We’re on the couch with Double Fine’s Tim Schafer and Zak McClendon
We poke inside the game-creating brains of Double Fine’s Tim Schafer and Zak McClendon.
It’s been three long, quiet years since Tim Schafer and Double Fine announced work had begun on Psychonauts 2, but earlier this month the studio broke its silence and debuted the first gameplay trailer. This was a wispy reintroduction to Raz and the playful world of the Psychonauts – psychic spies who save the day by hopping into people’s brains and solving their deepest [high] anxieties.
“We’re not joking around,” laughs Schafer as we sit down to discuss the new game, “we’re making Psychonauts 2.”
The veteran designer, who has The Secret Of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and Broken Age on his impressive CV, is in good spirits.
“I’m getting the band back together,” he jokes, explaining how many of the original team from Psychonauts are working on this sequel, 15 years later.
These returning team members include artists Peter Chan and Scott Campbell, who designed characters and environments for the original game, as well as environment artist Geoff Soulis, programmer Kee Chi, modeller Dave Russell, and composer Peter McConnell. With the family back it’s easy to see why Psychonauts 2 looks like it’ll be a faultless follow-up.
NEXT DAY TRIPPER
The trailer is crammed with teases of what we can expect from the new game, including new psychic powers, returning characters, and a new evil.
The sequel’s plot follows straight on from Rhombus Of Ruin on PS VR, which in turn began directly after the original game had ended. “It’s later that day,” says Schafer, explaining how it’s been 15 years for us, the players, but only hours for the game’s characters. There’s a pretence that nothing has moved on in the game’s world, and we’re still cha-cha sliding like it’s 2005.
“Ever since that first game ended, before it even ended, I kept a doc of
ideas for more brains […] so we’ve talked about what we’d do if we’d make a sequel for years. Also we have story elements lightly seeded in the first game that we wanted to do, stories we wanted to tell the full adventure of,” says Schafer.
It’s clear this sequel will be a larger escapade, one which will explore the broader world of psychic spies. But like the first game this will be a “keyhole view of the world,” says project leader Zak McClendon, explaining the appeal of Raz, for him, is exploring an adult world from a child’s perspective. The sequel goes further, he explains: “It just implies a larger world, even those characters like Sasha and Milla, and spies that you meet, you’re meeting them in a different context.”
CIRQUE DU PSYCHO
The universe is being fleshed out for this sequel. The ‘real world’ areas are more open, with side quests, challenges, and goals to complete. In the trailer we see Raz’s circus, the family he ran away from to join the Psychonauts. Will this form a story arc? Schafer teases: “Raz definitely goes on a rollercoaster of emotions.”
By contrast the mental worlds, the brains Raz dives into, are more focused excuses for classic platform puzzling. “You go in and experience the arc, the story, and there’s less exploration,” says McClendon.
That’s not to say these have been easy to design. McClendon explains how each mental world is a bespoke, “open-ended problem that [needs] new visuals, a problem, a story, new characters, gameplay – it’s been the biggest challenge, [it’s] so different to how you make a standard game.”
We see snippets of these worlds. There’s a morgue scene in which Raz has to run around a floating cube. When you’re inside a brain it doesn’t follow normal physical rules.
McClendon explains: “Gravity may go up and around, you can walk on the surface of something and things may not connect in a normal way; you may shrink or grow while in a brain. There are lots of things inside the mental world that break the rules of physics and reality but plays in a way that you can understand.”
Schafer says inspiration for the game’s mental worlds springs from anywhere, even people he meets on the street. Often they come from puns; “The life preservers in the ocean of joke writing,” he laughs.
That’s not to say the sequel won’t touch on serious issues. In the
WE’RE DEALING WITH SERIOUS ISSUES. THIS GAME GOES INTO SOME REALLY DARK PLACES.
trailer we see The Judge, a metaphorical embodiment of your self-criticism. He’s one of the many new Censors, mental constructs that keep you from thinking thoughts you shouldn’t – by whacking Raz with a giant gavel.
BRAIN FOOD FOR THOUGHT
“It’s important because we’re dealing with serious issues,” says Schafer. “This game goes into some really dark places of the human mind, and so I think it’s important to have a lot of levity in there to balance that out, in some ways to make those safe places to go to.”
That balance is what makes Psychonauts and this sequel so engaging. It’s a quirky, colourful 3D platform adventure of the kind we used to love in 2005. But it’s not afraid to carry a message and touch on complex issues.
“Psychonauts 2 is a game about learning about people from the inside out and humanising everyone. Taking that into the core of the design, like optimism, even if we do explore those dark places there’s still always this optimism behind it, which I think is really important in games,” says McClendon earnestly.
“It’s not afraid of really dumb jokes [either],” adds a grinning Schafer. What do you think of Pyschonauts 2? Let us know on Twitter, @OPM_UK.
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