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How Psychonauts VR Will Give You Psychic Powers

It's all in your mind.


Though we first learned about Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin last December, we've now played the opening mission of Double Fine's standalone Psychonauts interquel ourselves. The result: a healthy mix of puzzle-solving, psychic shenanigans, and trademark humor, all from the mouths of the original cast. The experience is shaping up nicely, but what's still to come? And what about Psychonauts 2? We sat down with studio head Tim Schafer and project lead Chad Dawson to learn more.

GameSpot: Rhombus of Ruin uses a DualShock 4, so why did you decide to make this a fully seated experience? Why not let players and their characters move around the world?

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Now Playing: Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin Gameplay at E3 2016

Tim Schafer: A lot of VR developers are like, ''Our game is the only game that doesn't make you sick even though we fly you around in a rocket the whole time!'' But I still think that they make other people really sick. I am very sensitive to that, and so that's why Raz is strapped to a chair. But it works well with the psychic powers. You are moving stuff with your mind, burning stuff with your mind, and especially being able to jump from perspective to perspective using clairvoyance.

In a weird way, that actually acts as a traversal mechanic. You're not actually moving but because your perspective is shifting across the room, you can look at and access different portions of the environment.

Chad Dawson: Right, and in some cases, some characters see the world a little differently. So perhaps one character can see something that another can't. It's a bit of our exploration mechanic as well.

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Schafer: A lot of VR games are experimenting with a blink teleportation. But in ours, I think it's contextualized a little better. It is actually part of the mythology of what we're asking you to do. You can jump into someone else's point of view, [which] lets us move and also tell a little story. Storytelling, like, what does it mean to be in Lili's mind? What is Lili thinking?

So, in theory, Raz will always be seated. How did you come up with ways to explain that within the story? Can you tell us about some of the other environments players will encounter as the progress through the game?

Schafer: We don't want to give away too much, but I can say that they all really make sense within the story. You know, the story has very strong reasons for why you would be immobilized, and it's totally believable. You're going to go to a variety of different locations in the game. If I say much more about it I feel like I'd be giving too much of the surprises that happen right after the dramatic plane malfunction.

Aside from using clairvoyance as a traversal mechanic, what has VR either allowed or inspired you to do that will be new for Psychonauts?

Dawson: A lot of the other powers like telekinesis are naturally mapped to VR. In our case, we do a lot of movement with your head. Because we are a controller-based game, when you move an object around, you use your head turning left and right to move it. That really gives you a sense of, you know, almost like force power with your mind.

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Schafer: I think the primary thing about VR that fits with what we're doing is, we want to tell a story but we also want to create a real world that feels like it sucks you in and drops you into this immersive thing. And VR, just right off the bat, kind of gives you that for free. Like, you really are transported when the game starts. So it's a great place for us to start, especially doing a narrative-based game.

Dawson: Certainly having the environment react to what you are doing is important to giving you that presence and immersion in the VR space. But we wanted to show the characters as well. When you TK an object near Lili, she follows it around with her eyes, she bats it away--they react to almost everything you do. You believe that your are riding along in a jet with them, and hopefully you bond with them a little more so that when dangerous scenes or emotional scenes come up, you feel it a little bit more with their reactions.

I imagine you can't spoil too much, but the story clearly picks up right where the last game left off. I was wondering if you could talk about the direction of the narrative and what players can expect from the storyline in Rhombus of Ruin.

Schafer: So it's them trying to find the location of Truman Zanotto, and when they find it, they find out it's in the Rhombus of Ruin. It's a place that's as dangerous and mysterious as two Bermuda Triangles joined together. But finding out where he is and going there puts them in a really dangerous predicament. So solving the mystery of who kidnapped Truman is one of the main things you're doing, freeing Truman.

Dawson: It's also, for Raz, his first mission. He's been at camp as a kid, so it's almost a little bit of him having to take on some responsibility and be part of the team.

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I think it's really interesting you guys are developing Psychonauts 2 and Rhombus of Ruin simultaneously. I was curious about the extent to which those two have influenced each other, and how you're working on making them fit together, given that Rhombus of Ruin bridges the gap between the first and second full games.

Schafer: The main thing is that I've had a storyline for the whole experience in my head for ten years. Before Psychonauts had finished, I had this whole idea for what would happen in Psychonauts as Raz is delving into his past, his family, and the curse, and all these things. So in my head, it's one long, continuous story, and I'm working on both projects so I am able to make sure they all flow well together. But within that story structure, the Rhombus team can do things that make sense for VR and have it be really different in that way but still plug in the story beats.

Dawson: From a tech and visual development point of view, it's also been very useful for us. Rhombus of Ruin is coming out before Psychonauts 2, so obviously it accelerates our development to try to get that out. Seeing what the characters look like brought up to a modern engine with modern rendering, physically-based lighting, and subsurface scattering on their faces. Psychonauts 1 came out in, what was it? 2005? So obviously tech has improved a lot since then. We're using Unreal 4 Engine now as a studio, for both projects. With this game, we're pushing our character look development. That's been a great push for both projects, with our animation team and character team. Tech-wise getting us up and running. This is our first Unreal 4 project.

And Double Fine's first VR game.

Dawson: Right, so both VR and Unreal. It's been a push for us to adapt to that technology and use it. It's been a great experience, though. It's great to see it get this far and seeing the characters come alive. As soon as we got the voice recording with the real actors who did the first one, it's Raz or it's Milla or it's Coach coming out of the bathroom. I think for all of us who loved the first game, it brings us back to that.

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Can you talk about what it felt like to hear those voices and those characters again, and the process of bringing Psychonauts back after all this time?

Schafer: In some ways it's always been fresh in my mind because I thought about Psychonauts always. But in some other ways it was like pulling a car out of the garage. It's all covered with dust and you're trying to crank start it. Calling up some of the actors--some of the actors retired and hadn't worked since then--and asking if they'd come back to do it, and they all were really excited. I was like, ''This is so crazy to be right back in it like it was just yesterday.''

It sounds like there is a lot of love for the original games.

Schafer: Yeah. I have a lot of affection for it, and I think a lot of people in the studio do too. Not just because we put a lot of work into the first game, but we just got to know those characters and that world so well.

Can you talk at all about working with Sony?

Dawson: Currently we are just with PlayStation VR. It's been good. Their hardware is great to work with. It's my first PS4 title, but I've done a lot of PS3 development here. It's a nice platform to develop for.

Are you happy with the PS VR hardware?

Schafer: It's the most comfortable of all the VR things to wear. The way it crowns…maybe I just like wearing crowns. It's very comfortable. The lights on it make you look cooler than you usually do in VR, which is awesome and very important. You look like a DJ for Daft Punk when wearing those.

Can you talk about game length or release date yet?

Dawson: Most of that is really all up in the air right now. I know we are going to ship this year. Other than that, length is hard. It's in development, and that stuff is always hard to gauge too early

Schafer: It's not meant to be a quick little tech demo or anything. It's going to be a real adventure, a real mission, and a real story and piece of entertainment for sure.

Any comments on Psychonauts 2? How's it going?

Schafer: It's going good, we're in preproduction and designing brains. It'll probably be awhile before we show or talk too much about that. We will be doing Fig updates and things like that.

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