Last night’s Game Awards were… let’s say “unique.” But somewhere in the midst of all the trailers and celebrity cameos was the announcement of a game I’ve been dreaming about for almost a decade. I’m just not sure Psychonauts 2 is the adventure I’ve been waiting for.
In 2005, Tim Schafer was still my hero. He was a key figure in many of my favorite games of the 90s, largely responsible for the existence of Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island franchise, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. When Psychonauts came along, it pulled me in head first.
As with most Tim Schafer titles, the quirky art direction played second fiddle to some of the most brilliant writing in video games. Tim’s productions had never used the medium as an excuse for stilted B-grade narrative. They were always funny, sometimes vaguely disturbing, but never less than compelling. Psychonauts carried on the tradition, despite being a rudimentary platformer with a terrible camera at its core. The first time you sidestep party girl Milla’s bouncy disco for a little room on a remote wall inside her mind, the game’s silliness takes a sudden sharp turn. It’s not a moment easily forgotten.
If it’s not already apparent, I am a devout fan of Tim’s early work. I’m standing at the epicenter of a broad spectrum of gamers who owe much of their love of the medium to his creative genius. Psychonauts 2 should be a very easy sell — and it would be, if not for everything that came after the original.
You see, after Psychonauts things got kind of dicey for Schafer. While sitting atop mountains of critical and fan acclaim, he seemed to have effectively lost his motivation to actually do anything. It would be four years before his next release. 2009’s Brutal Legend wasn’t a bad game, but it traded the depth of the open world advertised for a triple helping of Jack Black, and a very limited set of real-time strategy tropes that were as ham-fisted as they were awkward to control. It didn’t live up to the legacy he’d created, but there was still plenty to love about the fantasy ode to heavy metal.
It wasn’t until after that things began to come apart at the seams. While non-Tim Schafer led titles from his development studio Double Fine Productions like Costume Quest and Stacking were relatively well received, they failed to capture what long time fans were seeking. Tim Schafer’s Happy Action Theater was an interesting minigame diversion, but it was less a creative endeavor than a technical demonstration of engagement with Microsoft’s Kinect technology.
In February of 2014, Schafer and Double Fine launched a crowdfunding campaign for what would become Broken Age. Billed as Tim’s return to the genre he once ruled, the project beat its $3,300,000 funding goal almost nine times over. Double Fine responded to this mass outpouring of support by making a documentary — for which they charged — then splitting an already very short game in half, in order to secure even more funding.
The reason given? Not enough money.
That stung. But what hurt even more was the treatment of Space Base DF-9, a game that hit Steam Early Access in October of 2013, made it roughly halfway through production, then was cancelled and abandoned. Meanwhile, Tim and Co. scampered away with the money pocketed directly from the dwindling trust of their most ardent supports.
The crowdfunding pitch video for Psychonauts 2 is tantalizing. It suggests the return of Schafer’s departed collaborator Eric Wolpaw, the support of one Gabe Newell himself, and the return of classic Double Fine staples in art direction and voiceover talent.
The problem isn’t in the concept — as I said earlier, the mere existence of this game is a dream come true for myself and many other fans from the past. What concerns me — and rightfully so other former Double Fine customers — is that Tim Schafer and his company have repeatedly demonstrated that they simply aren’t very trustworthy.
Calling these “mixed feelings” is — as my Dad is prone to chortle — like watching your mother-in-law drive your brand new Cadillac off a cliff. It’s really very hard to muster enthusiasm, even for a loyal fan’s dream, when it seems so likely to blow up in your face.
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