E3 2002: Psychonauts Preview (XBox)

by Andrew "telarium" Langley

So you're an adventure gaming god. You've worked one critically successful game after another and created some of the most famous and quirky characters to ever appear on a computer screen. Now what do you do? You make a game about international super secret psychic agents who journey inside people's heads, of course.

Naturally, this comes after you decide to form your own company. Following the huge critical success of Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer left his job at LucasArts, where he had spent more than a decade working on such classics as Monkey Island 1 and 2 as well as creating games like Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle.

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Enter Double Fine Productions and their new game, Psychonauts. This game can only be classified as an overwhelming action adventure console game. However, just because it's a console game doesn't mean it doesn't fit in with what Tim has created before.

"Those are the kinds of games I like to make," Tim said. "Graphic adventures, a story, puzzles, character interaction and stuff like that. But I also like console games. I like the way you can jump in and just grab and play and have tons of fun."

Psychonauts, as we mentioned before, are international agents who gather information through telepathic means. They can jump into someone's head and explore his or her mind to find psychological clues. Exploring someone's mind is like exploring a real environment, meeting different characters and overcoming various obstacles.

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In the game you take control of Raz, a gifted psychic kid raised by a family of fortune-telling acrobats. Raz is secretly attending a summer camp that teaches gifted kids to use their psychic powers. However, his parents do not want him to use his inherited psychic powers due to a family curse. The summer camp involves earning merit badges for such skills as levitation, invisibility, fire starting, and much more. Raz obtains these skills in the game, and, because of his family's background, he can also perform acrobatic skills like swinging on bars, climbing poles, and walking on tightropes.

In the demo level that we saw, Raz leaps into the mind of his girlfriend, who is suffering from nightmares. Inside her head, Raz must deal with the surreal fears and family issues. For example, the girl's father raised rabbits for meat and then butchered them, so the level is littered throughout with huge pieces of meat on which one can faintly see rabbity designs. There are also protective brain censors with which Raz must battle.

Each level/character's mind has its own unique geometry and art style. 3D objects like trees and rocks are not simply recycled over and over, so there is a wide variety of unique environments. For example, one character is convinced that he is Napoleon, and you enter the battle of Waterloo inside his brain. Another character is obsessed with velvet black paintings, so the level consists entirely of black velvet.

Don't worry about the action elements taking too much away from the adventure qualities, though. Tim reassures us that "there's a whole other side to the game with a lot more Grim Fandango-type puzzles involving characters and inventory all mixed together." In the game, you have the ability to slow down and look around at the world you are in. If you come across a huge obstacle, you can use your psychic action powers to defeat enemies. However, you also have the option of looking for less physically dexterous ways of solving puzzles. You can also talk to various characters to learn more about the story.

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The interface is straightforward and yet whimsically unique. A thought bubble appears over Raz, showing you what he's thinking about. Unexpectedly, you can physically grab the thought bubble and bounce on it to jump higher. You can also smash the bubble on the ground like a land mine. Cycling through options within the bubble allow you to use different psychic powers.

"We wanted to concentrate first on the physical console side," Tim added, "because honestly ... that's the stuff I had to prove the most to ourselves that we could do as a team, because we haven't really done that before." The Psychonauts team includes several former LucasArts employees. Peter McConnell is writing the music, which reminded me of a demented version of the Bone Wagon theme from Grim Fandango.

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Peter has composed music for every game Tim has worked on. Clint Bajakian is doing the sound effects, Peter Chan is the concept artist, and Chris Brown, who produced voices at LucasArts, is performing the same tasks at Double Fine. (Editor's Note: I've been informed that her name is Khris Brown, not Chris. Darn! There goes my journalistic integrity!) "Everyone left Lucas ... at the same time and now they're all freelance, " Tim said with a grin, "so now they're available again."

Psychonauts, the "massively single-player" game, is scheduled to be out on XBox consoles in the spring of 2003.

When?: Spring 2003

What?: Action/Adventure
Single Player

What with?:
Only on Xbox (sniff)

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