Psychonauts is the Rush of Video Gaming

Last week one of the things I recall being consternated about on the internet in 2005 came to pass: Rush entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It barely made an impression on the collective consciousness, now, but it’s still a tiny huge deal for us music fans.

Rush, as the documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage made perfectly clear, is the ultimate teenage suburban white male band. Their songs, full of literary references (no matter how you feel about making a concept album about Ayn Rand morally, they still made a concept album about Any Rand), complex musical breaks, and other things so far outside of the mainstream appealed to me tremendously as a normal, nerdy teenager. Even now, while I spend my time listening to a strange cocktail of Japanese music, bluegrass, experimental stuff, and punk, I still sneak the occasional Rush album, usually 2007′s Snakes and Arrows or this year’s Clockwork Angels or one of their awkward late eighty’s albums, heavy as they are with emotion and synthesizers.

Making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has always been something the fans cared about a lot more than the band; they’re just nice Canadian boys, after all. We might read into it a repudiation of the glossy, throwaway nature of a lot of modern music, but that wouldn’t make sense and it’s not what the band’s about, anyway. They’re about playing great music and giving outsiders inside the culture something to grab onto.

When I read that Double Fine had made more money this year on Psychonauts than in any other year, the parallel formed in my head: Psychonauts is the Rush of video games. Rush returned to prominence over the past few years thanks to extensive touring, references in popular films (by kids who grew up listening to them), and appearances on popular television shows. Psychonauts got its own bumps from the Double Fine Kickstarter, as well as from its own massive patch, which not only opened it up to Mac players but also fixed a lot of the bugs. Psychonauts feels, in retrospect, like a game on the crest of a wave, a work made out of time finally finding its due with the modern public.

There’s further parallels, too. Just like nobody cares very much about the bands that followed Rush (no one’s clamoring for Dream Theater in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sorry), while Double Fine’s games following Psychonauts inspired nothing more than a whimper outside the Kickstarter. In short, people love the idea of games like Psychonauts more than they like games like Psychonauts, just like people like the idea of Rush more than the band itself. Brutal Legend, the Dream Theater of video games, disappeared without a sound. Costume Quest was noticed because it was a Halloween themed game in a world starved for Halloween, but it doesn’t stand out as a game.

So Psychonauts is special. It’s a game that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 2005, the moment it was released. When I think of 2005, the year most visibly etched into my mind as my first year of college, I think of Psychonauts.

In retrospective, 2005 was a year of weird, awkward games. Resident Evil 4 was the killer app, a modern classic, and the obvious game of the year. But it also had other oddities: Killer 7, God of War, Guild Wars, Jade Empire, The Warriors, Shadow of the Colossus. Most of these were delightful. It also had a buttload of terrible sequels, the miscellanea of which would horrify the gamer writing about how modern sequels are shit: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Metal Gear Acid, Dungeon Siege 2, Unreal Championship 2 (the sequel to the odd Xbox-exclusive Unreal Championship), Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, Black and White 2, Serious Sam 2, Battlefield 2, Soul Calibur 3, Call of Duty 2, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, and, of course, Shadow the Hedgehog.

Right in the middle of this was Psychonauts. It’s a weird reminder of the time before the modern day, when indie games were ultra-obscure and for the most part amateurish and big publishers thought Shadow the Hedgehog would make money. The best of these sequels—probably Two Thrones—is pretty much forgotten today; most of them were iterative, weirdly excessive affairs, lost to the sands of time.

I wouldn’t have played Psychonauts if not for where I lived, in my college’s long-lived video gamers’ hall. At the time we weren’t so much the gamers as we were the school’s outcasts; outcasts in a school of outcasts. You could probably have made a twenty-six episode anime series out of our tribulations, of us learning to communicate like real human beings. I didn’t play particularly many video games, then—I’d stopped playing much beyond Madden, MMOs, and older games in high school—but meeting these people helped get me interested in gaming. Again, kind of like an anime plot, just we were worse drawn.

Psychonauts was one of the earliest games I can remember being played on the hall, on our small, college-issued TV screen. It kind of perfectly encapsulated our lives at the time—away at a weird hippie college in the woods, learning about super liberal things I, at least, had never been exposed to before at ultra-Catholic high school—and we were Raz, to a person: the perhaps heroic knowledge seekers in search of our own psychic dojos.

In a lot of ways, Psychonauts pre-empted the trends of popular nerd culture by five years; you could even claim it helped birth those trends. Children’s show styled plots—think Adventure Time—became more prominent; we became more accepting of whimsey, instead of starting threads about how we wouldn’t play Super Mario Galaxy because it was “too kiddie”. We’re more receptive to the idea of platformers, given the successes of so many indies in this category.

But most importantly, I think we’ve moved more past the aperture of irony. We’re willing to accept a game dealing with real emotional things now than we were then. Go back up and look at that list of games, and tell me which of them deal with Real Things? Shadow of the Colossus, certainly. Killer7 did, but in more of a glib, Quentin Tarantino way than in a emotional one. Maybe Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, though neither game is particularly remembered nowadays due to both being a little bit broken, a little bit on the middle ground between generations.

Then there was Psychonauts, which looked at the most basic things: being an outcast, wanting to be something better, even if you didn’t want to be normal. It was a game that tried to speak to its audience, even if through comedy, in a way that would connect with them; it was one of the first games that really popularized that idea which seems so simple now. Video games don’t have to be about weird fantasy worlds: they can be about us. They can be for us.

How I felt playing Psychonauts for the first time was similar to how I felt listening to Rush the first time: someone had made something explicitly for me. Not me the sociographic, racial group (video games have always been for me, but never for me. They were always for someone else: the mathematics nerd, the kid who liked shooting things, the one who romanticized Japan), but for me in the sense that it was for the outcast, the person on the outside of the traditional bubble of society. It wasn’t just an escape; it was a game intent on helping me engage with the world. It wasn’t about psychic summer camp as much as it was about being a weird kid, a smart kid, who couldn’t fit in with society at large.

As Rush achieved, Psychonauts achieved. And while I’m not sure I’ll ever love another Double Fine game as much as I do Psychonauts, I also don’t listen to progressive rock much, and I still love Rush. For everything there is a time and a place, and Psychonauts is at the head of games as emotional objects, as things we can remember and reminisce upon like they were our favorite novels as kids or the best animated shows of the 1990′s.

  • // Craig Bamford

    “The best of these sequels—probably Two Thrones—is pretty much forgotten today; most of them were iterative, weirdly excessive affairs, lost to the sands of time.”

    I see what you did there.

    And now I’d kinda like a concept album about Any Rand.

  • Amit

    Beautifully written.Psychonauts was in a way too close for comfort..and yet strangely liberating.It was way ahead of it’s time in terms of how the story felt so personal.Shaefer is a master of this form of entertainment. Both this one & Grim Fandango were a class apart.