Bliss is a recognizable sensation — you know it when you feel it. For me, I usually stop what I'm doing, look up at the sky, and proclaim: “I love this (insert noun)!!” You've probably mastered your own Bliss Technique by now, but if you haven't or are in the mood to practice, you won't find more opportunities in one place than while playing Double Fine's delightful psychic platformer, Psychonauts.
I first heard of Tim Schafer's brainchild from an unlikely corner for video games: namely, the Theater Department at UC Berkeley. While rehearsing lines from The Importance of Being Ernest, my scene partner began describing one of his favorites: an action-adventure-platform-puzzle video game that takes place at a summer camp for psychic children.
The more he explained, the more mystified I grew. Could the story and dialogue really be that funny? Could an entire cast of characters be so memorable? And above all, what would it look like, this totally imaginative and variable style of gameplay? He described game levels that took place inside of people's minds, each one a unique and fascinating game world you explored in order to advance the plot or become a stronger psychic.
Embroiled as I was with the challenges of Being In College, I never got around to playing Psychonauts until some years later. I've been merrily replaying it ever since.
Picture this: you are Raz, a young runaway who has infiltrated Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp in order train your mind and become a cerebrally-powered secret agent, a psychonaut. Steep ambition for a kid, maybe, but while your fellow campers goof around, make out, and pick on one another, you're all business, developing your mental powers under the supervision of your Psychonaut camp counselors. But it's not too long until you stumble upon a monster kidnapping the children, a mad scientist who steals people's brains, and of course, evil plans to take over the world. The clichés end there, however: this game is without parallel for design, its fully-explorable worlds are majestic and stylish, its every character from top to bottom is made unforgettable by magnificent voice acting.
Psychonauts is very kind to the casual gamer: its movement and combat controls are straightforward, while newly learned psychic powers modify gameplay a little at at time, prompting you to re-explore for the sake of advancement as well as for the sake of appreciation. (That's one thing that Psychonauts does really well: not only is its story divine, but the developers knew it was divine and they rewarded players for experiencing the game fully.)
Be sure to talk to each and every kid, in every corner of the camp, after you achieve anything — you never know what silly scene or snarky one-liner you might miss. For this reason alone, I recommend playing it on Steam, where a recent update finally gives the game some Achievements — even after multiple replays, I still discovered new things I could do and see! Ultimately, though, the camp itself is so much green scenery and brown wooden buildings … the real fun comes from exploring the mental world.
What makes this game innovative, and psychologically savvy and utterly awesome, is the mechanic of entering people's heads. It's in the name, after all : Psycho – Naut, Explorer of the Mind. At certain parts of the game, you will mentally project yourself into the mind of another person, traverse the wild terrain of their subconscious, uncovering the secrets of their wishes, fears, and fantasies as you do.
What this means in design terms is simply more excellent writing, brilliant characterization, a lovely musical score, and mountains of inventive humor. What this means in gameplay terms is, each mind is its own world, with its own set of rules and challenges. One person's mind is a tattered battlefield, another person's mind is a suburban labyrinth, another person's mind is a sprawling dancehall. And your many psychic powers will play different roles in different scenarios: your telekinesis, your levitation, your invisibility, all get put to the test in different ways. It rocks.
A number of reviewers (such as Hilary Goldstein of IGN) found fault with the game's humor, claiming that the jokes “fade in the home stretch.” It's no spoiler to say that things turn dramatic near the end — most action stories do, be they book or game or movie. Rather, that feeling of increased “seriousness” is just the sad fact that the game's finale is near — it's a moment as bittersweet as the last precious days of summer vacation. You know it can't go on forever (bliss never does), but you're so thrilled to have enjoyed it. I know I am.
And hell, they may make a sequel someday! A kid can dream.