When I was younger, I watched my dad play all sorts of games that I never got to actually pick up the controller and try myself. The one that always stood out to me the most, though, was Double Fine‘s 2005 debut title, Psychonauts. It’s difficult to explain the hold that Psychonauts had over my imagination as a child. I had probably seen it not long after reading Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always, a novel not dissimilar to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, where children are abducted and their energy is fed on by some malevolent being. Therefore, my understanding of Psychonauts‘ story was probably very contorted and stayed that way for many years until finally, we played it for the Unofficial Game Pass Podcast in June.
Psychonauts (2005) – Something in the Water
It was in my mind that Psychonauts was about a summer camp for psychic children, where the children seemed to be abducted – or not really wanting to be there. What was most prominent in my mind was the gaining of psychic abilities like levitate, and the vivid image of standing by a huge lake, with the promise of a conspiracy or mystery involving something altogether otherworldly. I had always expected Psychonauts to feel a bit like the animated film Monster House – containing in excess the amount of creepiness acceptable for a child viewer. But Psychonauts wasn’t like the vivid impression that it had left me with. Finally getting to play it, I had to let go of that perfect idea of what it was, or could have been, in my head, and see it for what it really was.
When booting up the game, you choose a save file by picking a bunk bed and writing your name on the end of it. Naively, I imagined that you would have to come back to the bunk bed every night to save, and that each night something disturbing would happen which would rouse you out of bed. However, the function only served as a save file – you don’t return to your bed for the rest of the game. I have to say that, while my adult enjoyment of Psychonauts was extremely positive, I was disappointed at having to unveil the curtain on such a monument of a memory from my childhood. It’s a game that, like all Double Fine games, excels in humour, and is a wonderful platformer with bundles of creativity lovingly stuffed into it. But it wasn’t the creepy supernatural camp it seemed to me so many years ago – instead, it was quite light-hearted overall, disarming my years of built-up expectations.
Part of this disappointment is in the realisation that what I finally had my hands on was a game, and games are fallible. They’re full of convoluted collectables, predictable progressions, and the simple act of grinding through a game’s levels is usually enough for you to stop seeing the magic or lustre it once had. This generally begs the question of how to let creativity and imagination breathe once it exists in the confines and constraints of a game. As any artist knows, a compromise is made when you sacrifice the perfect conception you have in your head for its vulnerable appearance on a canvas – not quite ever living up to that original image. This is a particularly modern and interesting question when it comes to videogames as an art form – when you have to make the player engage with a game’s systems and buttons, how best do you tell them a story? And how best can you immerse a player when they are so aware of said systems? Fortunately, Brutal Legend is a game that I played on release and loved, and yet introduces its own questions on the art of making games.
Brutal Legend (2009) – You Can’t Kill The Metal
Brutal Legend, Double Fine‘s homage to heavy metal, starring Jack Black and featuring the likes of Tim Curry and Ozzy Osborne, is an undisputed classic in my eyes. I was prepared to go into this article with the opinion that Brutal Legend held nothing compelling enough for me to return to it, but leaping back into it to grab some screenshots has sufficiently surprised me, perhaps awaking a thirst for blood … or metal … something like that.
In one of the best videogame menu sequences in history, Jack Black walks you into a common record store to find the vinyl copy of Brutal Legend, whereupon he displays it to the camera, and the hands flip the cover for the main menu. While the framerate truly suffered in the few minutes I played of the opening, I was once again hooked on Double Fine‘s unique humour, and swinging your axe while shredding your guitar to slice and shock your cultish enemies still remains as satisfying as ever.
The amount of charm in this game made it such a complete, realised package – even now, the game feels so aware of what it wants to be. What a surprise then, to hear from Tim Schafer himself, that the early conception of the game was entirely unlike the finished product.
It started as an RTS game. It started multiplayer, and that’s what we did for the first year – we were just making this multiplayer game.
Brutal Legend‘s multiplayer is often the element of the game that people neglect to mention. Not because it’s bad, but because it feels like a different game to the single-player – almost alienating people who don’t play RTS games. In the RTS mode of the game, your character grows wings and can fly around a battlefield ordering your minions to attack the opposing army. As a heavy metal RTS game, it feels spectacularly unique, but how this conception of the game became what we know as the Brutal Legend campaign seems inconceivable.
Tim Schafer elaborates on the creation of the single-player, explaining that it grew out of the tutorial that they made for the complex multiplayer:
So we kept developing the single-player game to be more and more involved, more and more involved, and then Jack [Black] came on. And it was like I didn’t even notice that it became the game at a certain point.
