It is impossible, philosophers tell us, for the mind to understand itself. But that doesn't stop neurologists, psychiatrists, or the reporters on 60 Minutes from trying—nor should it. This interest in our own wiring has led to the concept of neurodiversity and the popularity of authors like neurologist Oliver Sacks. Even videogames are turning to the mind as a fecund theme, whether in a supernatural sense (Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy) or a literal one (the Panic Meter in Clock Tower 3). Double Fine's Psychonauts combines psychology and parapsychology: we have personal experience with our own brains 24 hours a day, but a boy with psychic powers and a gateway into people's heads can still prove that the human mind is strange as all get out.
The story unfolds like a Harry Potter book written by Jhonen Vasquez: young Razputin has run away from the circus to join a summer camp—I mean, a "government training facility"—for the best young paranormal warriors this side of Drew Barrymore. This place is Raz's dream: yet, something is terribly wrong. Not only have the folks in charge told Raz's psychic-hating dad where he is, but the other kids' brains are being stolen, one by one. Will Raz get his psychonaut badge before his dad finds him? Will he discover who's turning everyone into TV-and hackeysack-obsessed zombies? Will he and Lili ever get the chance to make out?
A psychonaut's job is to fight other people's demons. Armed with a doorway he can throw at people's foreheads, Raz travels deep into the minds of people around him and cleans up the mess they've made of themselves. While doing battle with honking men with stamps on their hands called Censors, he can open memory vaults, sort bawling "emotional baggage" by finding their proper luggage tags, collect shimmery figments to advance his level and earn new psychic powers (in a role-playing game sort of way), or dust mental cobwebs for PSI cards, which also raise his level.
Yes, we've been collecting items and earning powers since Super Mario Bros. and Kid Icarus. Psychonauts doesn't break any new ground gameplay-wise, but that's okay by me. I like running and jumping and swinging from ropes and finding shiny objects, all things this game has in abundance. But this game is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Even with all the floating, blasting and scavenger-hunting, Psychonauts is not quite like any platform game I've ever played. That's a very good thing.
First of all, it follows Freddy Kreuger's first law of physics: In the mind, anything can happen at any time. Like the dreaming teenagers in Nightmare on Elm Street, there's no limit to where Raz finds himself. He can grow to Godzilla size and kaiju the heck out of skyscrapers, traverse a neighborhood that tilts sideways, or direct an asylum inmate's mental play. He's part of a board game as both player and piece, and trapeze-swings through a circus made entirely of meat.
The theater of the mind in which the game takes place adds a new dimension to its storytelling. While the main who-did-what-to-whom mystery plot is pretty linear, the stories told in memories Raz finds have an associative, partly subconscious quality. These memories play like slideshows of a child's drawings. Each one tells a story, but it often seems like there are holes in the projection film. Maybe these gaps are a nod to Freud's theory of repression. Whatever they mean in the greater Psychonauts scope, these recovered memories are a clever and subtle use of the game's mental playing field.
The game reminds us, too, that "good" and "evil" are mental constructs. Creatures may be violent and nasty solely because someone perceives them that way: "Is that how I look in your mind?" the real-life inspiration for a particularly vicious being asks. In Psychonauts, as in life, people make their own monsters.
But as refreshing as Psychonauts is, the game is not without problems. Most of those problems involve atrocious load times (both lengthy and frequent) and wonky camera. My view sometimes stuck behind trees and buildings like peanut butter on the roof of my mouth. And often when Raz was swinging from a pole or a rope, the camera would hyperfocus on some useless piece of landscape. I've never understood how adjusting one's view manually every thirty seconds is supposed to be fun.
Despite these issues, Psychonauts is a wonderfully strange platformer. The idea of perception being a reality in itself is the kind of thing I'd like to see future games explore further. The game's rewards are bountiful, and all it requires are a sense of humor, steady thumbs and an open mind.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.