Costume Quest

One of the unfortunate things about the annual IF Comp for this blog is that it tends to engulf Halloween, leaving seasonally-appropriate games unplayed. But this year, throwing my already-dented schedule to the wind, I managed to play all the way through Double Fine’s Costume Quest in a single night, and through its Christmas-themed DLC Grubbins On Ice a few days later.

I can’t say for sure that I’d be saying this if I didn’t already know Tim Schafer was involved, but general the tone of the work reminds me a lot of Psychonauts, albeit shorter and lower-budget. (Which hurts it in unexpected ways: CQ was clearly designed for voice acting that it doesn’t have, with the result that text sometimes sits unskippable on the screen for the amount of time it would take to say it aloud, in a bright white speech balloon that makes it hard to focus on the generally dimly-lit world.) Both works get a lot of their humor from the juxtaposition of children acting childish and taking their childish concerns very seriously, and the same children displaying immense world-saving powers. The basic idea here is that it’s a RPG about trick-or-treating, which is an amazingly good match when you think about it. Trick-or-treating is already essentially about venturing forth to seek treasure of a sort, and the holiday provides an excuse to get monsters involved. Knocking on doors essentially takes the place of grinding, with each door harboring a random encounter, either a grown-up who gives you candy or a group of monsters you have to fight.

The costumes, now. The costumes are essentially a simplified FF5-style Jobs system. Looking back at my description of Jobs in FF5, I notice that I even described them as “like garments that you slip on to suit your current activities”. CQ takes that a bit more literally, but even in FF5, each Job came with its own distinct outfit. Costumes in CQ are mainly found through specific quests or constructed out of cheap materials like cardboard and glitter, which are found in coffin-shaped treasure chests. Once obtained, they can be swapped among your characters arbitrarily — the kids are too young for gender to be an issue here.

The chief effect of the costumes is in combat. Ordinarily, your characters just look like kids in cheap costumes, but whenever you enter combat, there’s a brief transformation sequence in which you become what your current costume depicts. No logical explanation for this is provided, or needed: it’s clear that the dividing line between reality and imagination is pretty thin in this game, so pretending to be a vampire or ninja or whatever is all that’s necessary to actually become one for the moment. It is, in effect, a game about playing.

The game-mechanical effect is that each costume has a distinct special move, either offensive or defensive, with its own special animation like a Final Fantasy summoning power. The robot costume, for example, has a missile barrage that hurts all enemies, while the vampire costume has a life-drain attack that restores your health. These special moves, without exception, take three combat rounds to power up. As a result, most non-boss combats end with massive overkill in exactly three rounds. Normally, this costume move is the only thing your characters can do in combat aside from simple attacks, although certain “Battle Stamps” — equippable power-ups that you can purchase with candy — give you an additional option, usually one that stuns an opponent and keeps it from attacking. Copious use of such powers makes combat downright trivial most of the time (although the end boss is nicely tricky to beat even when you’ve maxed out your power). This is why I compare the trick-or-treading to grinding. The game’s short length prevents the fights from getting too monotonous, but the fights do largely consist of watching the same animations repeatedly with a minimum of decision-making, once you’ve worked out what to do.

Even so, I generally found it disappointing to knock on a door and just get free candy without having to fight for it. This reaction is probably the opposite of what was intended, judging by the music cues.

A few of the costumes have powers that you can activate outside of combat, mainly to overcome specific obstacles: a robot costume’s wheels provide a speed boost you can use on ramps to jump over walls, a knight’s shield protects you in falling-debris fields, a pirate’s hook (seen only in the DLC) lets you slide down ziplines. I found this aspect of the game didn’t work well. It’s clearly modeled on Zelda/Metroidvania mobility powers, but somehow I always felt less empowered by my ability to overcome obstacles than inconvenienced by the necessity. Maybe it has to do with the way that the kids kept on pointing out the obstacles when I got near them, and hinting broadly at the solutions, rather than letting me discover things on my own. Also, I suppose most of the non-combat powers weren’t useable in enough different places to seem handy rather than contrived.

Now, I’m making a lot of complaints, but that’s because I enjoyed the game enough for anything complainable to stand out. Please understand that, although trick-or-treating is the game’s core mechanic, it’s not what you spend most of your time doing. It’s more a game of exploration and side-quests and the occasional bobbing-for-apples mini-game. The main game is divided into three areas with a great deal of symmetry in their goals — for example, each has a set of six kids hiding in various places, with a reward for finding them all. The goals are diverse and can be pursued in parallel, which goes a long way towards keeping things interesting for as long as the game lasts. And best of all, for such as me, it’s all quite completable, with a neat list of checkboxes to fill in to prove that you did absolutely everything in the game. Grubbins On Ice is essentially one larger neighborhood, with the same symmetrical sub-goals as the first three, but set in the monsters’ home world. This denatures things somewhat: adventuring in more of a pure fantasy environment lessens the juxtaposition between the fantastic and the mundane that underlies the game’s humor and its theme of the childish imagination.

