Take, for instance, the fan-favorite mental world known as The Milkman Conspiracy. Inside the insane mind of paranoid security guard Boyd Cooper, you’ll find a warped, Escher-like vision of suburbia, populated by suspicious G-men and deadly girl scouts. Your mission, should you be able to wrap your head around it, is to find Boyd’s alter ego: The Milkman, who rains fiery destruction with Molotovs fashioned from bottles of two-percent. It's all an allegory for Boyd's repressed trauma of being a disgruntled arsonist--and it’s a level totally unlike anything you've encountered in any game, ever.
But all the creativity in the world wouldn’t make a poorly designed level fun to explore. Thank goodness that Psychonauts has great, familiar gameplay to back up all the originality. This is classic 3D platforming, and you’ll be comfortably jumping around, swinging from beams and shimmying up ladders in no time flat. It’s just challenging enough to keep platform game veterans engaged, while still being accessible for the less spatially inclined, thanks to painless restarts and infinite continues.
Enemy types are just as fascinating as the setting and subplot in each subconscious landscape. Do you ever get thoughts that you know are wrong, so you push them out of your mind? That’s the work of censors, bespectacled little men in suits that stamp out unwanted brain activity--including Raz's uninvited presence. That kind of intelligent, thoughtful design permeates every aspect of the game, where self-loathing over a lost love can logically be embodied by a rampaging bull in a neon, black-velvet world. Describing the psychedelic settings can only go so far; Tim Schafer and the talented team at Double Fine crafted the kind of imaginative world that just begs to be played for yourself.
Far too often, platforming games pad their content with a multitude of inane collectibles that accomplish little when you’ve found them all. But Psychonauts uses collectibles as a storytelling opportunity, weaving fascinating background lore into the doodads that some players may never even find. They’re ingeniously named, to boot--Mental Cobwebs, Emotional Baggage, and Figments of the imagination are cleverly hidden in nearly every nook and cranny. The pièce de résistance are the tricky-to-find Memory Vaults, which guard the darkest anguish and most cherished moments of the person whose mind you’re spelunking. These past experiences are presented in a nostalgic View-Master-style gallery, and the stories they tell may move you to tears using silent, still images alone.
It’s not hard to see how Psychonauts became such a beloved cult classic. The way it balances light-hearted humor, thought-provoking concepts, and rock-solid gameplay is so perfectly executed, so unforgettable, that many players will fall in love with the game during the first level. It's not unlike a movie masterpiece: No matter how many times you’ve seen it all the way to the end, you’re bound to discover something new with each additional playthrough. When you consider the fact that you can easily buy it on almost any platform, you have no excuse not to embark on its mesmerizing journey into the mind’s eye.
"Why _____ is one of the greatest games ever made" is a weekly feature that goes through GamesRadar's list of the 100 best games of all time and highlights different titles, explaining why they're on the list, what makes them so amazing, and why we love them so much.