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Opinion Psychonauts 2 is a masterclass in level design

IbizaPocholo

NeoGAFs Kent Brockman
Dec 1, 2014
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ibiza

Yet where Psychonauts 2 most astounds is in its level design. Its levels aren't simply brilliant, they're brilliant in several different ways, dazzling showcases of how to build unique and captivating 3D spaces. Each level demonstrates a huge amount of imagination and ingenuity, and I want to break down exactly what makes Double Fine's amazing spaces tick.

Use of technology​


Before diving into design specifics, it's important to acknowledge the remarkable balancing act Psychonauts 2 pulls off in its general approach to visual presentation. Double Fine clearly wanted Psychonauts 2 to look modern and snazzy. The game is built in Unreal Engine 4 and obviously has a fair whack of budget behind it. But the original game's art-style is almost wilfully anti-snazzy, with characters who all look like they suffered horrible accidents in a Play-Doh factory.


Adding reflections to Ford Cruller's forehead seems like an action that would rend a hole in the universe. Somehow, though, Psychonauts 2 not only succeeds in rendering its weird, Claymation-ish world with modern materials and realistic lighting, it's one of the most visually spellbinding games I've played this year.

I'm not wholly sure how Double Fine has achieved this marriage of curation and modernisation, beyond lots of hard work and possibly some kind of Faustian pact. But one key tenet of Psychonauts 2's design is that the more modern elements always exist in service to the art. In the game's already-infamous tooth-world, for example, the game strives to make the world's disembodied teeth, gums and tongues look as realistic as possible, because it's more disgusting that way. Contrast that with the psychedelic realm of the Psi-King, which adopts a more cartoonish, hyper-saturated style to maximise its '60s vibes.

True surrealism​


Most mainstream video-games struggle with surrealism, evidenced by how many of them resort to floating islands as shorthand for 'weird'. It's a trope you'll see everywhere, from games like Arkham Asylum and Spider-Man, to Doom Eternal and Bioshock Infinite. Even Dishonored 2, which has some of the best level design around, reverts to floating islands for its "Void" sections.

Psychonauts 2 thrives on surrealism. Its levels are a delightful medley of bizarre visions, a whirling carousel of fantastical, grotesque and carnivalesque spaces. There are worlds made of hair, worlds made of teeth, cooking gameshows with hand-puppet hosts and anthropomorphic food. Some of the ideas Psychonauts 2 cranks through could serve as the basis for entire games.

Such wild variation could easily descend into incoherent nonsense. But there are several features of Psychonauts 2's dreamlike worlds that prevent them from feeling like randomness for the sake of it. Firstly, like a dream, each world has its own functional internal logic that makes sense while you're in the dream. For example, in Ford's Follicles, the liberally scattered hairdryers are not just silly set-dressing, they can be used to create new pathways through the level. The same goes for the disgusting tooth-doors in Dr Loboto's mind, or the prismatic rainbow bridges in the Psi-King's rekindling consciousness.

Moreover, everything within these spaces serves a purpose, either functional or representational. And not in a vague way, like how other games use floating islands as an all-purpose metaphor for a fracturing reality or mentality. These are specific, cumulative references designed to tell the player what is happening in this particular mind. Which brings me onto the next point.

"Levels as exposition"​


This wonderful phrase was coined by Matthew Castle in his review of Psychonauts 2 to differentiate from the concept of 'environmental storytelling' which has been mocked into oblivion by a thousand jokes about putting skeletons on a toilet. Instead, Psychonauts 2's worlds are designed to communicate a specific idea at a conceptual level, one which builds over the course of the player's time in that place.

Perhaps the clearest evocation of that is Hollis' Hotstreak, wherein Raz deliberately manipulates the mind of a Psychonauts agent so she'll allow him to go on an important, possibly dangerous mission. Prior to Raz's mental meddling, Hollis' consciousness is represented as a hospital, a clean and orderly space where thoughts are treated with care and consideration. When Raz starts messing around, however, the hospital transforms into a casino, representing Hollis' increased impulsiveness and recklessness.

Taken broadly, it's a simple juxtaposition. But it's the way the level represents the process of Hollis' mental change, and how Raz attempts to undo the damage that he's done, that makes it such a brilliant example of level design as storytelling. At one point Raz enters Hollis' "Cardiology Department", which has been converted into a horse racing-style betting shop where the horses have been replaced with card suits. Here, Raz must convince Hollis' 'heart' to stop 'racing' on its own, and instead acknowledge that help from other people is a good thing, thereby stopping her from rushing off in the real world and doing damage both to herself and others around her.

Such use of juxtaposition and metaphor runs right through Psychonauts 2, with the game often using two conflicting or overlapping ideas at the foundation for its various worlds. The result is a gradual and consistent unveiling of each level's story, rather than having it fed to you in chunks by audio-logs or expositional graffiti.

Pacing​


This is particularly important in the context of the first Psychonauts, which is similarly stuffed full of clever ideas, but struggles to execute them in ways that are consistently fun. Some levels are too long, while others are unclear as to how you're supposed to complete them. A few are just miserably hard, such as the infamous Meat Circus.

