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Ugh, stop twitching
psychonauts
games Posted 2006-01-21 17:27:51 by Jim Crawford
After commercial adventure games died and LucasArts switched over to making nothing but Star Wars games, Tim Schafer left to start his own game studio. Admirably, he acknowledged that adventure games were dead commercially and made a platformer, Psychonauts, which he infused with many of the pleasures of the games he had worked on at LucasArts: a singularly cartoony art style, goofy characters, hilarious writing, lots of amusing incidental responses from NPCs, and branching dialogue that allows the designers to give a straight line six different punch lines. He even brought in one of my personal heroes, Erik Wolpaw, to help with the writing.

Psychonauts used to be Xbox exclusive, but then Microsoft dropped it and Majesco picked it up and they ended up publishing it for the PS2 and PC as well. So I played it, and my conclusion: it's a goddamn shame that Tim Schafer was forcibly separated from the kind of game he's good at making.

Admittedly, I didn't play it under optimal conditions. I used the mouse and keyboard, and I had framerate issues, but it didn't help that mouse support was dumb. They should've given you absolute control over the camera, like in a 3rd-person shooter, both because when you have the precision of a mouse you don't need camera AI, and because the same thing that makes mice good for aiming precisely also makes them bad for fighting camera AI: you're moving your hand a lot.

See, with a joystick, if you want to move the camera left, you only need to move your thumb a little bit, so if the AI moves you right back, you've only lost a little bit of energy. And if you really need the camera to be over there, you can hold the joystick to the left to counteract the camera AI's motion. Moving the mouse to the left a similar amount is a lot of work, and if you really need the camera to be over there, you have to keep moving the mouse to the left, and of course that's going to involve picking the mouse up, which gives the AI time to move it back to the wrong place.

The level design is bad. It's not obvious in the beginning because it's not that hard to make an easy platformer playable, but when you want to crank up the difficulty, as the designers did towards the end, you have to know your shit, and they just didn't. There were sections that required jumping and swinging like that in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, but whereas Pop:SoT allows you a lot of slop in your jumping precision and gives you plentiful checkpoints, Psychonauts does neither. Every time I had to jump to a trapeze or a bar, I wondered whether I was supposed to jump or double jump.

Poor clarity of puzzle. In PoP:SoT and Super Mario 64 and just about every other platformer I'd consider good, when I've found the path forward I've been confident that it was the intended path. In parts of Psychonauts I'm still unsure that the path I found wasn't just an oversight in the level design. As a result, I wasted a lot of time trying jumps over and over again that seemed like they might be possible if I timed it perfectly enough.

Range of action is badly managed. You use the shimmy move exactly twice in the game, once in the tutorial and once near the end. I'd completely forgotten about it by then, I had to go to a walkthrough. But not until after trying a bunch of random tricks to get to the same place for about 15 minutes each.

One rule Psychonauts has helped me articulate is that while a good game makes me want to play it again as soon as I'm done, a bad game is full of moments that make me say “no way am I ever doing that again.” I wish game reviewers listed moments like that in their reviews. I'm holding the bad verdict back from Psychonauts only because I'm clearly playing it on a less-than-optimal system, but there were times when I absolutely despised the game and only kept playing because I didn't want to waste the 10-plus hours I'd already spent on it. I couldn't let the game win.

Here's a philosophical question. I finished it a week ago, so wounds are no longer fresh in my memory, and my predominant impression of the game is slowly fading from “godawful platforming” to “great writing and aesthetic, some clever puzzles.” But does that make Psychonauts a better game?
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