We don’t know how lucky we are to have Tim Schafer. If Grim Fandango’s Aztec afterlife and 1930’s Art Deco-inspired rumination on the philosophy of life and death was available on Steam, it would hold this place. Instead, it goes to the next best thing: an intensely dark, emotional and hilarious look at mental illness as seen through the eyes of a child, known as Psychonauts.
If ever there was a greater champion of Gestalt design in video games, I haven’t found it. Psychonauts is a 3D action platformer, a sub-genre that should understandably make you nervous. Developers are still trying to work out the best way to integrate jumping puzzles into a space that requires accurate depth perception, and this 2005 title was rough around the edges back then. But the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts here. You will feel like you’re wrestling a camera that wants you to fail at times, but it’s worth it. Psychonauts is a textbook example on how to design levels for a platformer: give the player a finite set of abilities, and then shift and shape the levels to create new ways to use them. Nothing in this game is recycled; every one of its ten or so levels is wildly diverse.
Thematically, this is because every level is within the mind of a different character. As a psychic secret agent in training, you use your brain-hopping ability to reconcile the inner demons of the many mentally-damaged denizens of Whispering Rock. Finding their emotional baggage (represented as crying suitcases), reveals some truly dark secrets. There’s the failed actress who went insane after her mother committed suicide as the ultimate act of criticism. There’s the pyromaniac milkman whose mind is a twisted M.C. Escher painting of paranoia. There’s the mutated lungfish you spend the game fearing until you learn that it’s greatest fear is you.
What truly makes Psychonauts special though is the light-hearted approach it has to such disturbing territory. The aforementioned milkman level turns out to be one of the game’s funniest, as all of the shady government agents that fill the environment wear awful costumes to conceal their identities and spout overtly conspicuous and culturally dated lines, like the agent wearing a wig and an apron in the kitchen who says, “Although over time my husband will desire me less sexually, he will always enjoy my pies.” You’re navigating the mind of a man who is tragically beyond repair, but the greatest comedy comes from pain, and what follows is understanding. This is constant for the rest of the game. Psychonauts is the video game equivalent of Pixar making a film about mental illness. I repeat: we don’t know how lucky we are to have Tim Schafer.