Well, that Meat Circus was ten kinds of bullshit. I mean, an escort mission? Really? And the choice to make the person you're protecting a whiny little kid with a shrill voice that yells out in pain every five seconds? Rage isn't a word I use often, but I was definitely wishing for some friendly fire.
Even so, I survived. I made it to the end of Psychonauts.There's a part of me that wants to call it one of the all-time classic games. And there's another part of me who wants to call it an okay game wrapped in spectacular presentation.
I once compared it to a children's cartoon and it never entirely lost that feeling, but towards the end it got weirder, darker, and more adult than I'd be comfortable showing a child. Maybe if the kid was mature for their age or something. It's actually in a weird limbo where its themes and imagery are more appropriate for young adults, but its pre-teen characters and superficially candy-coated aesthetic make it look like its intended for a much younger audience. I can only conclude that the game was really intended for nostalgic adults.
I'm certain that the patness of the ending was a clever genre homage. You can't go from a "giant circus tent made up of dismembered carcasses where you toss a psychic projection of your father into a meat grinder as a form of Oedipal rebellion" to an "entirely conflict-free wish-fulfillment sequel hook (where the main villain isn't even punished for his crimes)" as a result of laziness. That shit had to be planned.
I think, on balance, the story of Psychonauts just isn't for me. That's not a complaint, or even a criticism, it's just an observation. I love the specificity of its influences. I love how easy it is to imagine these characters and this setup as the backbone of a tv series or long-running comic. I love that it can build this whole implied world and nowhere do you see the seams. Yet the game itself is a love-letter to a type of media I haven't thought about in years and have no particular desire to revisit.
Don't get me wrong, though. Playing this game was a genuinely great experience. It was breathtakingly inventive. Especially when it came to the visual design of the levels.
There are games that look good. And then there are games which stop you dead in your tracks with the awe-inspiring sensation of seeing something genuinely and impossibly fantastic. Every time I got ready to enter a new person's consciousness, I felt this thrill of anticipation. I couldn't wait to discover what the game would do next.
So is that experience worth the frustration of yelling at the screen for 20 minutes to shut the hell up because as soon as I get the sequence of jumps exactly right, I will arrive and clear out the easily dispatched monsters that you apparently don't have the self-preservation instinct to get rid of yourself, because I know you're psychic, you little shit, you're a manifestation of the childhood anxiety of one of the Psychonauts instructors, and by the way, how the hell do you keep losing your grip on that fucking rabbit?
It's a blemish, no doubt, but is that one flaw enough to deny it greatness? I wish Psychonauts was as well-polished mechanically as it was artistically. Then it would be easy.
What I keep coming back to is that every time I start to write "Psychonauts is not an all time video game classic," it feels like a falsehood. It may not be the sort of game I'd want to play again and again until the end of time, but it feels essential. Like, if I were to assemble a list of the grand video game canon to demonstrate all the things the medium could accomplisht, that list would feel incomplete without Psychonauts on it.