Conquering some Psychonauts of my own.

(Crossposted to theexperiencebar.com)

Now here’s a story for you. I was cleaning up my desktop the other day, removing all the now-unnecessary detritus that piles up over the span of a few months – in this case an academic quarter – in the form of icons, folders, file fragments, installers, you know the sort of thing, when I discovered a folder filled with screenshots simply titled ‘Psychonauts.’

It took me a minute to remember why this folder was here, and then I recalled that I had purchased it during a Steam sale, adding it to the 150+ backlog I already had, but this was no ordinary purchase, and this was no ordinary game. It was a test.

I know what you’re thinking: “Uh, Psychonauts was released in 2005. On the Original Xbox. You’re just getting around to it now?” Well, yes and no. You see, completing it wasn’t just a game achievement for me, but a personal one as well. I’ll address that in a moment.

Psychonauts is often hailed as one of the best games ever made in terms of its design and art direction, and I would have to agree, having finally been able to see it through to the end. In fact, as anyone who knows me will no doubt be aware, I am big on creativity and art direction in games. I have waxed endlessly about the brilliant final level of Painkiller that takes you through frozen-in-time reenactments of all humanity’s wars, or the final level of The Simpsons: Hit and Run where the whole town is celebrating Halloween, and you can drive in a coffin, a ghostly boat, or on a broomstick. You can even see Groundskeeper Willie running around on fire! Remember that episode?

Have a Simpsons screenshot, and a 10-minute video of the final level of Painkiller taken just for you. I cut out the less-impressive parts that involve battling the devil itself (trust me, those segments don’t compare to the rest of the level), instead trying to focus on the set-pieces from the Crusades to a nuclear bomb, but those annoying ghosts kept getting in my way. Luckily I was using god mode, which is ironic in a game like that, and the ragdoll physics are hilarious.

Homer even has his donut head, gifted to him by devil Flanders

Homer even has his donut head, gifted to him by devil Flanders

It was no secret to me that Psychonauts held to the same level of creative design. As a follower of the industry, I was well aware of it, of its achievements, and its well-regarded position in gaming lore. I had even started it back when it was released, but was unable to finish. And that’s why doing so at the end of last year was such a triumph for me.

You see, this isn’t widely known, but in 2005 I was going through a horrific depression; one that lasted an entire year. What caused it isn’t relevant, but it became so bad that for a time I lost color vision, and sunk to the point of wondering whether it was worth it to carry on. That’s how you know it’s bad – when the thought of bringing it all to an end comes with a sense of relief.

It was during this tragic time that I tried to fall back on gaming as an escape, a distraction. It was also when I first tried Psychonauts. Needless to say, it was probably not such a good idea considering where I was emotionally. That is not the fault of the game or the designers, quite the contrary. It was the fault of me for not choosing a different one right at the surreal, brain-heavy title screen.

If you’re unfamiliar, Psychnonauts involves the protagonist, Raz, who has run away from his circus training to attend a Psychonaut training camp, with an eclectic mix of other hopefuls, in the hopes of becoming someone who can enter the minds of others and learn what they are truly thinking. The ultimate spy.

The Campers

The Campers

While there, he can collect figments of imagination, ghostly icons that represent the mind he has infiltrated, clean out cobwebs, and unlock emotional baggage by matching luggage tags he finds with its related luggage. As the story unfolds, he enters many minds, each tailored to reflect the person they’re (both Raz and the mind – you can see how it becomes difficult to explain) inside.

The problem for me was the levels were understandably, but significantly, surreal. Due to my diminished mental state I only remembered bits about a couple of them; A combat zone inside the mind of the camp drill sergeant, and a bizarre level inside the mind of what I thought was a milkman. That particular level took place in a suburban neighborhood floating in a void, with the streets twisting and weaving through space in an Escher-esque way while gov’t agents mumbled to themselves about how they were actually maintenance men.

The Milkman Conspiracy

The Milkman Conspiracy

So surreal was this level that I think it actually pushed me further into my cognitive detachment from reality, made me more angry and more depressed, and it was there that I stopped playing. Even in my condition, I knew it was not doing me any good, and might even be making me worse considering the demons I was struggling with.

The other levels I had apparently gone through, including one in which you run from a huge lungfish named Linda, and another that has you navigating the vertical design of a disco inside a counselor’s head must have never registered in my mind in the first place, because I had absolutely no recollection of them whatsoever. Probably for the best.

So my story hasn’t been terribly uplifting so far, but there is a happy ending. Eventually, after what even a generally non-religious guy like myself can only refer to as a couple of miracles, I managed to crawl out of my abyss and start to feel better. Eventually I got my life back on track, began to regain my natural personality and once again became the Dr. D we all know and love.

But I could never return to Psychonauts. After I had been better for a while, and seeing it mentioned every now and again in some discussion of the greatest games ever made, I would wonder to myself if I’d ever be able to try it one more time, to finally experience what I knew was a great game. I didn’t want to miss out, I wanted to know what so many people already knew, and appreciate it for what it was.

But I was also afraid. Afraid that returning to it would open some flood of memories from my subconscious, of places and people and circumstances that I had successfully locked away in the back of my mind. The parallels between the game and myself were profound, which made me want to experience even more. Perhaps it would be therapeutic for me!

Even so, I always felt it was too much of a risk, there was too much at emotional stake for me to take the chance. So I never did. Years went past, the memory of 2005 faded, and my life went on. New friends, new places, new experiences, but no Psychonauts. I just couldn’t do it.

Until December of 2015.

