The failure of Psychonauts

Psychonauts (2005) is a platform action game from Double Fine productions, created by Tim Schafer, who is the brain behind several brilliant graphical adventure games, such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and the awesome Grim Fandango.

I do not like platform games in general, but Psychonauts is one of my favorite games ever. It has an interesting and funny story, great characterizations, and a sparkling visual design. The player controls “Raz”, a young psychic who is trained to enter the minds of psychologically disturbed people, to root out the cause of their problems. In the game Raz explores the minds of ten people, constituting ten small stories, each with their own visual and interaction style. Amongst my favorites are the convoluted neighbourhood in the mind of the paranoid milkman, populated with secret agents and creepy girl scouts; the Spanish village in the mind of an artist, which looks like it is painted with neon colours on black velvet; and Lungfishopolis, in which Raz invades a sprawling city as a Godzilla-like monster.

Psychonauts is a beautiful, original, entertaining experience. It is all the more deplorable that the very last level of the game, the Meat Circus, is an exercise in frustration. All 15 to 20 hours leading up to that last level are well-playable. Sometimes easy, sometimes harder, but always doable for even the most left-thumbed player.

Up to the Meat Circus the game is also pretty forgiving, helping the player along, and hardly punishing him for mistakes. But the Meat Circus is a different story. The first part consists of three series of timed sequences, each of which has Raz traverse an obstacle course in which one little mistake will make him fail utterly. But the kicker is that, whenever a mistake is made, Raz is placed right back at the very beginning of the level, and he has to go through each of the already passed sequences again. Even loading a saved game will do that. A simple enhancement would have been to place him at the start of the timed sequence in which he failed, which would have made the level hard, but acceptable. The player would have a sense of accomplishment whenever he got through a sequence.

I have played this game three times, but was never able to get through this first part of the Meat Circus. I have seen the second and third level, which aren’t much better in the frustration department. Stories on the Internet show that I am not alone in my experience. This is an unforgivable failure in game design. A player who has invested 15 hours in a game should be able to continue the game to the end, without getting frustrated.

I collaborated on research in which we tested the relationship between frustration and entertainment in game playing. As you would expect, we found a significant correlation between an increase of frustration and a drop in entertainment. The Meat Circus was designed to frustrate, and as such, designed not to entertain. That is contrary to the goal of the game.

One wonders why such a well-designed game fails so miserably at the end. Were the playtesters too good to notice the frustrating aspects? Did Double Fine’s contract specify that the game should be a 20 hour experience, and did they need padding? Did the money run out before the last levels could be tweaked to perfection? Was Tim Schafer on holiday during the final project stages? Whatever the reason is, Double Fine missed their chance to make the perfect platform game. They could still release a simple patch, but that probably will not happen four years after the initial release.

I still recommend Psychonauts to any game player. But if you cannot get through the first level of the Meat Circus in an hour or so, just log on to YouTube and watch someone else play the game to the end. I know, it is not as much fun, but it is better than throwing your controller through the screen.


4 Responses to The failure of Psychonauts

  1. Joey says:

    The meat circus was never frustrating, it just takes a little practice. Also, how bad at this game are you to have taken 20 hours to get to the Meat circus? I love this game, and it’s quite easy to beat it within 4-5 hours. Pyschonauts was a very short game, and not very difficult. just my opinion bro! 😛

    • pspronck says:

      I quite agree that I am not very good at games like these, but that does not detract anything from the fact that the difficulty level of the Meat Circus is far beyond the difficulty level of the rest of the game, and that it is artificially made like that. Which I think is a mistake.

      I guess you are a console player (this game is easier to play with a controller than with a keyboard/mouse combination) and you are in your early twenties. We have done research that shows that game players’ abilities peak in their early twenties, and that at my age I can never hope to play as well as someone half my age (though, surprisingly, in general older players do improve their skills more quickly than younger players).

      Anyway, you claim that you can finish the game in 4-5 hours, which is true — you can even finish it in less than an hour, as a speedrun shows. But I like to take my time with a game and explore every nook and cranny. That’s my typical playstyle. For Psychonauts, I think 15 hours for such a playstyle is reasonable.

      • Joey says:

        I agree that it is much harder than the rest of the game. But as it turns out, I’m twelve years old. Sorry if I’m a jerk.

      • pspronck says:

        Never said you were a jerk…

        And twelve — yeah my daughter was twelve when she finished the Meat Circus… but I never will.

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