All this is fixed in Psychonauts 2. You always know where you need to go, either because the game visibly places your objective in the distance, or provides a clear path that lets you feel out the route. Levels still vary in length, but are broken down into digestible segments that minimise frustration and boredom. The difficulty curve is more gradual, and the game further complements this with a wide array of accessibility aids. The finicky, LucasArts style conundrums have been replaced with more physical, action-based puzzles, which means you spend far less time standing around in befuddlement.

All of this gives players more space and time to appreciate Psychonauts' level design. The remarkable artistry, the way they play with gravity and space, the way they help to tell the story. They're far more than platforming challenges designed to break-up the plot, and become holistic spaces designed both to explore the thoughts and feelings of its characters and provoke emotional reactions in you.

It's fitting that Double Fine's masterpiece sees the studio return to the game that put them on the map. For 15 years Schafer & co has tried but never quite succeeded in making something truly great, whether that was due to technical limitations, budget constraints, or unfortunate creative decisions like making Brutal Legend a strategy game (yes, that one still stings). But with every stumble Double Fine has learned and adapted. And with Psychonauts 2, they've blasted it into orbit.
 
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ButchCat

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Not free but first month is 1 $/£/€ if you're not on yet.

I personally dropped the game half way mainly because the game kind of throws everything at you too early and it starts to slowly drag later on. I never played the first one but I this clearly is more adventure orientated as the game doesn't really challenge you.

There was however some decent variety in level design mixed in there.
 
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Hugare

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Not finished it yet, but its my GOTY

And probably my favorite platformer of all time. Its just brilliant.

Paid $60 for this shit and dont regret one bit. The amount of imagination and heart that this game has is just incredible.
 

Magic Carpet

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After finishing the game myself I've been watching Youtubers play through and it's fun watching the reactions (while at work) shhhh don't tell anyone. The game is stuck in my mind currently the way the levels are integrated in the story of each character as well as the telling of the overall plot going on. It's pretty well done. :)
I hope the easy difficulty does not put anyone off the game. It has even easier modes. Not complaining. But the game was rather easy compared to most of the other stuff I've been playing lately.
It's in my GOTY as well. Still several more games to play yet but I don't see how anything will "Stick" with me as long as Psychonauts 2 has.
 

Men_in_Boxes

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2 hours in.

Still waiting to see anything masterclass about it. Constantly let's you play for 15 seconds before shoving another quirky cutscene down your throat.

If it's as good as everyone seems to say it is, it certainly suffers from a dreadfully slow start.
 

dvdvideo

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2 hours in.

Still waiting to see anything masterclass about it. Constantly let's you play for 15 seconds before shoving another quirky cutscene down your throat.

If it's as good as everyone seems to say it is, it certainly suffers from a dreadfully slow start.

It's a little heavy on the video at first but opens up to more actual levels soon after.
 

onesvenus

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Just beat it a few hours ago. A classic. Platforming feels great and level design and variety was fantastic.

My only gripe was switching between powerups. Slightly annoying to go into the menu every 5 minutes. (Unless I was doing it wrong?)
That's something I agree with, I had the same 4 powers equipped during almost all the game but having to change power ups was a pain.

2 hours in.

Still waiting to see anything masterclass about it. Constantly let's you play for 15 seconds before shoving another quirky cutscene down your throat.

If it's as good as everyone seems to say it is, it certainly suffers from a dreadfully slow start.
You'll get to it. It's true that there are a lot of cutscenes but I feel the game wouldn't be the same without them
 

dvdvideo

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I love Tim Schafer and his team's creativity. I just wish the platforming was better and the combat wasn't mediocre.

I feel like that could be more said of the first than the second game. It's not perfect, but it's really very good for a platform game.
 
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bender

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I feel like that could be more said of the first than the second game. It's not perfect, but it's really very good for a platform game.

Calling the platforming serviceable would be a bit of a disservice but I wouldn't call it good either. The rail sections really make you appreciate what R&C does in those situations. I finished it this past weekend and had a great time, but I doubt I'll ever go back to it mainly due to the game play. That's a shame as I love just about everything else in the game. The level motifs are so damned amazing.
 

SkylineRKR

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Its the first platform game I finished in god knows how long. I'm not into them much. But this one is engaging, constantly changing things up and its overall very fun and addicting. Some levels go on for a bit too long perhaps but its a good game.
 

Aguero9320

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Calling the platforming serviceable would be a bit of a disservice but I wouldn't call it good either. The rail sections really make you appreciate what R&C does in those situations. I finished it this past weekend and had a great time, but I doubt I'll ever go back to it mainly due to the game play. That's a shame as I love just about everything else in the game. The level motifs are so damned amazing.
I’m playing both games side by side (Psychonauts and R&C) - I love them both, but Psychonauts is the better game by a mile for me. Ratchet is very much a ‘by the numbers’ game - unless it’s your first Ratchet game, we’ve all played it before, several times now. Psychonauts creativity is on another level - playing through the Psi-King level was just pure platforming joy and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

With Ratchet I already know what comes next before I play it. The rail sections are annoying in both IMO, but at least Psychonauts doesn’t have that annoying rift gimmick to deal with. Do agree with an earlier poster than managing the powers is a little wearing, but I find that in both games too.
 

