Double Fine has been an interesting company in the past. While they made excellent games in the past (Psychonauts) and been incredibly creative with new ideas (Brutal Legend), they have been marred by developmental issues and problems which could be linked to poor administration. From the outside, Double Fine looks like a powerful, fiery engine which uses resources quickly and inefficiently.
I was unsure about Psychonauts as I came in. I knew it would be clever, surreal, in-depth – the hall marks of a Double Fine production. I didn’t quite realise that it would be an appropriate use of VR.
Bridging the gap between Psychonauts 1 and 2, Raz is recognized as a talented PSI Cadet and is asked to join his tutors as a fully fledged Psychonaut. But as Raz prepares to go home from camp with his father, news arrives that the Grand Head of the Psychonauts (and Lili’s father) Truman Zanotto, has been kidnapped. The team, Raz and Lili included, fly off in the Psychonauts’ jet to rescue him. And unfortunately, the jet sinks.
Raz now trips from mind to mind moving objects, setting them on fire, and even seeing the world in other people’s perspectives. It is, in essence, a point and lick game in first person – only instead of moving around with licks, you look around and head in the relevant mind around the space.
What first struck me was that the game was around a VR headset in mind. Characters rarely moved, which suits your position if you are sitting down. In 95% of cases, everything you need is directly in front of you, with little need of turning 180 degrees. You just need to memories and learn from your surroundings.
Much of what you do in the game makes sense for VR. Without spoiling anything – an item in the intro is introduced as something special for a character. Later in the story you find the item again, but it is damaged – a hole is on the side. Thing is, you can only find the hole if you rotate the controller to see it. You then remember you can move your mind to a small creature which can crawl inside – and boom, you solve the puzzle. The puzzles are set up so that they each lead into one another – a running theme which means you can remember where they were going.
Because of this, I really enjoyed my time with Psychonauts. The odd humour, the lovely puns which tickled my British sentiments, the creative puzzles – its a delight to play.
James Spafford, Community Manager of Double Fine, says that the game was designed “to be as fun for long time fans of the series as it is for new players — meaning there’s no need to know what happened to these characters before now.” I agree that they tried, but I disagree in execution – the short, thirty second overview at the beginning did not do much to flesh out the characters. They are broad strokes, enough to function and be vaguely aware of how the world works, but even then new players may be confused as to how a little kid can catch things on fire and why squirrels are stuck in a jet. Then again, if you ignore the story and see it as a puzzle game through and through, the suspense of disbelief works to your favor and you can play without much knowledge of Raz and his past.
Psychonauts is not just a good game; its a finely designed game for the tools available. I said that Double Fine was a fiery engine; while true, the products they release are consistently good, and this is no exception. It’s clear that Double Fine knows how to work with virtual reality, and I hope they continue to do so in the future.
You can buy Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin here.