Psychonauts Doesn't Need Great Gameplay To Be A Joy To Play

Super Mario Odyssey launched on the Switch with a bang.  It received near universal acclaim, and many consider it the best Mario game ever made.  It's absolutely stuffed with things to do, places to go, and flora and fauna to possess.  It's got solid platforming mechanics, and probably the best dynamic 3D camera ever made. But the game has a serious flaw, one that critics mostly ignored.

Super Mario Odyssey is boring.

There’s no point to having solid mechanics if the game doesn’t do anything interesting with them.  Odyssey seems to promise endless creative potential in the ability to possess creatures using Cappy, but instead you get an endless stream of novel ‘bits’ where you use the creature’s signature ability a couple of times before they’re forgotten about forever.  You never combine or transition between different possessions, there’s no evolution of ideas present.

But the far bigger problem is that thematically the game is incredibly dull.  Sand Kingdom. Wooded Kingdom. Snow Kingdom. The developers couldn’t even be bothered to give them more interesting names!  It’s a ‘grand tour’ through some of the most boring locations in video-game history. It boggles my mind that we somehow regressed from the insanity of Super Mario Galaxy’s planet-hopping to settings less interesting than those in Super Mario 64.

It's a contrast that became increasingly stark to me as I played through Psychonauts for our podcast a few weeks ago.  A commercial failure at launch, and a cult classic for many years, it's a game that somehow manages to have no uninteresting levels.  Its bursting at the seams with personality, humour and creativity and it made me smile in delight every time a new world unfurled before me.  It's also a game with pretty mediocre - even boring - gameplay.    

But in spite of this, Psychonauts is the far superior game.  Its presentation is so well crafted that you enjoy its monotony and ignore its bland combat, because you’re so focused on what it all means.  If Super Mario Odyssey deserves the label of ‘creative’ - one that many critics were happy to bestow on it - then Psychonauts is the most mind-blowing title of all time.  And its average gameplay doesn’t subtract from the masterful level design it presents you, time and time again.


In Psychonauts you play as Razputin, a child circus performer with suppressed psychic powers.  Raz runs away from the circus to join Whispering Rock Summer Camp, a secret government camp that trains latent psychics into psychic spies.  A Psychonaut harnesses psychic powers like telekinesis and levitation, but what makes them truly special is their ability to invade other people’s minds, and fix problems from the inside out.  

The level design hinges it its entirety on how these minds are portrayed.  And Psychonauts does not disappoint. It does creative things with perspective, casting you as Goggalor, a Godzilla-like monster invading the peaceful city of Lungfishopolis.  The brains are accurate reflections of the person’s outward persona - Coach Oleander is a grizzled ex-army man and his brain looks like a battlefield.  Mila Vodello is a laid back Brazillian who loves to dance and party, and her brain is lit up in psychedelic colours and covered with lava lamps. These levels feel wildly different, but for all the disparity in aesthetics we still stay grounded as Raz the psychonaut throughout the entire game.  

No matter how weird or uncanny the minds you delve into are, Raz is still Raz.  He’s still an acrobat and still possesses his standard array of psychic powers. And every mind has common elements - they’re all still human, after all.  The commonalities are metaphors mixed with puns - figments of imagination, mental cobwebs, memory vaults, emotional baggage and censors.

The mind is a poorly understood place, so how better to portray it than to make physically real the problems that plague it.  Instead of collecting coins or note blocks, you pick up transparent, hard to see figments of the subject’s imagination. You clear mental cobwebs from the dusty corners of each mind, and find dark, repressed memories locked away in secret areas.  The standard enemy, the censor, is hellbent on erasing errant thoughts and others that don’t belong, screaming ‘NO’ at you and waving their rejection stamps menacingly.  

It feels like we’re inside a mind because of how much care has been put into these seemingly random collectibles.  Our brains and persona are too complicated to easily digest, but we’ve all got that webbed up corner of our mind containing algebra somewhere.  We know what it feels like to have a painful memory and want to lock it away, and we’ve all self-censored ourselves out of embarrassment or simple politeness.  The levels of Psychonauts are deviously clever, but are always intensely human, and so our fundamental empathy for the people that we’re investigating never goes away.

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Take Edgar Teglee, one of the patients you encounter in the decrepit remains of the Thorney Towers Asylum.  His ‘therapy’ is simple - all he has to do is complete a painting of Dr. Lobotto, and he can go home. But every time he nears completion of the painting, he cannot help but scrawl a fighting bull over the top, forcing him to start again.  Around him lay the scattered remains of hundreds of paintings. Chains secure Edgar’s ankles to the ground, but he’s more a prisoner of his own mind than anything physical.

Entering Edgar’s brain reveals a gorgeous blend of neon colours crossed with a more traditional black velvet art style.  The level is a narrow Mexican street, with a rampaging bull tearing through it at ludicrous speed. It’s a graffiti artist’s take on the Day of the Dead, and even Razputin’s outfit changes to better reflect his environs.  Black Velvetopia is the most visually unique level in Psychonauts, and undoubtedly the most beautiful.

