19 - Psychonauts Stumbles

Oh, boy. Here we go. Psychonauts has turned that corner of This Is Pretty Cool St. onto I’m Hating This Ave. After the last update, the game has gone full on platform frustration. The framing story of the entire game is beginning to have less and less impact on the gimmicky levels to realize my fears that this game was pretty front loaded. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the concept of the levels. In fact, I have been very entertained with the ideas of the stages themselves, but playing them is an absolute nightmare. Instead of exploring and trying to get all the items, I have begun rushing through and trying to finish as fast as I can because they just aren’t fun. Perspective problems and janky controls turned on the expletives switch in my head while playing and brought on that dreaded thought: “I’m not having fun.” It has started to feel more like a job instead of a game and I was thinking about what I should do. But, after consulting a faq index, I can see I am almost done, so I will try to finish it for the blog. Unfortunately, my check-ins to Get Glue have revealed that I am in for a pretty rough time by the end of the game.

[Getting some of those kiddie brains.]

Not Great Game PLAY

After sorting out the Milk Man Conspiracy and hoping to get through some more story, I was blocked, again, by another crazy in the asylum. Gloria Von Gouton, a former actress, is standing amongst flower pots painted with audience faces and will not let me take her precious acting award. I’m not sure why I need it, or if I will even USE it, but it has a shiny aura around it and she won’t let me leave with it so I’m sure it must be important. After trying to pilfer it by sneaking around, going invisible, and moving it with telekinesis, it was obvious more drastic measures were needed. The old Psychic-Portal comes out of the pocket and we enter the mind of Ms. Von Gouton.

[I thought Von Gouton would turn me to stone for an instadeath. Then I remembered this isn't Nethack.]

I did not like this level. The area was pretty small and unremarkable, the platforming is frustrating and a contrived, and the gimmick does not have enough legs to last for an entire hour of game play. The entire thing is basically a giant puzzle for two thirds of the stage followed by needless platforming capped with a frustrating boss fight. The idea of the level is pretty sound, but it just does not work in the context of the game which is becoming the theme of this game and, possibly, this blog. All of these ideas that Tim Schafer has are interesting with some meaty ground to dig into, but the decision to cram it into a platformer is inherently flawed. I understand this is a major burden on designers and there is no easy solution, but this seems to be what is happening. It also seems much more common than I thought before really thinking critically about the games themselves for the blog. Planescape did it by trying to tell a detailed story with the non-linear and combat RPG setting. Psychonauts is doing the same by trying to represent deep emotional ideas and character progression in the context of jumping and punching. It’s really tough and I feel bad for Avellone and Schafer who are pushing up against that envelope.

When we enter the scene, we see a theatre stage with a flustered stage director telling us how messed up the play going on is. Being inside Von Gouton’s head, we can rest assured that this play is about her past. I like this little touch because it seems to represent the constant re-examination and obsession with her past causing all of her problems. In practice, this amounts to triggering parts of the play to finish the production so that she can move on. Even though this sounds interesting, actually doing it is not. The play cannot begin yet because the star, Bonita, is backstage crying. This lead actor represents Von Gouton’s inspiration which is also a nice touch.  To start her recovery, we need to get Bonita back in the spotlight, literally, by using a candle which is easily found to turn on an actual spotlight in the theatre.

[I'm pretty sure my inspiration is doing the same thing... where is it?]

After starting the play, we find that the only audience member is a big fat critic named Jasper who is constantly bringing the production down. This is also a meaningful idea since we ourselves are our own worst critics. I can attest to that from my constant redrafting of the blog posts. This critic is not constructive, though, and only berates the actors as they perform. It kind of reminds me of myself playing this game.

There are a few special things about this play. The spotlight has two settings: good (represented by a smiling gold mask) and bad (represented by a green sad mask). When you flip between these, the sets alternate between a happy, cheerful version and a dark and scary Silent Hill versions that are roughly the same in structure. Each of these has a portal that triggers a scene change that you can use to bring down different landscapes making four different versions in total (2 light and 2 dark). The problem is that each time Bonita appears on set, a mysterious phantom of the theatre causes an accident bringing the play to a halt. Because of this baffling development, this version of the play cannot finish. But, by using elements of other scripts lying around, we can finish it by introducing new characters or events. Makes sense, right? Not to me either.

[Jasper the critic telling me about the phantom.]

The first new script is suggested by the critic himself who wants to avoid “boredom” by introducing a mounted knight into the show. When using the megaphone to call the knight into the scene, the warrior just kind of rams into the wall at the rear of the stage. So, we need to change the scenes. By converting the set to the ‘evil’ version, we see a dragon emerge from the cliff in the story that we can use the knight to kill it letting us reach the top of the set to grab another script. OK, I get it. We just need to shift things around. After making several changes including introducing a mail boat into the play, using it to traverse to another set, and then finally bringing in a hot air balloon, we are allowed to get into the rafters to fight the phantom. I felt a little weary after such a simple and cumbersome puzzle. Things would only get worse.

The one thing I can commend this sequence on is its unique disclosure of Gloria Von Gouton’s story. Each part of the cheerful side of the play represents her love of acting and desire to please her mother, but the evil side shows the harsh and forceful way her mother put her into acting school where punishment and anger were used to teach. After looking through her viewmaster reel, we find that she did become successful after all of this trauma, yet her mother killed herself and sent her into the deep end. I was pretty touched by this revelation and saw that the game has much more to offer when not hidden behind the 3d platformer veil. These issues the game is dealing with are very mature and subtly inserted into what looks very much like a kid’s silly adventure. The Milk Man’s firing and breakdown, Von Gouton’s mother issues, and Raz’s own story of rejection by his parents all ring of serious problems that many younger players cannot appreciate. It is just so unfortunate that all this is going on within such a frustrating and confining system.

