Psychonauts: Collection

psychonauts-figmentsPsychonauts has a fairly complicated system of item collection, and it’s instructive to compare it to that seen in Lego Star Wars 2 (described previously in this blog). I described the latter as byzantine and difficult to understand, with its multiple goals and overlapping effects. Now, Psychonauts has more types of collectible. In the real world sections, there are:

  • Psi challenge markers: few in number and located in difficult-to-reach places
  • Psi cards: fragments that can be assembled into new psi challenge markers. More numerous and usually easy to reach, but often hard to spot
  • Scavenger hunt items: unique objects, most of which require solving an optional puzzle

And in the mental realms:

  • Figments of the imagination: all over the place, sometimes moving
  • Mental cobwebs: collectible only using a special piece of equipment, and can be turned into psi cards back in the real world
  • Memories: located in ambulatory safes that flee your approach; when collected, offer glimpses into character backstory
  • Emotional baggage: a two-step collectible that involves finding a tag to match with each bag; matching all five in a mind unlocks some production art

However, I find the collection in Psychonauts easier to follow, and I think it’s mainly because the effects are simpler. With the exception of the effects mentioned above of the memories and the emotional baggage (which don’t seem to affect gameplay, and can be classed as “extras”), the end result of collection is always the same: increasing your “rank”. Attaining certain ranks grants permission to buy new equipment, or allows you to learn new powers, or enhances the powers you have. By funneling everything through the “rank” concept, the game simplifies the way you can think about gaining access to stuff. I suppose that this is something that RPGs have been doing all along with character levels, but it’s unusual to see a level system that isn’t at all based on gaining experience through combat.

Now, getting all the collectibles in everyone’s mental worlds typically involves going through them more than once. Indeed, it’s completely impossible to collect mental cobwebs from the first couple of minds on your first visit, as you don’t yet have access to the necessary equipment. It’s not uncommon in these games for collection to involve repeat visits to completed levels, but it’s usually handled non-diegetically: to use Lego Star Wars as an example again, if you replay the Battle of Hoth level, there’s no sense that you’re creating a story in which the Battle of Hoth was fought more than once. In Psychonauts, however, every visit is taken to be part of the same ongoing story, even if this requires convoluted excuses. So, the first time train with Sasha Nein, his mental defenses spin out of control and he urgently needs your help to restore order, but when you go back, Sasha offers to put you through the same “training course”, explaining that the emergency was a ruse to motivate you.

A more extreme example: In the mental landscape of the monster lungfish, it’s Raz who’s the monster, a Godzilla-like building-crumbling behemoth attacking Lungfishopolis. When you complete the level, by destroying a certain broadcast tower (the lungfish’s mental representation of the crainial implants that the bad guys are using to control it), the lungfish of the city are freed from their brainwashing and come to regard you as a hero. On a return visit, you’re cordially greeted by a lungfish who warns you that there are still some crazy guys out there who “don’t realize that the war is over”, and invites you to destroy as many buildings as you want: now that they’re free, they realize that lungfish were meant to live in mucus-lined bubbles at the bottom of lakes, not in tower blocks.

These scenes make a virtue of a constraint: they treat an unlikely situation resulting from gameplay decisions as an opportunity for humor. Or possibly the other way around: they use the fact that this is a humorous game as an excuse to integrate gameplay decisions with the story in ways that would be implausible if taken seriously. Whichever way it goes, it’s something that Schafer has been doing since his Lucasarts days.

Lego Star Wars as a whole

It’s notable that the lego aspect of the Lego Star Wars games isn’t very strong compared to the Star Wars aspect. At no point does the player actually participate in assembling things out of legos. Oh, sure, there are loose piles of legos here and there to be assembled — created, in some cases, when the player blasts an existing lego structure apart — but the player’s involvement in the process is just plunking a character into the middle of the pile, holding down the “action” button, and watching the legos fly to their predetermined spots. Beyond that, lego is basically window dressing on a Star Wars substrate. Like all stylistic aberrations, you get used to it after a while, and basically stop noticing anything strange about it. (With some exceptions, of course. Seeing Lego Slave Leia for the first time was a bit of a shock.)

