segment that I had heard complaints about. “Too hard” was the consensus. One person described giving up at this point despite being nearly finished with the game.

psychonauts-meat2Having played it now, I can assert that it isn’t even the entirety of the Meat Circus that’s so hard. It’s one particular segment of it, in a section where you have to keep climbing faster than a steadily-rising water level: a part that involves jumping between a series of curved segments of climbable mesh, partly on fire. I spent some time unable to clear the second gap at all, until I hit on an approach that turned it from seemingly impossible to merely difficult. The mesh pieces basically form a cylinder, and you leap onto this cylinder from the outside, but jumping from piece to piece turns out to be much easier if you can do it from the inside. It’s tricky to get there, and once you’re there a large part of the view is blocked by the level boss (Raz’s father, or rather, Raz’s fear of his father), but it’s still the easier approach. Talking about it with others afterwards, it seems I’m the only one who did it this way. So apparently it is, in fact, possible to make all the jumps on the outside, but I seriously wonder if the level designer intended it to be possible.

One really nice thing about the final world is the way that it ties together and explains some of the things that you saw on previous levels, things that just seemed like dreamlike randomness at the time but turn out to reflect a backstory that you didn’t know yet. It reminds me a little of the Silent Hill games in that respect, except with cartoonish zaniness replacing the creeping sense of dread and unease.

But not replacing it entirely. Psychonauts is a game about brains, and that’s not a comfortable subject, especially when the brains are being literally sneezed out, carried around loose in a backpack, and later reinserted with a funnel. I’ve quipped before that the reason we make jokes about brains is that we’re afraid of them, and when you think about it, there’s actually some truth to that. Not that we’re afraid of brains per se, but we’re afraid of what the idea of brains tells us: that your consciousness, your personality, everything you are is determined by a lump of meat, physically vulnerable, alterable by drugs or disease. It’s a queasy thing to think about, and Psychonauts harps on it from the very first words of the opening scene:

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.

7 Comments so far

  1. Merus on 21 Sep 2007

    I’ve done it both ways on separate playthroughs. I agree that it’s much easier to do it on the inside.

    However, I’d disagree that it’s just that one section that’s overly harsh: parts of the escort sequence with little Olly, particularly towards the end with the second knife-thrower, don’t give you enough time to do the course unless you do them perfectly (of course, if Olly dies the area resets instead of killing you, but still); the second section, with the grinding sequence, is also really tough – it usually takes me at least ten goes to get all the way through.

  2. paul on 21 Sep 2007

    yeah, I never got past the little Olly section. The vastly increased difficulty made it feel almost like a different game than I signed up for – like the fistfighting sections of The Last Express. I found those doable, but my dad, who signed up for a nice cozy adventure game, had to get me to do the fistfights for him.

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 21 Sep 2007

    Hm. I think my lack of understanding gave me an advantage in the escort section. At first, I didn’t understand that the way to make progress was to help Olly catch Mr. Bun, and just punching out the Michael Gagne rejects wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I started climbing without Olly in the hope of finding something useful.

    Well, guess what? Once you get far enough above Olly, he stops taking damage. So, thanks to my mistake, I was able to get some nice leisurely practice in on the rest of the level. You can’t leave without Olly, though, so I did eventually have to go back and do things the right way, but by then I knew exactly where to stand to make the knives go where I wanted them.

    (There was one more sticking point, though: I actually helped Olly catch his bunny the hard way the first couple of times, by chasing it toward him, rather than by using Telekinesis to keep it from running away.)

  4. zex20913 on 5 Jan 2008

    Man. I haven’t thought about brains that way before. That’s a really vivid and eerie description. Insightful.

    (I was reading through after your new year DROD mention.)

    I love Psychonauts, by the way. I think it has the best overall level designs of any game, let alone platformer, that I’ve ever played (including Super Mario Galaxy). The mind of the milkman is one of the greatest concepts for a level, ever. (Super Mario Galaxy would have gotten it if it was a little bit more open-ended–almost every star is entirely linear.)

  5. jak on 18 Jul 2010

    Oly was a bastard.
    The flaming fence was hell
    I cant finish the level cause of the water on the ladder, i just go down into the water and die…

    I am gonna play Demon’s Souls for an easier game

  6. Aerozol on 8 Apr 2011

    Yeah, the flaming fence sucked hard.
    I found a great way to do it though, and frapped it:

    I hope that can help someone before they get as annoyed as I did..

  7. Seonor on 19 Dec 2011

    DoubleFine recently got the rights to the game back and released a patch that changed the MeatCircus a bit and made it easier among other things.

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