Rubberwald

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I will repeat myself, but that is the best game this year by far. Just the whole experience makes me giddy just thinking about it and I completed the game more than a week ago. I think its biggest strength is the way it communicates all the themes, humour and ideas to the viewer, be it through cutscenes or gameplay.
 

SCB3

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I never played the original and this has got me interested pretty quick, I wasn't sold on it until the XRay platforming section and what happens after that, it then becomes genius in what it does
 

Markio128

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I haven’t played it for a week now for some reason - maybe because of GOT and WRC10. I finished that area where you are opening what looks like a square safe with coins won in games, then beat a boss. If I had to compare this and R&C as others have, then I would agree that Psychonauts has more creativity and imagination in it’s design, however, R&C and has much better combat and platforming. I actually don’t mind the cutscenes in Psychonauts, which usually made me laugh, but the game itself lacks that fun gameplay element that R&C has in spades.
 
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Bragr

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Agreed, the levels are impressive, I'm pretty sure they studied Mario Odyssey, because they build 3D levels in a similar way, always some small ways to engage the player.

The small issue I have with Psychonauts is the off-putting cutscene pacing. It's the sort of game that has a long cutscene, let you play for 3 minutes, just to throw another long cutscene at you.
 

Roufianos

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Ugh, you're not being nearly as clever as you think you are with this.

He never said 'Yo bro, the game's free for everyone'. He said it was free on Game Pass, which it is. You don't need to pay any extra for it if you have Game Pass.

Obviously the condition here is that you must have Game Pass, which you pay for.
 
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Fredrik

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Still havent finished it but the level design is nuts so far, absolutely loving the game even though it had a super slow start!
Guess I need to continue playing, got bored by the slow start.
 

Kokoloko85

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Ugh, you're not being nearly as clever as you think you are with this.

He never said 'Yo bro, the game's free for everyone'. He said it was free on Game Pass, which it is. You don't need to pay any extra for it if you have Game Pass.

Obviously the condition here is that you must have Game Pass, which you pay for.

I don’t hear people say its free on Netflix. They say, its on Netflix. Its all payed for and you don’t own it either. Even though I doubt 1st party games will leave the library
 

Buggy Loop

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About half way through the first Psychonauts on PC. Always intended to play it, always pushed it aside. Psychonauts 2 reviews convinced me to play it.

I love it, even though it feels like an old game. Can't wait to finish it and move to Psychonauts 2.
 
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Guilty_AI

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Ugh, you're not being nearly as clever as you think you are with this.

He never said 'Yo bro, the game's free for everyone'. He said it was free on Game Pass, which it is. You don't need to pay any extra for it if you have Game Pass.

Obviously the condition here is that you must have Game Pass, which you pay for.
 
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Oct 27, 2012
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Do you need to play the first one first? I have it in my backlog but for some reason I never got around to play it
 
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I’m playing both games side by side (Psychonauts and R&C) - I love them both, but Psychonauts is the better game by a mile for me. Ratchet is very much a ‘by the numbers’ game - unless it’s your first Ratchet game, we’ve all played it before, several times now. Psychonauts creativity is on another level - playing through the Psi-King level was just pure platforming joy and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

With Ratchet I already know what comes next before I play it. The rail sections are annoying in both IMO, but at least Psychonauts doesn’t have that annoying rift gimmick to deal with. Do agree with an earlier poster than managing the powers is a little wearing, but I find that in both games too.
Ratchet and Clank on the PS4 was a pretty game, but also a very shallow game. It was fun to play, but not very compelling as I feel like I've played the rest of them just by playing that one. A graphics whore could easily say that it was the most amazing experience ever even though it was boring as fuck.
 
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SenjutsuSage

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Not finished it yet, but its my GOTY

And probably my favorite platformer of all time. Its just brilliant.

Paid $60 for this shit and dont regret one bit. The amount of imagination and heart that this game has is just incredible.

Can't disagree.
 

vaibhavpisal

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Do you need to play the first one first? I have it in my backlog but for some reason I never got around to play it

Part 1 is essential.

This game is made for fans of that game and is partly funded by them too.

But it's an old game and if you don't have enough time, maybe watch story recap on YouTube.
 

Magic Carpet

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Do you need to play the first one first? I have it in my backlog but for some reason I never got around to play it
No, the game includes a quick recap of the story so not essential.

Seeing lots of complaints on the number of cutscenes. And a slow start.
I'm trying to think of the point when the game stops 'training' you. Probly when you leave the lady lucktapus casino and get back to the motherlobe. I think after that the cutscenes are more spaced out usually when talking to characters.
 
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elliot5

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No, the game includes a quick recap of the story so not essential.

Seeing lots of complaints on the number of cutscenes. And a slow start.
I'm trying to think of the point when the game stops 'training' you. Probly when you leave the lady lucktapus casino and get back to the motherlobe. I think after that the cutscenes are more spaced out usually when talking to characters.
yeah the intro is obviously the first 'tutorial' space, but the casino is the first "real level" with a lot more story exposition involved.. so after that it opens up.