Why Aren’t You Playing This? – Psychonauts

One of the perks of having my own column is that I can pretty much write about whatever I want.  So when I replay a great game which has never gotten the wide-spread love it deserves, I can decide to write a column encouraging everyone to check it out.  That’s why I’m about to write about Psychonauts, a funny, twisted, addictive good time.

Psychonauts is a platformer created by Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine Productions.  Originally released on the X-Box, PS2, and PC back in 2005, the game was a critical darling.  Mounds of praise were heaped on the game, and yet sales never really took off.  Game reviewers begged and pleaded with gamers to try Psychonauts, but the masses stayed away.  If only they knew what they had missed out on.

In the game, you control Raz, a 10 year old boy who has run away from his circus life to join the Psychonauts, a group of elite psychic crime fighters.  He arrives at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer camp, and is allowed to stay until his father arrives.  Raz decides his only chance to live the life he’s chosen is to become a full-fledged Psychonaut in the few days he has at the camp.

So how does one become a Psychonaut?  You take classes, of course:  obstacle courses, shooting galleries, and races/parties…all taking place in your teacher’s mind.  That’s right. The majority of the game takes place within the psyches of various characters you meet.  You begin at the camp, taking classes, collecting arrowheads, participating in a scavenger hunt, getting a girlfriend, fighting psychic bears…normal stuff, really.  As the story progresses, you end up fighting giant fish, exploring a rundown asylum (and its residents), and collecting brains.  There’s something for everyone to enjoy.

The story and level design compete to be my favorite part of the game.  The plot is fun and dark, poking fun at children and adults alike.  You’ll meet girl-obsessed campers, a boy who can make heads explode, and the genetic memory of Napoleon Bonaparte.   Everyone you meet feels unique, with their own motivations, and I spend ages every playthrough just talking to them all.  But then you enter the levels, and you’ve got so much more to play with.

My two favorites are the board game level and the conspiracy level.  In the board game level, you interact with the pieces as if they were living, making them happy so they’ll come out and play.  Then you increase your size to move them around the board to unlock more objectives.  To me, it’s a really creative level design for a platformer.  It’s not what you would expect at all, but it fits so well.  The conspiracy level is great just because it’s so strange.  Who is the milkman?  Who killed the milkman?  Who are all these mysterious men observing your every move?  And what do the cute little girls selling cookies have to do with it all?  Those are a few of the questions you have to answer as you explore a (literally) twisted suburban landscape. It’s a truly unique experience.

Yes, in some ways Psychonauts is a typical platformer, with plenty of items to collect and a few frustrating jumping sequences.  I promise you, though, that it’s not like any platformer you’ve ever played.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll shake your head in disbelief.  And at most, it’ll take up 10-12 hours of your life, and that’s if you’re a completionist.  If you’re a gamer, or even if you just enjoy being entertained, you owe it to yourself to check this out.  The good news is that it’s available for download from various sources, including X-Box Live.  So seriously, try Psychonauts.  It’s an experience you’ll never forget.


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