Psychonauts Update

We talk to Tim Schafer about his upcoming Xbox project. New video developer interview inside.

We stopped by Double Fine Productions today to talk to with Tim Schafer about Psychonauts, the company's upcoming 3D action platformer for the Xbox. The unique game, which was first unveiled this past May at E3, uses the basic conventions of a standard platformer as a jumping-off point for some very unique gameplay elements, and it also features a rich story and an interesting art style. Schafer demonstrated an early build of the game for us and gave us the chance to see a bit more of it.

Psychonauts puts you in the role of Raz, a young boy who hopes to become a member of the Psychonauts, an elite organization of psychic peacekeepers. Raz's quest to become a psychonaut leads him to sneak into a summer camp designed to help children build up their mental abilities. Upon arriving, Raz discovers trouble brewing at the camp. The initial thrust of the game finds Raz interacting with the kids at the camp and the psychonauts who serve as the camp counselors. However, that's just the tip of the iceberg. As Raz discovers far more sinister things afoot, the game's story and gameplay are quickly propelled into very interesting territory.

As we mentioned earlier, Psychonauts is a 3D platformer at its core, but its gameplay will actually be quite expansive. On the traditional side of things, Raz will have a robust move set that is similar to what you'd find in a standard 3D platformer. You'll be able to run, jump, catch on to ledges, and so on. However, you'll also be able to perform acrobatic moves that reflect Raz's upbringing in a circus. You'll be able to walk on tightropes, skid down rails, and even catch on to poles and swing off them to other locations like a Junior Olympian.

In addition to Raz's physical abilities, you'll have his psychic abilities at your disposal. Raz's mental powers will be useful on both the psychic and physical planes. In the real world, you'll able to use Raz's telekinesis and levitation to help solve puzzles and explore. For example, you'll be able to create a psychic ball that you can ride around a level and use to increase your jumps. For an added boost, you'll be able to flatten the ball and use it to perform a superjump. However, there's a great deal more to the game than platforming. One of the major gameplay and story elements in the game revolves around using Raz's psychic abilities to jump into the minds of individuals and explore them. You'll find that on the psychic plane, Raz's abilities are extremely useful in dealing with various creatures found in people's psyches.

The game's structure seems to be a slightly twisted hub system. As you explore the campgrounds and surrounding areas, you'll encounter people whose minds you'll enter. Each mind is basically an entire new level to explore. Schafer cited the Zelda series as an influence on the game's development, noting that you could view each mind as a "dungeon." In addition, you'll find that there are quite a few hidden areas to discover in the real world.

One of the most striking things about the various minds and the game as a whole is its truly eye-catching visual style. The game features a very stylized look that calls to mind Tim Burton's work in The Nightmare Before Christmas, although the game's overall look and design set it apart. Psychonauts features some truly impressive and unique work thanks to the freedom found in the various environments representing the various minds Raz finds himself in. Each mind in the game will be completely different and will feature a mélange of style and design ranging from cubism to a number of other influences. The one constant in the minds is that each will reflect the personality and quirks of its owner. Art aficionados and psych majors are likely to be intrigued by the game's rich symbolism. Everything from the basic shape and size of the mind environments to the texture work on the objects in them reflects their owner. For example, one mind we saw was a dark twisted bramble of thorns that had us chasing a white rabbit, while another was patterned after a '60s dance party.

Graphically, the game was quite impressive, despite being so far off from release (Psychonauts is currently slated to ship in spring 2003). The character models featured a generous number of polygons and a great deal of detail. The real and psychic environments that we saw were richly detailed, and they even featured some small bits of ambient touches such as pollen floating through the air.

We were very impressed by what we saw of Psychonauts. The game's combination of rich storytelling, unique gameplay, and interesting art styles definitely holds a lot of promise. Look for more on it in the coming months.

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