[Raz on the set.]

After reaching the catwalks above the stage, I was introduced to one of the most arbitrary and frustrating experiences in the game so far. This place is completely uninteresting and just consists of suspended platforms, falling sandbags that clobber Raz over the head to kill him, and a lot of anger. I jumped around and did a bunch of nondescript stuff until I reached the phantom which I am intentionally being vague about. This part was really bad and scares me about the future that awaits me. Moving on…

[Such a nightmare.]

After reaching the phantom of the theatre in the rafters, we find out (Surprise Surprise) that it was our buddy Jasper the whole time and enter into the most frustrating boss fight yet. The box seat becomes a floating Dr. Robotnik-style ship with two fountain pen lasers that fire critical slams at Raz. This is humorous. The fight is anything but. All that is involved is shining spotlights on Jasper from the rafters causing him to crash his box seat allowing you to pummel him. All the while, you are at the mercy of constantly regenerating enemies that will set you on fire and hit you making you lose lots of lives. I hate to be very vague and cold about it, but that’s all it is. Just repeat this three or four times and he is dead. The naughty words really came out at this point and I took a break. It doesn’t escape me that I am criticizing a boss fight with a critic, either. Take a look at this video to get an idea of how it goes:

[Living this is much worse than it looks.]

Now that that’s finished, we get out and see that Von Gouton has recovered and gives us her claw-like award for whatever reason before we move deeper into the asylum.

This may be Schafer’s Waterloo, too.

I’ll be honest. I am starting to not want to play this game and am rushing through it. I don’t really have anything interesting to say about each level other than “this is a good idea that is not and cannot be executed well in this format”. Just take that as an understood from now on. This is another one of these situations when we invade and sort out the life of a mental patient: Fred Bonaparte, descendant of famous Frenchman Napoleon.

[Fred's a looker.]

The guy has some major issues. In the asylum, we see Fred arguing with himself in normal vernacular followed by a reply in a French accent. Obviously a split personality. Going into his mental space, we see that he is fighting a losing battle against his other personality. What is interesting is that this battle is represented in the mental space by a nerdy hex-based war game which is a nice nod to nerd-culture. I thought there would be a lot of strategy and moving of pieces around the board which excited me. Guess what, I was wrong.

[It looks awesome.]

The area is much more than meets the eye initially. The first area of the level is a quiet living room setting with the two players concentrating on the game board. After looking around for a little, I found that it is possible to jump onto the game board. Raz is shrunken down to the size of a game piece and is able to run around to different buildings labeled as farms, carpenters, and castles. I was hoping for a really broad strategy session, but what I found was one of the most railroaded sections of the game so far. You are literally unable to do anything except the correct order to finish the game. In this case, it means going to various locations on the game board, shrinking down to a smaller size to enter the buildings, and talking to the pieces to get them to join Fred’s army. I was bored to tears.

Let me just run through the process quickly. Upon entering, a Napoleonic soldier destroys a bridge to the other side of the map stopping troop movements. I was required to recruit the carpenter to repair this and then get a farmer to join the militia by telling him Fred really cares about the game. After accomplishing this, the exact same thing happened. Bridge destroyed, use the carpenter to fix, recruit another farmer. It was so disappointing, I was wondering if I was doing something wrong. Eventually, after doing this three (!) times, I was privileged to encounter the most frustrating platform sequence yet. Getting around the main hold to open the drawbridge allowing my knight to conquer the castle took me 45 minutes and lots of cursing to get through. I am so worried about the rest of the game.

[I play games because I love repeating the same process over and over.]

Once again, I really like the idea that this person is playing a game against himself and almost trying to outmaneuver his other personality to gain control. I really understand it having recovered from depression and having to constantly tiptoe around the feelings and imposing mist that I anthropomorphize to embody it. It almost reaches a metaphor that could be considered sublime, but it’s just so damn frustrating. Anyway, we get through the area, help Fred recover, after which he grants me his straight jacket that he doesn’t need any longer.

[You're cured, but what about me?! I'll be nuts soon!]

Before quitting for the night, I talked to an orderly who at first mistook me for the evil Dr. Loboto. The guy is near-sighted, but could tell I wasn’t the doc by the fact that Raz isn’t wearing a straight jacket like the doc wears, doesn’t have a claw for a hand like the doc has, or have a green face. Wait… we’ve got two of those things. The straight jacket came from Fred and the claw-shaped award from Von Gouton! All we need to do now is get a green face, defeat the evil Dr. Loboto,  save the camp, and finish this game! Based on the item dispersion, I guess I have to find another mind to enter before continuing.


What’s next.

Sorry guys, I really tried to punch up the update as much as I could, but Psychonauts is really wearing me down. I agree wholeheartedly with the majority of reviews floating around that the game has great ideas, rich imagination, and lofty goals. Unfortunately, the levels are front loaded with the best coming at the beginning and the latter just seeming to suffer from lack of time and/or money. I feel bad for Tim Schafer because this game came along at a time when games were really undergoing that heavy transition from cottage industry of nerds making programs for other nerds to a multi-million dollar industry dominated by suits. What used to be a passion has been reduced down to dollar signs, production schedule forecasting, and marketing. I hope with his new Kickstarter Double-Fine can really do what they want without any overhead pressure from publishers and can make a modern classic. For now, though, I will try to finish Psychonauts and write a general overview before moving on to the next game from the backlog.

If you have any comments, please leave a message, even if you think I’m being too dismissive and lazy in the updates. It’s just hard to get excited about such a frustrating thing. Check it out next time when we get through the rest of Psychonauts and see how it all ends up.

--Backlog Killer