What elevates the level to brilliance is how you gradually piece together what is actually going on.  You first hear the story from one of the dog painters down a safe alleyway. Edgar was a famous artist, who was commissioned to do a portrait of the famous bullfighter Dingo Inflagrante.  As the painting went on, Dingo seduced Edgar’s wife, and she left him, leaving him angry, depressed and trapped with despair. Dingo would be the perfect person to fight the bull that’s rampaging the streets, but Edgar refuses to go to, viewing him as his mortal enemy.

As we make our way through the level, weird details start to emerge.  The sewers of the streets are strewn with lockers, bleachers and gym showers.  You find a memory vault in these depths revealing that Edgar and his ‘wife’ were actually high school sweethearts, and that Dingo was a romantic rival that took her away.  Heartbroken, Edgar lost the wrestling semi-finals, earning the ire of his team mates. Edgar has constructed a romantic fantasization of these bitter memories instead of confronting them head on.  And so he goes spinning backwards in his cycle of self delusion, in the same way the bull repeatedly dumps you back into earlier sections of the street.

El Odio, the bull, is Edgar’s rage.  And Dingo makes mockery of El Odio’s attempts to kill him, the bull floundering helplessly to the bullfighter’s trickery.  Unfortunately, the story dips in quality as it ends. While Psychonauts does a great job portraying mental illness in creative and complex ways, the ease at which you can ‘solve’ it by winning a single boss fight is very disappointing.  Escaping an endless, repetitive downwards spiral of depression is a challenge that you have to fight for many years to overcome. And while Edgar’s realisation that he’s obsessing over two idiots that don’t matter is a welcome one, I would have preferred a wordier and less combat-oriented solution to Edgar’s woes.


You see, the combat in Psychonauts sucks.  And if you were to strip away the pretty colours and the excellent story from Black Velvetopia, you’d say the game was middling - at best.  You’re running down a narrow street, with slight deviations down alleyways and into the sewers for pretty much the entire level. Its broken up with 4 near-identical boss fights, that are all equally boring, just so you can go back to those same narrow streets.  Even the final boss fight is just using confusion grenades and telekinesis in turn.

If the presentation is good enough, its harder to see the mechanical gameplay though.  Psychonauts showed me that games can be primarily aesthetically driven and still be an enjoyable experience.  When I think back on the level, it's not about buying paintings to access the next area, or running through yet another identical looking alleyway - it's about uncovering the mystery of Edgar’s artistic prison and revelling in the beauty of the art style, with the Spanish guitars playing softly in the background.  I enjoyed it because of how the level felt to play, not what the level actually was.

Another example of this happening is Waterloo World.  It takes place in the mind of Fred Bonaparte, who’s mind resembles a board game against his split personality, Napoleone Bonaparte.  It's up to you to descend into the board game itself to help Fred win, largely by negotiating with the game pieces.

There’s a point in the level where you need to persuade some farmers to join the militia, so Fred has a chance of winning.  The first time you do it you need to ascend up to Fred and get from him a note that says he really, really cares about the farmers.  Then, you need to do basically exactly the same thing again to get some gold for a different farmer.  If this was any other game I’d call this lazy and repetitive and feel it was wasting my time.

But the presentation of it all save Psychonauts yet again.  It's incredibly cool going from being in the room with Fred and Napoleone as they battle it out, to a close up of the board game where you can manipulate pieces, all the way down to ground level where you can walk into the tiny buildings that populate the world.  Moving up and down these layers is a novelty and reward in itself.

This level is also fantastic at showcasing some of the humour of Psychonauts, something that Black Velvetopia is much lighter on.  Raz is trying to convince the farmers that will win, but they’re all resigned to dying horribly, knowing that Fred is a completely incompetant commander.  And the progression from the farmer who wants a note showing Fred cares, to the one who wants gold for his family, and finally the one who wants a special gun so he can rob the carpenter, is hilarious.

This is the power of having creative themes and committing to them.  It's not just little novelties scattered randomly, its taking an idea and building it into something holistic.  Exploring and experiencing these worlds is fun, not because its intrinsically fantastic to play, but because of how we perceive the levels as minds and playgrounds.

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After Double Fine acquired the rights for Psychonauts and started selling it on Steam and GOG (among other retailers), the sales of the game skyrocketed.  What was once merely an underground classic was finally getting the recognition it deserved. A VR exclusive was released, and even more excitingly, Psychonauts 2 was successfully crowdfunded, and is in development right now.

I expressed hopes during our podcast that the sequel would fix up the boring gameplay and make it more interesting - but on reflection, that’s not the important thing about Psychonauts.  As long as the gameplay doesn’t outright suck, or get in the way of the world, I’ll be happy. What I want from Psychonauts 2 is for each mind to feel unique and weird, and to constantly surprise with its presentation.  I want the game to continue using metaphor liberally, and I want to be blown away by the uniqueness and strangeness of each mind we encounter. If Psychonauts 2 can equal the first’s creativity and charm, and better approach the tricky issue of actually dealing with mental illness, I’ll be happy.  

I’ve always been proud of the fact that I primarily care about mechanics, and that moment to moment gameplay is the main thing that matters to me.  Psychonuats showed me the narrowness of that perspective in the child-like wonder I had with its wild and twisted worlds.

You can listen to our Podcast on Psychonauts here.