A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: The Meat Circus: Fathers, Cruelty, and Armchair Psychology

NOTE: Spoilers for the story of Psychonauts follow. Like, immediately after this paragraph. In fact, if you’ve skipped this paragraph and started with the one-line paragraph below (don’t look!), you’ve already come across a major spoiler. Then again, the game is about 10 years old, so maybe I don’t need to be so concerned about it. Consider it a testament to the story within this videogame that I am so interested in keeping it a secret.

Of course the final level of Psychonauts ends with you trying to kill your father.

Well, not really your father- just the version of him that your main character, Razputin (Raz for short), has built up in his mind- the acrobatic disciplinarian with a monomaniacal hatred of psychics (which Raz has recently discovered himself to be). And not just your father, either- you are also dealing with the childhood demons of one of your camp counselors, Oly Oleander, whose father’s occupation as a butcher of cute fluffy bunnies has haunted his psyche, and as a result, he… wants to take over the world? I’m honestly not sure, and I’ve played the game twice. Psychonauts is great at crafting characters and jokes, and far less good at plotting. Raz’s father barely figures into the game at all until the final level, which makes his introduction a little underwhelming. And then there’s the gameplay of that final level: There exists a certain subgroup of gamers for whom the words “Meat Circus” evoke a Pavlovian response of dread and controller-throwing anger, and the level is widely considered a blot on what would otherwise be a near-perfect game. But for me, even acknowledging the level’s flaws, it remains the single point where Tim Schafer and his cohorts at Double Fine Productions manage to realize the promise of their game’s premise.

One thing that often gets overlooked in pop-psychology discussions of Freud’s theories is that the 19th-century cocaine aficionado did not see the Oedipus Complex as a sickness or mental disorder, but as a normal part of human development. It was only when the process was interrupted or subverted that psychosis occurred. For truly healthy mental development, Freud believed, the child needs to resolve his feelings toward his parents, most significantly an instinctive and irrational fear of his father.

Psychonauts’s most innovative contribution to videogames was its attempt to unite character development and level design. It’s just the sort of oddball decision that Double Fine Productions would be likely to make. The game developer was created in 2000 by Tim Schafer, who had spent the last decade at LucasArts perfecting a genre of gaming that by then was nearly extinct. Schafer had worked on The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and right before leaving, had finished Grim Fandango. To this day, if you see a list of “The Greatest Games of All Time” on a website somewhere, you’re likely to see at least three of those titles somewhere in the top 25. Also, odds are pretty good you’ve never heard of any of them, and if you’re 25 or younger, you’ve likely never played anything like them.

LucasArts primarily developed games in the Adventure genre, also known as “point-and-click” games to gamers who did not care much for that type of game. And it’s true that gameplay could be rather static, more a matter of trying every possible combination of events than actually interacting with a world or a story. The games at LucasArts were special because they went the extra mile to immerse the player in that world, and also because they had a wickedly good sense of humor, which continues to be the scarcest resource in gaming.

Alas, the genre was all but dead by the time Schafer created his own gaming studio, and one of the results of this is that the first game he made became a platformer- a genre he and most of his programmers had never worked in at all. Imagine becoming an oil painter- studying oil paintings, practicing techniques with oil paint and oil-paint-specific brushstrokes, working under a master in oil painting for years, finally saving up enough for your own studio, and then your first customer walks through the door, tells you that no one buys oil paintings anymore, hands you a hammer and chisel, and commissions a sculpture.  It’s nothing like that, but it’s the closest analogy I can think of. That’s sort of (not really) the situation Schafer and Double Fine were in when they started Psychonauts, and frankly, it shows in the controls, which never move Raz around as intuitively as you’d like them to.

The game mostly makes up for this by not requiring a great deal of responsiveness. Levels mostly involve finding objects in the environment, then finding the right place to use them- basically, Schafer and co. smuggled an adventure game into their open-world platformer. Each level of the game takes place in a character’s head, and the design of the level to some degree reflects the personality of that character. Look further into each level, and patterns start to emerge: each of the three camp counselors whose heads you enter shows off a major aspect of their personality, and in turn shows how that personality has been constructed to make up for some personal trauma- the happy-go-lucky go-go dancer has made her life a party to hide her residual guilt from a group of children who died on her watch, the hyper-logical German guy has constructed a mind of straight lines and sharp angles as a way of giving order to the senseless world that killed his parents, and both Oleander and Raz have elevated their fathers into gigantic, monstrous, forbidding figures. “Is that really what I look like in your head?” says Raz’s father when he sees the projection. “I have a lot more hair than that!”

Which brings us back to the Meat Circus, a combination of the places associated with Raz’s father (an acrobat) and Oleander’s (a butcher). After a game full of problem-solving puzzles, you are tasked with completing timed platforming sections while the fathers shout misleading hints at you. “Want to play catch?” Raz’s father will say, throwing a fireball at you, and if you try to stop it with your telekinetic powers, “you can’t actually catch them. I was testing you!” The level feels like working out parental issues- frustrating, repetitive, going over the same territory over and over only to end up falling down in the same place. While most of Psychonauts marries character development and level design, the last level combines both with gameplay.

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This entry was posted on 14 November 2014 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged , , , , , , , .
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