This Tuesday was a whirlwind of news for fans of cult-favourite platformer Psychonauts. Early in the day, in response to an interview with the game’s creator, Tim Schafer, Minecraft developer and multimillionaire Markus Persson (a.k.a Notch) took to Twitter to announce that he’d be interested in financing a sequel, something which Psychonauts fans have wanted for a long time. By the end of the day, Schafer and Persson were in talks about possibly making Psychonauts 2 a reality.
To be frank, I’d be surprised if Schafer and Persson decided to make the sequel happen. The original Psychonauts, while critically-adored and achieving a cult-like following, wasn’t a hot seller. In fact, Schafer has wanted to make Pyschonauts 2 for a while, but he has had trouble pitching it to publishers because of the original’s poor sales. That’s why Schafer needed an independent financier, such as Notch, to make a sequel happen. But even if a Notch-funded Psychonauts 2 does come to fruition, will it be a success? Is it even possible for a cartoonish 3D platformer to be a success in this day and age? We’ll take a closer look after the jump.
With its cartoon art style, its mixture of linear and open-world level design, its collectibles and power-ups, its relatively light story, and its balance between puzzle-solving, platforming, and combat, Psychonauts is a truly unique game. Try to think of any other recent game like it, and the only titles that come to mind are the Super Mario Galaxy games. (Besides, those are Nintendo Wii exclusives, and unfortunately I don’t currently own any consoles.)
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the mid-to-late nineties, 3D platformers were king. Think back to the days of the N64. That console alone was home to Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and Banjo-Kazooie, all of which were wildly successful. And that’s not to mention the countless other 3D platformers on that console or the original Playstation, such as the Crash Bandicoot series, or PC platformers like the first 3D Frogger. Some of those games’ success might be attributable to the fact that they were continuations of established franchises, but Banjo-Kazooie and Crash Bandicoot were new properties. Both were successful enough to spawn sequels, and the latter started an entire franchise.
The games’ success wasn’t all that surprising. After all, many of them were following the template of one of the best games ever created: Super Mario 64, the first game to really succeed in bringing platforming into the world of three dimensions. The template was simple: create a fully explorable overworld from which individual levels are accessed; give each level a unique theme or character; use a mixture of open-world and linear level design to encourage exploration without overwhelming the player; fill the levels with power-ups and collectibles; give the player some degree of camera control; employ a cartoonish art style; and keep the tone and story light and kid-friendly.1
Hey…wait a sec – doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the design philosophy behind Psychonauts? Why yes, yes it does. Let’s face it: Psychonauts is basically a modern, exceedingly well-made Super Mario 64 clone. Take Psychonauts fifteen years into the past, and you’d be able to impress people with its stylish graphics and its superb voice acting. But as for the actual gameplay mechanics, aside from a few of the psychic power-ups, they’re the same basic gameplay mechanics that Super Mario 64 perfected fifteen years ago. In some ways, playing Psychonauts is a distinctly old-school experience, right down to having a counter keeping track of the number of lives – excuse me – “astral projection layers” you have left.
Unfortunately, Psychonauts’ old-school vibe made it a borderline anachronism upon its release in 2005. It should have stood out amidst a sea of generic first-person shooters and fantasy RPGs, but uniqueness is rarely a guarantor of success in the world of gaming. Gamers may have been unwilling to take a chance on a kind of game that they hadn’t played since the height of the 3D platformer’s popularity, choosing instead to stick with the increasingly dominant FPS genre.
No doubt bolstered by the release of Half-Life in 1998 and Halo in 2001, the FPS has become the dominant genre of video game in the new millennium.2 A couple of decades ago, video games were merely considered toys for kids, but as gamers grew up, so did the games they played. Gamers left behind the kid-friendly cartoon platformers of their youth for the “realistic” first person shooters inspired by Call of Duty and its ilk. Thus, the 3D platformer, one of the preeminent genres of the latter half of the nineties, began its slow decline. By the time Psychonauts came out in 2005, it was nothing more than an entry in a dying genre, notable only to those who had a predilection for platforming or who felt a wave of nostalgia for the games of their younger years.
The game’s highly stylized cartoonish art didn’t help matters, leading it to be labelled as a “kiddie” game. As video hardware has become increasingly powerful, artists and designers have pushed graphical fidelity closer and closer to realism. There’s little interest in cartoon art when people could be doing something “cooler,” like reconstructing a realistic human face, and as such, stylized art has waned in popularity with gamers. Psychonauts, which looked a lot like a three-dimensional Saturday morning cartoon, simply couldn’t compete with the realistic environments of the latest entry in the Call of Duty franchise. Recently, motion capture technology, such as that used by the Uncharted series, has allowed game developers to recreate lifelike facial animations, making it possible for characters to display complex emotions just like their counterparts in live-action movies.3 How could a potential Psychonauts 2 compete with that?
Indeed, video games have become more and more cinematic, to the extent that many of them feel like interactive films. Judging by the immense popularity of the Uncharted series, there’s a demand for this type of game. Perhaps the key to making Psychonauts 2 a success is to think along those lines. If Uncharted is the video-game equivalent of Indiana Jones, then perhaps the 3D platformer could experience a resurgence by being reimagined as an interactive Pixar flick. All the ingredients of a good Pixar movie – a distinct cartoon style; a fun, family-friendly story; sparks of wonder and imagination – are the same ingredients that make a great 3D platformer. Heck, instead of marketing Psychonauts 2 as a solitary platforming experience, why not advertise it as a “family” game that everyone can enjoy?
Of course, that could backfire terribly. Many people tend to be turned off by anything that’s remotely family-friendly for fear that it’ll be a watered-down version of something better. (Pixar proves those people wrong.) Even then, maybe people want to play the action hero who shoots his way to victory, not the psychic tween who runs away to summer camp, and no amount of advertising will change people’s basic preferences for FPSs over platformers.
With that in mind, I don’t think that we’re now in a climate that’s more favourable towards 3D platformers than we were in back in 2005. If anything, the FPS has only grown in popularity, eclipsing almost any other genre in terms of sales, and the number of 3D platform titles released each year has dwindled almost to zero. I don’t think Psychonauts 2 will be a hit, no matter how much Notch wants it to be. Heck, maybe Notch is aware of that, and he’s knowingly throwing away money because he really wants to see a sequel to one of his favourite games. It’s more than vaguely reminiscent of the patronage system that was used (and to a certain extent, still is used) to support the arts. If rich guys like Markus Persson want to give away their cash so that people like Tim Schafer can produce “art” for them, then I’m all for it. It might be the only hope for saving dying genres, like the 3D platformer, from becoming mere memories in the collective gaming unconscious.4
2 Bob Chipman (a.k.a. the Game Overthinker) has a (highly critical) video chronicling the rise of the FPS and the reasons behind that rise. Even though I think he’s being way too harsh and completely neglecting games like The Elder Scrolls series and the newer Fallout games in his criticism of the first-person perspective, he makes a lot of valid points. ^
3 A testament to the cinematic quality of the Uncharted series: I don’t own a PS3, so I’ve never played the games. However, they’re so much fun just to watch that I’ve seen playthroughs of all three on YouTube. The ones with commentary by SSoHPKC are ridiculously entertaining and endlessly quotable. “Shotgun rain, baby!” ^