So where does that leave the Star Wars aspect of the games? If I’m not mistaken, Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars II taken together form the only complete game adaptation of the entire 6-episode saga in a single consistent idiom of graphical presentation and gameplay. The closest I’ve seen is a coin-op rail shooter from 1998 that only covered the original trilogy, not the prequels (which hadn’t been released yet). Absurd as it sounds, this makes the Lego games something like the definitive game adaptation of the series.

As such, they provide a good perspective into Star Wars and its relationship with games. It’s hardly news that the prequel trilogy was more videogame-inspired than the original trilogy — the race in Episode 1 and the platformer-like droid factory in Episode 2 in particular have aroused suspicion that they were added to the movies specifically in order to provide fodder for videogame adaptations. “Racing games are popular,” one imagines Lucas saying. “We need a canonical basis for a racing game. Can we use the Endor speeder bikes? Nah, let’s do something more completely like Daytona.” Even if that’s not how it happened, it’s hard to imagine that these scenes could have been produced without anyone involved in the production consciously imitating videogames. The original trilogy, on the other hand, went the other way: instead of videogame-inspired, it was videogame-inspiring. The movies were showing things that couldn’t be effectively done in games yet, but it all looked so cool, and had such obvious promise for the fledgling game medium, that people tried anyway. And they kept trying until the technology caught up and they really could do something that looked as cool as the movies, or cooler. And then they did it again with legos.

As much as I’d like to say that the innovative original trilogy yields better game material than the imitative prequels, it’s just not so. Apart from specific set-pieces, there’s one thing that really separates any game adaptations of the two trilogies: the bosses. The prequel trilogy had a whole bunch of characters that were basically level bosses, such as Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous — even Sebulba, as the only opponent with a distinct name and personality, is effectively a boss for the Super Anakin Kart sequence. Darth Maul was a disappointment as a character in the movie, especially after all the hype, because all he did was attack the heroes every once in a while. But in a game, that’s not disappointing at all; it’s exactly what we expect. So the prequel trilogy gets a gold star for its colorful array of baddies. In the original trilogy, it’s basically Vader, Vader, Vader. Oh, and briefly Boba Fett, but mainly Vader over and over again, on the Death Star and Bespin and Dagobah (even if that’s just a mystical vision, it’s still a boss fight), until the end, when you fight the Emperor, who isn’t very interesting as a fighter — he basically just zaps one of the two player characters with Force Lightning until you switch to the other character and hit him. They had to turn that scene into a series of platformer puzzles in order to make it viable.

[added June 9 2007] Vader basically has the opposite of Darth Maul’s problem. Unlike Maul, he does a great deal more than just attack the heroes: he captures the princess, interrogates her by extreme means including making her watch him destroy an entire planet, orders underlings around and force-chokes them to death when they fail him, exposes Obi-Wan’s lies, and ultimately switches sides and betrays the Emperor. But only the last of these points translates into gameplay; the rest are shown in cut-scenes, if at all. So he’s less interesting as a videogame character than as a movie character.

Lego Star Wars II: Extras and Secrets

Getting through the Return of the Jedi section of Lego Star Wars II didn’t take long. Cleverly, they used Vader’s redemption at the end of the movie as an excuse to turn him into a player character. This was something of a relief, because it means there’s one Dark Force wielder who doesn’t have to be purchased with lego studs. Once you’ve been given control of him once, you can have him in Free Play mode whenever you like.

About those lego studs. Lego studs fill the same role as “bolts” in Ratchet and Clank: little money items that you acquire mainly by breaking stuff. Some of the various secrets and extras can be purchased with lego studs, but, in most cases, you also have to unlock them by completing some other task, such as completing a level or finding a special “power brick”. There are also gold bricks which accumulate to open up bonus areas, and which are mainly earned by accumulating a certain threshhold of lego studs within a single play-through of a level. It’s all rather byzantine, but it’s done with juicy feedback, both when you attain a goal and again as a summary of your accomplishments on finishing a level. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you know when you’ve done it, and even if you don’t know what it means, you know it was a good thing.