That’s a point worth emphasizing, I think. This is a game that puts children into the position of hero because only the children are open-minded enough to accept what’s really going on. You can save your progress by using telephones in the game, by means of which the kids call the police, who don’t take the monster threat seriously at all, although the kids don’t seem to notice this and can keep calling back in the expectation that the police might be on the case now. The kid who sells you Battle Stamps has her stall set up in every neighborhood; in the second chapter, set in a shopping mall, she’s actually inside a store run by her father, who treats her entire operation as a pretend store, an adorable bit of make-believe of no real importance — largely because she’s concealing its significance from him. And at the end of the adventure, the party calmly trades candy at home, watched by parents who have no idea what they’ve just been through, mainly because they’re acting as if nothing unusual happened. The grownups are only aware of normal things. The children, in their naivety, have no idea what normal is, and thus don’t differentiate between the normal and the freakishly odd.

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.

Psychonauts: Pie Menu

psychonauts-menuFrankly, I find it hard to play Psychonauts without thinking of the Ratchet & Clank games. I suppose that they’re both basically just swimming in the general soup of 3D platformers, all of which imitate each other to some degree, but there are a few specific aspects that seem particularly Ratchettian. There’s the general approach to combat sequences: in most cases, battles can be won by either having skill and good reflexes, or by assessing the situation and choosing the one weapon in your arsenal that makes it easy. There’s the sliding-along-a-rail sequences, although the two games approach that in different ways: R&C made the “shredding” into something set apart in special areas that demanded tricky sequences of timed jumps, and while Psychonauts has a couple of bits that seem to be intended to evoke the same experience (but aren’t as difficult), it mainly just adds the rails to bits of the regular terrain, letting you slide down bannisters as an alternative to walking down the stairs and the like.

And then there’s the pie menus. This is the main thing that keeps reminding me of R&C, because it’s something I use all the time. If you want to select a psychic power or an inventory item in Psychonauts, or a weapon or gadget in Ratchet & Clank, you can do it through an interface that shows eight choices in a circle, from which you select one by pointing the analog stick in the appropriate direction. This is one of R&C‘s most distinctive features, and the menu in Psychonauts resembles it more strongly than other pie menus I’ve seen (such as the one in The Sims), which tend to be based on using a mouse rather than a joystick, and have a variable number of slots rather than always eight (resulting in, for example, a triangular configuration if there are only three options). And the strange thing is that, even though this resemblance is strong, it’s very superficial.

See, the point of the pie menu in Ratchet & Clank is that it was your quick-selection option. That game had a lot more than eight weapons, and the pie menu wasn’t the primary way to select them. You always had the option of opening up the screen that had the full set displayed in a grid, pushing a cursor around to select the correct square, and resuming the game. But if you were using a particular item a lot, it was more convenient to put it into one of the eight quick-selection slots where you could just press a button, flick the joystick, and release. In the sequels, bringing up the circle menu didn’t even pause the action. Crucial to the way it worked was that you could assign which item went in which slot yourself. If you got used to flicking upward for your main weapon, and then decided to switch to using some other weapon as your main one, you could just replace it.

This conceptual niche, the user-assignable quick-selection option, exists in Psychonauts, but not through the circle menu. Rather, the game lets you assign three different psychic powers to different buttons — on a gamepad, keyboard, or mouse — while a fourth button activates the currently-selected inventory item. That’s your quick-selection: selecting which button to press. The pie menu, then, takes the role of that page with the complete grid in R&C. There are exactly eight psychic powers, so they all fit on the same circle, and you can’t alter their positions on it. There are sometimes more than eight inventory items, in which case the game lets you page between multiple batches of eight.

It really seems like this aspect of the user interface was decided on because it was cool, not because it was appropriate. It’s a menu in which you don’t use any particular option frequently (because the powers you use frequently are the ones you never remove from their button assignments), that isn’t user-alterable, and which, in the case of the inventory menu, sometimes changes itself spontaneously. All of which means it loses the chief advantage of the pie menu: its “gestural” nature, the ability to use it from muscle memory. It might as well be a traditional list.

