[GAME MASTER]PsychonautsWhen LucasArts shuttered its adventure game studio in 2000, it was the end of a gaming era. Anyone with a computer and a sense of humor was familiar with LucasArts’ long list of ingenious titles, among them “Sam and Max Hit the Road,” the “Monkey Island” series and the delightfully twisted “Day of the Tentacle.”
“Escape from Monkey Island” was the last gasp of the LucasArts adventure game, and we adventure game lovers wondered if we would ever again have the opportunity to play games from this smart, funny team.
I am glad to report that we do. Tim Schafer, the designer of the incredible 1998 game “Grim Fandango,” has taken half of the “Fandango” team with him to found a new company, and its first game, recently completed, is called “Psychonauts.”
All the (former) LucasArts trademarks are here: a bizarre premise, outlandishly cartoony characters and a frantic story. In the “Psychonauts” world, some people are born with psychic powers that they learn to use as secret agents called psychonauts. The first step on the road to becoming a psychonaut is to attend the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, where the game takes place.
The protagonist, Razputin (voiced by Richard Horvitz of “Invader Zim”), was born into a circus family, and his father hates psychics because of a curse they put on him. Once he finds out he’s a psychic, Raz escapes from his father to join the camp, with the ultimate goal of becoming a psychonaut. Raz’s classmates and teachers are various misfits and outcasts, like the X-Men but with humor instead of angst. They’re also realistically imperfect: one child explains the different ways of suffocating someone, while another lashes out because squirrels keep making fun of him. Another LucasArts refugee, cartoonist Scott Campbell, is no doubt partially responsible for the unique art design.
As the game progresses, Raz’s powers (“merit badges”) increase, and by the end of the game he’s able to burn things, lift things, levitate, read people’s minds and more.
The most intriguing psychic power and the one that drives the game is Raz’s ability to enter people’s brains. The inside of a brain is rendered as a physical manifestation of consciousness: the conspiracy theorist’s brain is characterized by mysterious men in trenchcoats, the veteran’s by barbed wire and guard towers, the free spirit’s by a nonstop party, et cetera. It is only through solving each character’s psychological problems that Raz can make any progress in the game, making “Psychonauts” perhaps the first ever therapy simulation.
One compromise has been made to satisfy modernity: the game is a more action-oriented platform game rather than a classic adventure game. This means you’ll be spending most of your time climbing nets and leaping across chasms rather than exploring and solving puzzles. The game design is still ingenious, however: standouts include an M.C. Escher-esque level where gravity changes with every step and a classic wargame inside the mind of a man with a Napoleon complex. But the format limits “Psychonauts” to a brief length compared to Schafer’s past games.
That said, “Psychonauts” still boasts the cleverest writing and most creative designs in recent memory, and it’s the first LucasArts-style comedic adventure game on the market in a long time. Pick it up now, because it may also be the last for a long time.
by Ben Applegate