To use my earlier nomenclature, finding power bricks is a Challenge, and accumulating lego studs is an Activity. So getting all of the extra powers requires both. One of the powers is particularly worth noting: it multiplies stud yield by 10. So this would be the perfect thing to aim for in order to minimize your time spent stud-farming, except for the fact that it costs more than all the other purchasable items put together. Seriously, there are only two reasons to go for that one. One is that you just enjoy making your games display very large numbers — not something that appeals to me, but this is for the people who keep on trying to beat their own high scores at games they’ve already won. The other is the completist’s urge to catch ’em all, to not have any gaps in their collectibles. Well, Lego Star Wars II is officially off the stack now, but I definitely want to keep hunting secrets at least until I finish all the mini-kits. (Each level has one, in ten scattered and hidden pieces. I don’t know much about the toy line, but I assume that they’re all replicas of actual purchasable lego kits.) Whether I go for the 30-million-stud exercise in uselessness depends on how close I am to it after that.

Lego Star Wars II

When I first became aware of the original Lego Star Wars game, my first thought was of an enormous lego Death Star that I had seen in a store window. The whole idea of taking that huge sphere of grey bricks and blowing it up, sending a firework-like shower of lego flying through space in all directions, was tremendously appealing to me. So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the game only covered the prequel trilogy, and my delight at the sequel covering episodes 4-6. That’s two Death Star explosions, one in 4 and one in 6.

Well, I can report on the first of those explosions now. It wasn’t all it could have been. The game keeps the scale too consistent to make the moon-sized Death Star noticably lego-like from a distance. Still, that’s the only disappointing thing in this game so far. (It’s so similar in style and gameplay to the first Lego Star Wars, it usually meets expectations exactly.)

The Lego Star Wars videogame franchise is, needless to say, peculiar. Game adaptations of things that are adaptations themselves actually aren’t all that unusual, but usually it goes book — movie — game (like the various Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie tie-in games) or comic — movie — game (like the mandatory tie-in game for every superhero movie since 1990), not movie — licensed toy line — game. 1 The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books. One effect of mediating the adaptation of the movies through lego is that it becomes pointless to take it all too seriously. We’re presented with a world, yea, a galactic civilization populated entirely by lego people. The designers run with that, throwing in lots of slapstick and silly hats — the silly hats have no effect on gameplay; a silly hat is its own reward — and allowing comic dismemberment. We’ve heard about Wookiees pulling people’s arms out of their sockets, but now we get to see it happen. It happens quite neatly: Chewie pulls on an arm, the arm pops off.

For all its flippancy, it’s actually a better-designed game than most of the other official adaptations of the saga. Well, okay: there have been Star Wars-based videogames for nearly 30 years at this point. The Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth have been made and remade in so many games, it would be surprising if they weren’t getting pretty good at them by now. Indeed, the designers of Lego Star Wars II seem to want to avoid repeating other games here: the trench run is surprisingly short, and Hoth has various innovations added to spice it up. (Basically, the tow cable has uses other than tripping up AT-AT’s.)

Right now, I’m all the way through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, which is to say, I’ve gotten 2/3 of the way to the end. It took the better part of a day. Like the original Lego Star Wars, this is a pretty short game. Or rather, it’s a game for completists, and their close kin, perfectionists. Reaching the end of Episode VI shouldn’t take long, but getting all the stuff — the golden bricks and the hidden multi-part lego models — will take slightly longer. Reaching the end of the game is in a sense only the beginning, just a way to unlock all the characters you’ll need when you go back to hunt secrets. Some optional areas are accessible by using the dark side of the Force. There are only two characters in the movies who can do that, and I suspect that they’ll be the last ones to become available for play.

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1. The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books.