Last week, individuals from around games media were invited to an interview with Tim Schafer, Lisette Titre-Montgomery, Lauren Scott of Double Fine. We spent time talking to them about the ideas behind the upcoming sequel Psychonauts 2, how they worked with mental health professionals, and whether or not a remake of the original Psychonauts was in the cards.
Speaking to creators who are wildly excited about the projects they are working on is easily the best part of working within the games industry. Hearing the passion behind their answers, what they want to invoke with their games and what makes them tick. Speaking with Tim was special for me, and a highlight of what I’ve done in the industry up to this point.
Q: Psychonauts has always felt like it could transcend games. Is that a space that has ever been discussed at Double Fine?
Tim Schafer: I’ve had a few people over time who brought that idea to us. Hollywood has come calling a few times, but it’s never worked out for one reason or another. But we always just really focus on the games. We like to make games and I think games are cooler than movies. So I think that’s where we naturally belong. Kidding! Movies are okay, they’re cool.
Tim Schafer: Not to be too flippant about that answer but I feel like we put a lot of work into making our characters and our worlds feel real and make them really deep. So I do think they are expandable anywhere, but I think they are most natural at home in video games.
Q: You’ve said before you’ve got ideas for larger story arcs from characters from the first game and Psychonauts 2 starts right after Psychonauts: Rhombus of Ruin ended. Have you ever envisioned going back to make a prequel, or was the sequel always in the cards?
Tim Schafer: I mean, I had ideas for both, but the sequel was really exciting to me because I wanted to show the headquarters for the Psychonauts because Raz dreamed about working for the Psychonauts, not just going to the summer camp, but from being in the centre of the action. And that’s why I wanted to tell this story.
Q: How hard was it to get the whole gang together and how important was it that you had the same voice actors for Psychonauts 2?
Tim Schafer: We were really lucky to have Richard Horvitz, Nicky Rapp, Stephen Stanton, and Alexis Lezin back for all of our characters. Every character was able to return, which is really fortunate. And they just help it feel so much like Psychonauts 1. Their voices are incredible and they jump right back into character. And it just helped us feel right developing the sequel.
Q: One of the newer powers is the mental connection. It’s one of the most ingenious ways we’ve seen a grappling hook-type item be implemented in a game. How did the idea come about?
Tim Schafer: Well, we want to bring back a lot of favourite powers. So the ones from the first game are there. And when we were adding new powers, we were thinking about what areas these previous powers cover. They can burn things and shoot as a ranged attack and what didn’t they cover?
Traversal was one of the ones that we wanted to do. Levitation helps you get up high, but there’s something special about a grappling hook and there is something special about these nodes – their ideas and your connecting ideas together and causing changes in people’s minds. So it seemed to fit the theme of the world that we were in and also led to a lot of really fun, fast kinetic navigation.
Lauren Lawrence: It opens up really nice design spaces for us both for traversal, obviously, but also for combat. We got to think of some cool ways for the base power to work, to be able to pull smaller enemies to you and grapple yourself to the bigger enemies, the enemies that are bigger than Raz. And there are ways that you can upgrade and customize the power to add on an extra melee attack at the end or make it root enemies instead of grappling to them. So it opened up a lot of potential space and progression opportunities. For exploration, there’s even a progression step of having some nodes that you can’t connect to at first. And you need to upgrade and become more powerful to get everywhere in the game and get to some special areas.
From an artist’s standpoint, it’s a really good example of how we need to really think about conceptually what the power was and what physical representation would really work for something loose as an idea. So, we really wanted to see what we could do so that the player understood what they were interacting with. So, first, we did some explorations of like mental taffy, you know, and like some weird concepts that never really stuck. But once you kind of knew that we wanted them to be ideas and the ideas were going to be distinct words and that they would sort of tie into the narrative of this character. The design started to fall into place of what the mental connection power could look like. And then we expanded from there as the functionality improved when the gameplay improved for combat.
Q: Are there any features or in-game experiences that the team is particularly proud of?
Lauren Lawrence: There’s a ton of stuff and I think in general the design team was just really proud of what we did. You started with this amazing core in Psychonauts 1 with amazing powers, collectables and all kinds of goodies. We love that we’re able to take that and expand on it in almost every vector.
For example, for exploration and collectables, we brought back iconic ones that everyone knows and loves, like side challenge markers and pigments. But we added on a couple more just to make sure that we covered all of the areas of Raz’s growth. Like, for example, we add in these little guys called Half-a-Minds that if you get two together, they smack together and create a new brain. We also included this item called Pins where we have upgrades, which you can use to make your power stronger.
