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July 26, 2005

The Persistence of Mythology


So, my recent post about Psychonauts got the juices flowing again a bit.

Another thing I think is really remarkable about Psychonauts is the degree to which the game's themes have been allowed to permeate into the play.

Often, in platformers, we're asked to collect abstract things which then become part of the mythology of the game. Stars and shines and coins for Mario, rings for Sonic. Taking something and making it a more real part of the game world gets done as well: Jak and Daxter has its Precursor Orbs and Power Cells, Ratchet and Clank has bolts and tons of weapons, it goes on and on².

One aspect of the brilliance of Psychonauts is that it finds a way to use these conventions but present them in a way that is thoroughly consistent with the game universe. You're off digging around in psyches, and you don't find rings and coins: you find figments of imagination, and mental cobwebs, vaults, and emotional baggage.

Emotional baggage.

Okay, so you've let that sink in, have you? Of course, when you encounter the baggage, it's crying, since it has no tag (and thus, can't be sorted). When you give a piece of baggage its tag, it is super happy. See, it's not just baggage, it's emotional baggage. Once you've sorted out all the emotional baggage, you get what in other games would simply be labelled "concept art". But in Psychonauts, they call it Primal Memories¹.

This is taking an idea all the way through. It's a level of polish a dress sergeant would be pleased as punch to have on his boots.

It's throughout the game. Your power-ups: clairvoyance, pyrokinesis, telekinesis. Hey, you even get to float around inside of brains using a thought bubble.

And that's just the stuff you get inside of people's brains. When you're out in the physical world, you're still a kid at summer camp. You go on scavenger hunts, finding just the sorts of weird off-kilter objects you might actually look for at summer camp. You collect arrowheads (remnants of the Indian tribe that once lived there). There's a bully and his lackeys. There's a girl who can't make up her mind about who her latest crush is on. You get merit badges for your achievements. It's wonderful.

This level of attention to detail is what made me go through and collect every single thing in the game, every challenge marker, every scavenger hunt item, every mental object of every stripe. There were gameplay side benefits -- some level challenges were almost certainly easier because I had achieved all sorts of bonuses to my skills. Sure, it was just another game where along the way you're collecting items. But weaving these collectibles so closely into the fabric of the game's story elements made this remarkably satisfying to me³.

After an experience like Psychonauts, collecting shines and rings seems so... pedestrian.

¹Side note: I was extremely happy to see these. Back in my early days of working for LucasArts, I was able to see huge amounts of Grim Fandango concept art just by stopping by the huge corkboard wall outside of Tim's office there. It was filled with great images by Peter Chan of the various locations and characters in the game, as well as some great pieces which just gave you a feel for the game.
²It will no doubt continue to go on and on in the next round of platformers, on our new dark masters starting to arrive this fall.
³And, let's face it, to my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I sort of lamented that there wasn't any character really suffering from OCD in the game, but I forgave them, since that character was me.

Posted by Brett Douville at July 26, 2005 09:37 PM