Perhaps this echoes J. R. R. Tolkien’s statement in his foreword to The Lord of the Rings – itself a monumental work of literature – when he says, ‘The tale grew in the telling’. This is particularly interesting when thinking about translating the conception of the artist into an artistic product. Rather than communicate something ephemeral from within the minds of the developers, Schafer suggests that Brutal Legend grew out of the creation of the game itself. It’s almost as if they were laying the tracks before seeing the train.
Perhaps the reason why Brutal Legend works so well then, and still holds so much appeal, is because there’s no sacrificed or lost concept. You get to swing an axe, play a guitar, drive a hot rod, and generally be a badass in an awesome heavy metal fantasy world. There’s no promise that isn’t delivered. While this is supposed to be my “brutal legend of growing up,” and realising that games are just games, Brutal Legend may well be the one that I return to – because it is pure fun. And if a game is pure, simple fun, then neither age nor performance matters.
Costume Quest (2010) – An Outfit Worn Once a Year
I remember Costume Quest releasing on Xbox Live Arcade and being completely infatuated with the art style and core concept of the game. The main premise of the game is ingenious: you play as trick-or-treaters in a suburban neighbourhood on Halloween – except it’s an RPG game where, in turn-based combat, you transform into the epic creature or character of your costume to fight candy-obsessed goblins. Cool, right?
By now, you don’t need me to tell you that Costume Quest is injected with the recognisably brilliant Double Fine humour. However, partnered with the art style and characterisation, Costume Quest is possibly the game with the most charm. For as long as I can remember, it has been my go-to game to play on Halloween. Yes, I could play horror games, but nothing has ever quite captured the childhood magic of trick-or-treating as much as Costume Quest, and that nostalgia is unmissable.
Herein lies the problem: Costume Quest has too easily become my game to play only at Halloween – it almost feels wrong to play it in any other month but October. And then, as I’ve grown older, there’s also the barrier there that I don’t imagine wanting to go back to something as simple as turn-based combat, or the more laidback cartoon narrative of Costume Quest. To this day, I still haven’t played Costume Quest 2 despite it being on Xbox Game Pass, just because there’s nothing urgent compelling me to go back to it.
But what’s my point? Am I hear to just say I’m bored of games? No, that’s not it at all. I genuinely love Double Fine‘s games – the writing and dialogue in every single one of their games is always so funny, so characterful; the art styles perfectly realised; the worlds imagined so immersive and infused with personality. Yet I wouldn’t call any single game of theirs perfect, nor could I quite say Double Fine was my favourite developer.
I suppose the problem, for me, is that each game feels slightly too quirky, too clunky. In the way that Psychonauts reminds me I’m playing a game by making me collect figments, arrowheads, and emotional baggage; in the way that Brutal Legend makes me play through RTS sections which feel completely alienating to the main experience; and in the way that Costume Quest is a hilarious, enjoyable cartoon with somewhat laborious sections of turn-based combat – each game is a masterpiece of atmosphere, worldbuilding and characterisation, but I just can’t forget that I’m playing a game.
The childlike wonder that [Double Fine‘s] games activate in me often wants to look past the inevitable shortcomings of videogames.
The vivid impressions that the games of Double Fine Productions leave me with are some of the most powerful images and feelings ever to be found in the medium. The childlike wonder that their games activate in me often wants to look past the inevitable shortcomings of videogames. But, perhaps I as a player need to change my outlook: I need to accept that games will always just be games. The only other solution is that developers looking to create truly immersive games incorporate the gameplay into the game-world in a way that doesn’t break that immersion – but I’m not going to start telling people how to make their games.
Before we close, I just want to recommend two more Double Fine games which I’ve left out. The Cave is a co-op puzzle game with delightfully dark humour that’s perfect for three friends to enjoy, and also Broken Age starring Elijah Wood (and once again featuring Jack Black) which is one of the most polished, high-quality point and click games I’ve ever played. Furthermore, Brutal Legend, Costume Quest 2, Psychonauts and Psychonauts 2 are currently all available to play via Xbox Game Pass – so if you haven’t played any Double Fine games already, you have quite the treasure chest to open. (If you are a fan, you might like to know that Double Fine have partnered with Indie By Design to produce 20 Double Fine Years – a book of art and insight into the history behind the creation of all of Double Fine‘s games in the past two decades, which you can pre-order now!)
Psychonauts 2 (2021)
Of course, it would be negligent to ignore Psychonauts 2, which released on August 25th, 2021, but that will have to wait for another day, with its own article. For now, I’m excited as I start Psychonauts 2 with the knowledge that this is the most polished Double Fine game to have ever been released. I am madly excited to see how the gameplay has been modernised since the original Psychonauts, and to also see where the developers have chosen to resist reinvention. Who knows, Psychonauts 2 may finally be the game that breaks through the barrier between game-world and reality for me. Fortunately, there’s only one way to find out – and that involves pulling on the goggles … just one more time.
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