For its most recent game, the Vintage Game Club returned to its Tim Schafer roots with Psychonauts. Which I was curiously ambivalent about: many people speak highly about it, but I hit 3D platformer fatigue fairly suddenly several years ago, and only one game has really managed to break through that.
Still, it’s a genre that I was once very fond of indeed; and I enjoyed noodling around the camp at the beginning. Not so much once I dove into the first level, though: it’s of the linear level school of 3D platformer design, and I’ve really never enjoyed those platformers as much as the more free-roaming ones. (With, of course, that same glorious exception; though, as I’ve claimed before, Super Mario Galaxy is its own unique beast in the taxonomy of platformers.) Moving from A to B was pleasant enough but rarely grabbed me; and the ridiculous numbers of items to collect got really old really fast.
So, fairly soon on, I was only playing it out of duty. But then, a strange thing happened: I got to the Milkman level, and it was wonderful. The psychological issues turned from a more-or-less arbitrary way to suggest design elements of the level into something that grabbed me unexpectedly; and the gameplay turned from a straight linear wander into something with a few more twists. And the same thing happened with the Actress level, and with the Board Gamer level.
And then, somehow, the magic went away just as suddenly as it appeared. I think it happened part way through the Board Gamer level for me: a combination of running into a bug, of getting overly seduced by collecting, and of not figuring out how to deal well with one of the enemies flipped the switch back to tedium for me. Where it stayed through the end of the game, alas.
So: what to make of the game? If I went back, would I find more to like in the earlier levels as well, would I see a magic that I didn’t notice before? Maybe, but I’m not convinced: too much of the game seems to me to be following genre conventions without really making a statement about why the game exists. Coming right on the heels of playing Another World, Psychonauts doesn’t have more than a fraction of the clarity of purpose of that game, of its uncompromising attitude to waste.
To be sure, I don’t want every game to be as spare as Another World—but what I do want is for more games to ask the question of what purpose their design choices serve, and for the answer not to be an uncritical acceptance of genre conventions. (A critical acceptance is great, though: many genre conventions have evolved because they work rather well!) Perhaps Killer 7 is a more interesting model; that game took genre conventions that I’m even less interested in but treated them so roughly as to make it clear that they were only the barest of scaffolding, all the while animating them with a vision the likes of which I’d never seen before. There were glimpses of that here, but never as bright or as sustained.
This post has not been revised since publication.