Psychonauts is the Inception of video games. Like Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterwork, this is a platformer that posits what it would be like to actually explore someone’s mind. Turns out, our innermost anxieties, deep-seated fears, and repressed memories make for some unforgettable level designs. Complement these imaginative mindscapes with quirky characters, unique-but-familiar gameplay, and genuinely funny writing, and you’ve got a mind-bendingly great platformer that’s easily one of the best games of all time.
Our young hero, Razputin--Raz, to his friends--flees a life in the circus to pursue true adventure: attending a quaint summer camp. Even before you embark on any mind-delving journeys, you’ll adore the simple act of trekking through the woodland camp grounds. Chatting with your equally weird peers, who resemble demented Muppets, is a hoot; each conversation promises witty, goofy dialogue, pertaining to things like the undesired ability to make squirrels’ heads explode with a single thought. Ford Culler, the easygoing geezer who runs the camp, is happy to chat with you any time--just wave the piece of bacon in your inventory, and his wrinkly head will inexplicably pop out of your ear to offer assistance. Yes, it's incredibly bizarre. Get used to it, because there are far loonier scenarios ahead.
Your affable camp counselors (who double as ‘60s-era psychic secret agents) show you the extrasensory ropes, in the form of innovative gameplay mechanics. Instead of turning all your mental gifts into a means of defeating enemies (like so many contemporary games that involve mind control), Raz uses his supernatural powers to sharpen his inherent acrobatic prowess. The result is character controls that give you the mobility and handling of a star platformer like Mario while being far more fun to look at. One power, Clairvoyance, seems trivial, until you realize that it lets you see what you look like in the eyes of others. Others, in this case, means every single living being in the game. It adds an extra layer of hilarious detail to the game when you spontaneously discover that a happy dog views you as a walking fire hydrant, or that your crush sees you as her gallant Prince Charming.
The characters and abilities are incredibly unique, but they pale in comparison to the game’s cerebral exploration. By chucking a palm-sized door onto a person’s noggin, you’ll leap into the deepest recesses of their psyche. This is where Psychonauts opens your eyes to an entirely distinct kind of character development. In the hopes of sorting out whatever personality disorders are clouding your client’s mind, you’ll explore a series of vivid stages, each one unbelievably different from the last. A PTSD-fueled battlefield, a Napoleonic board game populated by sentient pieces, and a dilapidated theater run by a bipolar actress are just a few of the imaginary vistas you'll fight through. At some point during your trips across strange surroundings and satisfying platforming segments, it hits you: Everything in the mental realm says something about your subject’s subconscious.