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Looking Back: Psychonauts

We venture inside the mind of Tim Schafer, a man who took the LucasArts spirit and wrapped it in gaming joy

Pyschonauts is many things: among them a glittering example of intelligent comedy, originality and beautiful artwork. Okay so it wasn't perhaps the best platform game ever but for the purposes of this love-in we'll ignore that. In the past year there hasn't been a more suprising, interesting or lovingly crafted game in the whole of PC or console land. So how the hell was it made? Double Fine's Tim Schafer explains all:

"That's one of the main inspirations for the game - real people and their personalities. I would meet some interesting person, or even just be thinking of a friend of mine and I'd think: "Man, what must it be like inside their head?" For example, Boyd the guard is actually based on a guy that used to hang out in the alley where our old offices were. He would mutter a lot to himself about how the government was out to get him, how they were tracking him with "optics" and "plastics" and how "the pelicans knew what they were up to". I wrote down everything I heard him say and put it in the game."


"I made in-depth back-stories for all the kids, describing where they grew up, what their hobbies were, who their friends were, who they had crushes on and who they hated. I made mock Internet profiles for all of them as if they were members of an online social network, making it look like they'd left little testimonials on each others' Web pages. Writing the testimonials was like writing practice dialogue for the game. Then once I knew all the characters in my head, I could sit down and bang out a scene or a psi-power reaction and the words would just come, as if I was an actor improvising."

"The whole thing is very collaborative. I made up the characters and the general idea of what the inside of their head would be like, and then I worked with the artists and designers as they came up with the specific visuals and gameplay structure. Plus, as the programmers and animators implemented those designs, they put in their own ideas and changes. In the end, you have something that's better than what any one person could have done on their own."

"How people handle tragedy tells you a lot. Some people obsess over it, letting it control their conscious thoughts. Others never talk about it and bury the memory of the tragedy deep down inside. This game provides a natural way to go deep into someone's mind, find that vault and look inside. So you can go into Sasha's mind and see how he handles his painful memories by controlling his thoughts. Milla does it by keeping a loud party going on in her mind at all times. Gloria can't manage either of these two coping mechanisms, so her personality swings from happy to sad in an instant. She appears crazy because the symptoms of her pain are so apparent. Sasha and Milla seem sane, when really they're just better at working around that pain, and more importantly, hiding it. But in this game, you can go past people's personas, crack open their vaults and see what they're hiding."


"Well, there's a lot of crazy stuff in Psychonauts, but I've never really thought of it as that strange because it's just making real worlds out of pretty average human thoughts. If you look at the environments and characters in the in-mind levels of the game, and see them as just the literal form of a mental structure, they're not that weird. They're all based on normal, common thoughts: dreams, paranoia, grief, repression, obsession, rage, fear, guilt, insecurity. But when you take something like rage and try to imagine what that would really look like - and it becomes a huge Day-Glo bull running through the streets of your mind - then it just shows how even normal human thoughts and feelings are amazing things."

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