Psychonauts: Style

psychonauts-hexgridOne thing I like a lot about Psychonauts is its variability of style. Each mental world is a representation of one character’s mind, and conforms to that character’s world view, with greater or lesser degrees of abstraction and phantasmagoria mixed in. One person has decided to treat life as an endless party, and has a mind decorated like a discotheque. Another is paranoid, and has a mental landscape that’s fragmented into disjointed sidewalks floating in the abyss in varying orientation, lined with tract houses, a veneer of normality that completely fails to conceal the bizarre. One guy’s inner world is rendered in imitation of the paintings he does. Since his medium is fluorescent paint on black velvet, this makes for the strongest visual shift yet.

I think my favorite so far is the inner world of Fred Bonaparte, a classical loonie who thinks he’s Napoleon. Sort of. It’s more like he’s got a split personality and one of those personalities is Napoleon. (Or, heck, maybe he really is possessed by Napoleon’s ghost. It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing in the game.) In his mind, Fred and Napoleon are playing a hex-based wargame, which you can descend into and explore at two different levels of scale, shifting in size as appropriate to interact with the buildings on the map or the wooden soldiers. (Both soldiers and buildings occupy one hex each.) With the size shifts and the conversing with game pieces, it’s kind of like Alice in Wonderland meets Avalon Hill. And, well, the game just looks good. It’s that lush mixture of gameboard and diorama that the really dedicated hobbyists put together, the sort of thing that makes you want to learn the rules just so you’ll be allowed to touch it.

I suppose that switching around the look from level to level is really one of the fundamental techniques behind platformers: it’s a way to create variety when the gameplay has limited range. Not that this is much of an issue here.

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.

Psychonauts: Missing Things

psychonauts-doctorI think I’ve been missing things that the designers of Psychonauts wanted me to see.

Early on in the game, Raz is given access to his own mental landscape, his dreamworld. There, he sees a mad doctor in a tower menacing Dogen, one of the other kids at the camp, and threatening to extract his brain. Raz is convinced that this is more than just a dream, that he’s witnessing something real. His default dialogue with other characters changes: he asks them if they know anything about people’s brains being stolen and things like that.

But after a while, Raz started saying things that suggested that he had observed changes in Dogen’s behavior that the stolen-brain hypothesis would explain. Thing is, I hadn’t observed these changes. I hadn’t seen Dogen in some time and had no idea where he was. I think I know where he was now: when I finally reached the brain-removal room in Raz’s dreamworld, the one thing that brainless Dogen said was “TV”. There’s a TV room in the main cabin, but I hadn’t visited it lately because there wasn’t much to do there. When I finally got back there (after a long diversion involving a monster lungfish), it was empty, and Raz said something along the lines of “Finally, no one is here! I can watch whatever I want!” Now, I had never seen anyone else in the TV room, and no one had ever objected to my changing the channel. So it really seems like I was supposed to have gone back there and seen Dogen, and possibly other debrained children, watching TV and drooling or something.

If I’m right about all this, and I’ve been breaking the sense of the story by not doing things in the right order, it’s kind of surprising: Tim Schafer comes from adventure games, and keeping the plot sensible regardless of player choices is a big part of adventure game design. But here I am, circumventing important plot points without trying. In fact, I’ve been at some pains to cooperate with the designers and do what they want me to do.

That may in fact be my problem, because the game sends mixed messages. On the one hand, Raz seems to regard the rescue of Dogen in the dream tower to be his top priority, and urgent to boot. It’s a false urgency, because the the game has no real time limits, but it seemed like a sign that this was what I was supposed to focus on next in order to keep the game going the way the designers intended. On the other hand, each step in the plot also changes all the incedental stuff: the kids are all in new places doing new things and have new dialogue, the bulletin boards have new notices, etc. (I didn’t even notice that the boards were readable at first, so I missed a couple of chapters worth of notices.) Most of this is just humor not related to the main story — there’s a fairly complicated pre-teen soap opera going on if you feel like paying attention to it — but some of it’s important to Raz’s investigations, and you’ll miss most of it if you actually go directly where Raz tells you to go instead of wandering around and visiting every location again every time you exit a dreamworld. I suppose I thought I’d always have the opportunity to stumble across relevant scenes involving the other kids on the campground, but at the point I’ve reached in the game, all the other kids are gone.

I may replay from the start at some point just to get a more thorough look at everything, maybe after I’ve finished the game and can understand all the foreshadowing. It’s an enjoyable game to play, and this would also allow me to see the earlier scenes at their intended framerate.


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.

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.