Comedy is about timing. Any good stand-up comedian would probably tell you this is the most important part of being funny.
Good timing can turn something that seems boring or unnoticeable on paper into a thing of utter hilarity in practice. It can also work vice versa and bad timing can make an incredibly funny joke something that leaves people rolling their eyes in awkward silence. Movies can be funny because film is a final and rigid medium. A film never changes and every time you watch it it is the exactly the same. This means in a funny film, the timing of the jokes are set in stone when it is finally edited and will always be experienced at the same time at the same moment, forever.
What about other forms of media? What about a form of media where the timing is completely up to the consumer? What about Video Games?
Psychonauts was created by Tim Schafer and was the first game developed by his studio Double Fine after Tim left LucasArts, where he was writing hilariously classic point and click adventure games, such as, Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series. After starting his company and setting up an office Tim saw a unique opportunity arise in the form of a big black box. That box was the Original Xbox. At the time, Ed Fries was head of XBOX for its launch and was heavily pushing the idea of ‘games as art’. That and the likely case that Microsoft were looking for new titles for their brand new console caught the attention of Tim and the crew at Double Fine. By 2005, Psychonauts was released.
Psychonauts is a 3D platformer and a huge departure from the heavily scripted, point and click games that Tim was used to working on at LucasArts. When working on Full Throttle at LucasArts Tim had the idea of the main character taking a hallucinogenic known as peyote in the desert and unlocking a certain part of his brain whilst tripping. LucasArts, being the family oriented company that it was ultimately wasn’t too fond of the main character taking illegal drugs so it did not make it into the final game. The idea that there are parts of the human brain that we all have but haven’t unlocked yet was, however, still something that Tim wanted to explore. So, with a New Company, a console to launch on and a brand new idea, Double fine got to work on Psychonauts.
Psychonauts follows the story of Raz a young boy who runs away from his family’s circus to become a psychonaut. The Psychonauts are a top secret government organization consisting of Agents that all have Psychic powers. They start training agents at a young age at The Whispering Rock Summer Camp, a training facility disguised as a summer camp. This is also the hub area of the game. It’s also one of my favorite hub areas in any game ever. It’s full to the brim of things to collect and platforming challenges. Trying to find everything in this hub area leads the player to all kinds of places that they never knew were there and makes you feel as though you really know this area well. The story leads to Raz having a vision of his good friend Dogen’s brain being extracted by Dr.Loboto and after a while the Agents at the camp believe this vision is true and assign Raz as a Psychonaut-in-training to help sort out the mess. The story is brilliantly told, and laugh out loud hilarious at times thanks to some excellent character writing from Tim Schafer.
Psychonauts is a collect-a-thon like Banjo-Kazooie or Donkey kong 64 and much like those games, there is a lot to collect. I mean A LOT. Most of the collectibles in the game have some humorous link to an aspect of the human brain and many are only found in the game’s levels in which you travel into a character’s mind. There is collectible Figment’s of Imagination, literal Emotional Baggage that must be sorted by finding tags and bringing them to the right bag in order to stop them crying, Memory Vaults that unlock a slideshow of a certain character’s backstory and Mental Cobwebs that must be hoovered up using an item called the Cobweb Duster and can be big enough to completely block off an area of a character’s mind. Great Stuff. There are also Arrowheads which can be found around the camp and tie into the strange backstory of Whispering Rock whilst also serve as the game’s currency. Then if that isn’t enough there are PSI cards and PSI Cores that when combined with the right amount of each will create a PSI Challenge Marker which THEN Increases Raz’s Cadet Rank THUS unlocking more items at the shop and allowing you to learn new Psychic Abilities. WOW.
If all that seems a lot to keep up with, well I can tell you it is a pure joy! Double Fine made sure that there was a reason to collect these things, rather than just being a high score and it is a great way to reward exploration. Every collectible means that you are one step closer to getting that well-needed ability or buying that item back at camp. It also makes many of the levels and particularly the Summer Camp feel like sandboxes. All of a sudden you might unlock an ability that helps you reach an area you couldn’t before. Then you have an entire area full of stuff that needs collecting and it is never a grind.
Double Fine nailed the gameplay with this debut title but there are two areas that Double Fine have since come to be known for across all their games.
When Tim was starting the company he was on the look out for artists and one man immediately caught his interest. Scott Campbell was working at LucasArts on more child-friendly projects as an artist whilst Tim was at the company. Scott had an exhibition showing his more personal creations called “Tongue-Tied”, Tim attended this show and was instantly drawn to a piece consisting of several drawings of people in awkward situations. Tim later said, “I thought, I’d never seen characters like that in a video game”. Scott Campbell would go on to be Lead Concept Artist for Psychonauts. In an interview by VentureBeat Scott Campbell stated:
“I started at Double Fine because Tim wanted me to establish their style, based kind of on my cartoony style, for Psychonauts. So I guess that entire game has my signature on it. I designed all the characters, and designed and hand-placed all of the figments in the game. There were these collectibles, sort of like hand-drawn memories in the game, and that was the one thing I did beside the concepts.”
This truly paid off, because the Art style is a huge part of the reason this game still holds up so well today. This heavily stylized direction, as opposed to a more realistic approach, means that the game never really get’s so old that the graphics look bad. Double Fine took Scott’s work and applied it to the game, they didn’t, say, want the grass to look really realistic, they just wanted it to look like the cartoony concepts and it did exactly that. The Tim Burton-esque style with the sometimes dark comedic tones of the story really compliment each other and tie in all the uniquely wacky designed levels into one cohesive product. The characters look as though they are designed to bring out their imperfections more than their qualities. It is beautifully strange and twisted in all the right ways.
The Other area Double Fine excel in is perhaps the most difficult one of all.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Comedy is about timing. The problem is that in a video game the player is in control of what they want to do and when. So, how do you get the timing right? Earlier Tim Schaefer adventure games like Day of the Tentacle, and Monkey Island were known for being the funniest games ever made but I think they were easier to achieve due to the heavily scripted nature of the genre. Games like Grand Theft Auto and even Skyrim can be funny but almost in an unintentional, awkward fashion that is only amusing because it was so out of tone. Tim managed to make Psychonauts a free flowing game, where you could do whatever you wanted within its boundaries, and still make it genuinely hilarious, without messing with the overall tone. Truth is, I don’t know how they did it, but I can say that I think a huge reason it succeeds, might be because of the layers of comedy in the game. Not only are the thing’s the characters say and do make you laugh but so are the characters backstories, so is the history of the psychonauts world. The art style is, and even the collectibles are funny. I’m not saying you’re going to laugh at everything or every joke is going to land but as those layers of comedy start building up you start to appreciate its commitment and adore it absolute charm. It’s a game that is memorable, fun, and full of charisma and that’s why Psychonauts is Genius.