Ten years later. Ten years is a lot of time, and considering where I was and where I am it’s a lifetime. Several, even. It was winter break, I had a couple of weeks off, and I was feeling good since it was the holiday season with all the accoutrements and general good will that brings. It was nice to have some time for gaming, which I don’t get as often as I’d like these days, and as I browsed around the beautiful yet accursed Steam sale, I came face to face with my nemesis: The overwhelmingly positive Psychonauts. For $4.99.

Hey, it *was* 4.99 - It still counts!

Hey, it *was* 4.99 – It still counts!

Everything froze, yet this time I reacted differently. “$4.99!” I thought. “Who’s the big man now, huh?” I didn’t avoid it as I had always done, for whatever reason I felt ready to take on this enemy. I felt good, strong. My life was going well and Psychonauts had been reduced to a bargain-bin price. This time, it was me who would be in charge.

I bought it, but balked before deciding to fire it up. I was so used to avoiding it I had to have one more conversation with myself, assuring myself I was making the right decision. Although I thought there might be some reservation, there wasn’t any. I felt good, and I agreed with my inner self that it was time to take on this goliath, fell this giant. And I’m glad I did.

Firing it up brought immediate memories, but nothing bad. Just memories of the game. Running through Coach Oleander’s Basic Braining level, reminiscent of a battlefield, I thought to myself “I vaguely remember this.” I was engulfed in the game, not in the memories or anything else I had worried would again cripple me over the last ten years. As I played on, the game got better and better, and I was able to appreciate all it had to offer.

In fact, I’m very glad I finally tackled it because I experienced another of what I can now say is one of the best designed levels I’ve ever seen.

It’s called Black Velvetopia, and it involves helping an asylum inmate who used to be a wrestler (but who claims to be an artist) collect playing cards so he can build a tower and reach his true love, who left him for another; that forms the basis for the madness in his mind, although you discover that his memory of the events isn’t quite right. The level takes place in a ring-shaped village around which a giant pink bull keeps running, knocking down the tower of cards and carrying you way off course if you try to lock horns – get it? – with him.

Black Velvetopia

Black Velvetopia

As you can see above, what makes this level so brilliant is that it looks like a black velvet painting lit by fluorescent lights, something I used to see a lot of in the seventies. The bright colors, the ingenious setting, the tight area in which it takes place, the dogs who paint useful pictures in the alleyways, the canopies you can climb to reach other areas, all of it comes together to make a strikingly designed, artistically masterful, and perfectly balanced level capped with a beautiful story that ends with you releasing Edgar, the wrestler, from his madness. I could relate to that. It’s the kind of level you simply want to explore more than play, to look around and soak in, be a sightseer.

There are even dogs playing poker.

That's right: Black velvet dogs playing poker

That’s right: Black velvet dogs playing poker

There is another brilliant level in which two people are sitting at either side of a detailed board game laid out in a similar hexagonal fashion to Settlers of Catan, complete with terrain.

As it turns out, one is Napoleon and the other is Fred, a descendant of Napoleon, who gets repeatedly beaten at the game, cleverly and historically accurately titled Waterloo-O. In order to help Fred win, you shrink down, becoming a free-roaming piece on the game board and getting the peasants to join the cause and moving larger pieces about.

Being able to appreciate them outside the confines of my mental detachment, and being able to finally experience them simply as a game, I was able to fully appreciate the setting of these levels and the genius of having them, Black Velvetopia, and Waterloo World, among others, all take place in the minds of inmates in an insane asylum; Oh the irony. But I also saw what everyone else sees, and discovered that they are among the most creative and engrossing levels I’ve ever played. Black Velvetopia really stands out, but they are all good. The levels in the minds of the other characters are good too, and miles above many current games, but even they can’t reach the design of the ones designed for the inmates. Absolutely brilliant.

Waterloo. Promise you'll love me forever more.

Waterloo. I was defeated, you won the war.

Of course, no game is perfect. The final level, The Meat Circus, is one of the worst, most poorly-designed levels I’ve ever played; a vertical climb through a big top while water rises and obstacles are thrown at you, and the controls suddenly work against you rather than for you. It reminds me of another character-based Xbox game that was released a couple of years earlier, Voodoo Vince. It also had excellent level and art design, well-balanced levels, until the last one in which you were pushed to the very limits of your head-‘sploding sanity. Let’s never speak of either of those levels ever again.

Unless you must. Here’s a video of me running around in some of the levels after game completion. Even the Meat Circus, if you’re some kind of masochist.

And again, the parallels between what the characters in the game are going through and what I was going through during my initial attempt eleven years ago are eerie, however this time I was able to appreciate the game for itself. No bad memories, no having to put the controller down, no having to close my eyes during part of it. It was just a game. A brilliant one, but a game.

I also feel that, more so than usual, the fact that one of the main activities in the game is helping people clean out emotional baggage, eliminate cobwebs, and help them get better and regain their sanity registered with me moreso than it might for someone else. Whereas the first time I played it I interpreted as mocking me and what I was going through, this time I found it be inspirational. I appreciated that aspect of the story, rather than scorn it.

And when I finally made it to the end, and stood in the parking lot of the camp, and the credits rolled after a clear set-up for a sequel (that was just successfully funded in January, I might add), I stood up, thrust my hands in the air in a clear display of triumph that no one but the cat and anyone who happened to be looking in my window could see, and did a victory jig. It felt good, one more demon conquered, and was the best present I received that holiday. Ten years of hiding and being afraid of a game had finally resulted in triumph. For all we say games can do, finishing this particular one felt like I had actually reached a turning point in at least one part of my life, where the sad memories of the past were finally put away and I was strong enough to face them, interact with them, defeat them, and move on. That they would never cripple me again. It was therapeutic, cathartic. That was a pretty good feeling, and it’s a good memory to have. Plus, it’s a pretty positive thing to say about a game.

I’m ready for the sequel.

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