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Best of the Decade: Psychonauts


Platforms: Xbox, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, Windows

Release Date: April 19, 2005 (Xbox version)

Publisher: Majesco Entertainment

Developer: Double Fine Productions

I’m still plagued with Gamer Guilt because of this game. I’ve supported many an underdog of a title in my time. I’m proud of my early purchase of Beyond Good & Evil, even before the price entered its deadly spiral downward after only a few weeks on shelves. I’m proud to have purchased Amplitude, giving me a small part in supporting the brilliant minds at Harmonix that eventually gave us Guitar Hero and Rock Band. 

Psychonauts, sadly, is the one that slipped away.

I rented Psychonauts, though at this point I can only vaguely remember when. I seem to recall it avoiding my radar for some months when finally I tried it on a whim. I devoured it during that rental period and fell in love, but I never properly gave my money to the game. To this day, the only copy I have is a beaten up used Xbox disc I’m lucky to have even found. I know my single purchase wouldn’t have made a difference, especially months after it had been released, but I can’t help it. I feel bad because this masterpiece deserved better, from both myself and the rest of the gaming community. Becoming a cult classic is small comfort when your game is a retail failure.

The nature of gaming doesn’t mesh well with comedy. The two forces seem to be diametrically opposed. On the one hand you have humor, which relies on precise, guided timing. On the other hand you have gaming, which is controlled by the player and in which anything could happen at any time according to the whims of the human holding the controller. Perhaps you can see the fundamental problem. Outside of stuffing funny dialog into cutscenes here and there, which are conveniently outside the player’s control, few games even attempt to be humorous. It’s exceedingly difficult and results in failure more often than success. 

Take the recent game DeathSpank, for example. It tries to parody the hack-and-slash adventure game while relying on the tired tropes it’s lampooning in its dialog. Listening to the chatter between missions is funny, but mashing the attack button thousands of times and completing monotonous fetch quests is not. In other words, like many games that have attempted humor, DeathSpank wraps a layer of lighthearted icing around a fundamentally mediocre action game cake. 

There are a select few games that get the combo right. These elite few manage to work the gameplay and the environment into the humor. Conker’s Bad Fur Day is one, taking players through a hilarious romp around a cartoony platformer world gone horribly wrong. Portal is another, with GLaDOS’ snarky dialog making you laugh even as you incinerate your dear friend the Companion Cube. Psychonauts belongs in the pantheon of titles that manage to get it right. 

Humor in games starts, naturally, with great dialog. Psychonauts has plenty of that to spare and a load of memorable characters doing the speaking. What places Double Fine’s masterpiece above all the other potential funny-makers on the shelves is that its humor doesn’t stop there. It’s special because, like the other humorous games on this list, its humor doesn’t stop at dialog. Even the interactive stuff will put a smile on your face, and that’s mighty tough to accomplish. 

The outlandish premise is a big part of what allows Psychonauts to accomplish this. You play as a little boy, Raz, who comes to a psychic summer camp to develop the powers of his mind. This allows the game to establish the fascinating concept of making platforming levels out of the minds of its characters. Raz must battle inner demons, fight off mental censors who don’t want him patrolling the confines of another’s mind, collect mental baggage in the form of actual pieces of luggage, and bounce around crazy levels that would only be possible out of the reach those pesky rules that come with physical reality. This premise is simply bursting with comedic possibility, and Double Fine doesn’t miss a moment.

The story itself contains much of the charm of a Pixar film. If you’ve ever heard me discuss Pixar, you’ll know how great a compliment that is. The tale is simple, but well-told. It gives the player a vital human element to attach to on top of what could have been a concept too far-out to relate to. It has moments both heartwarming and side-splitting, managing to capture the colorful charm of a kids’ game with the wit required to engage the mind of an older audience. 

But it’s when you dive into someone’s mind and begin to actually play the game that it shows its true brilliance. The level design and the varied gameplay segments incorporate interactivity into the charm of the title. There’s nothing like walking through a 1950s-era neighborhood as envisioned through the eyes of a psychotic milkman, complete with evil girl scouts and nefarious spies posing as road crew workers. Later, Raz invades the mind of a menacing lungfish boss and ravages the city of Lungfishopolis as the evil giant Goggalor. Then there’s the time when Raz is transformed into a living game piece on a strategy board game played by two mental patients. Or you can always just wander around camp and set squirrels on fire with your mind. The craziness never ends. 

Outside of throwing in a pithy one-liner now and again, few games even try humor because of the potential for cataclysmic, game-ruining failure. The medium of gaming, it seems, is just not well-suited for bringing the funny. 

Or is it? Games like Psychonauts make a good case that, with a little imagination, humor is perfectly possible even while having deal with that pesky problem of user control. 

Tim Schafer’s psychic masterpiece is still a rare case, but that just makes it all the more important to recognize how impressive Psychonauts really is. It masters humor with a lighthearted ease while so many other games struggle to reach even mediocrity with their laughs. 

To put it simply, Psychonauts is as funny as it is fun. This is a rare quality I happen to appreciate in a game. Thus, Psychonauts is one of my Best of the Decade. 

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