Pins are items that you can actually equip and or buy to further customize what your powers can do. The Pins usually are really quirky or might have some drawbacks. So, for example, we have a pin called Glass Cannon that increases your Damage Output but also increases the damage that’s done to you. So there are just all these different ways that you can take that coercive powers and our new set of powers and just kind of blow up the possibility space of all these different combinations that you have. And we also expanded on combat with the number of enemies that we have on screen. We added a whole cast of new enemies of all shapes and sizes and difficulty levels. I think the team has created a pretty dynamic combat experience with different combinations of enemies creating different experiences and different challenges that force you to think about which powers you’re using and how you’re attacking the challenge.
Lauren Lawrence: We have a unique development process and typically, we don’t mean games like this. You have a bit more of an assembly line where art assets run from department to department and we quickly realized that kind of streamlined process isn’t really conducive to the brains we make for Psychonauts. We really focussed on how we can make a really fun and impressive gameplay experience in these new worlds that, you know, Tim has sort of written for us. So we really focus on how we can bring those unique experiences and involve the cinematics to support that full, brain level and go into someone’s mind experience.
Tim Schafer: I’m very pleased with how the game turned out. Even if you’ve only played Psychonauts 1 so many years later, I feel like you’ll feel like it’s very” Psychonautical,” you feel like the spirit of the Psychonauts and Raz and all of these characters still feels to be very true to the original, like it was obviously made by the same people. Psychonauts 2 comes from the same place and has the same heart as the first game.
Q: Any plans for post-launch DLC?
Tim Schafer: We don’t have any plans for that right now or anything to announce about that. There’s a lot of content in the game that we’re releasing. So I think people will be happy with it for a long time.
Q: The notice at the start of the game mentions a lot of serious mental health conditions that are being tackled within Psychonauts, but from a light-hearted perspective. Did you work with mental health professionals or research those conditions so that these depictions can be authentic?
Tim Schafer: We tried to do both our own research and research aided by the resources that were given to us by Microsoft near the end, where we were testing with actual clinicians and professionals who could tell us where we got it right and where we needed to improve things. And that was a great help. But we definitely strove to you know, there’s nothing in the game that I feel is doing anything but being empathic. But how do you really look at the human condition and what people are going through when they end up suffering these conditions as well as being a light-hearted game? So I think it just approaches it by you know, it doesn’t present itself as a psychiatric textbook or anything like that. It’s still a game, but it tries to be very respectful to the people playing it.
Q: Having joined the Xbox Game Studios family and knowing Psychonauts 2 would land on Xbox Game Pass, did the design philosophy or scope of the game change at all?
Tim Schafer: The question when we joined Xbox was kind of what would you do with economics if you were not as constrained by resources as you are now with Psychonauts 2? That really helped us to finish the game right and finish the game with all the polish and the features that we want to finish it and take the extra time to make sure it’s good enough for the players. I think we have a perfect game for Game Pass. It’s an unusual and quirky game that I think might be, you know, a risky thing for someone in a store who is thinking about spending 60 dollars on a game. You need to get really good word of mouth before they take a risk, take a chance on a game like that. On Game Pass, there is much less risk and it’s easy to just try it. Psychonauts 2 will reach more people because it is on Game Pass.
Q: On Xbox Series X, what are the resolution details for 60 frames per second and 120 frames per second graphic options?
Lauren Lawrence: I know that we are optimizing the game for the Xbox Series X and we’re trying to maximize the graphics capabilities in the game.
Q: Recently it was announced that Psychonauts 2 will have an invincibility toggle so everyone can enjoy the game. Can you talk about this a bit more, why the decision was made, and whether you used it at all?
Tim Schafer: It’s nothing new that we want our games to be playable by everybody and enjoyed by everybody. We’ve always tried to do that, maybe with difficulty modes or accessibility features in our work with special effects to make games playable by anyone, regardless of disability or any sort of ability. I think it’s very different. People are talking about it a lot more today, which I think is good because I don’t think it’s as controversial as it appears to be on Twitter. I think it’s actually a very straightforward thing to make your game approachable to everybody.
Lauren Lawrence: I would just add that in addition to invincibility, we have a ton of other features that could help make things even more approachable by more people like control support and UI legibility and colour blind support.
Q: Players can gradually gain more abilities as they progress in Psychonauts 1 and 2. In Psychonauts 2, players can gain these abilities faster than in the previous game. After the completion of the tutorial, core abilities have already been gained. What is the reason behind this design?
Lisette Titre-Montgomery: Being a sequel, it’s always a challenge when you have a character who has come from a full story arc and has gone through an entire, level-up sequence. You want to bring them into a sequel with some form of the powers that they gained previously, but also not so overpowered that they can just demolish everything.
So in that sense, Raz does gain a few of his psychic powers quickly. We make it so he remembers them during the tutorial, like, oh, yeah, I literally just used these powers two days ago. He gets a version of those, but they’re not the most powerful version that he can have as he goes through the game and levels up, Raz can unlock augments – upgrades for those powers that make them even more powerful and even bigger than the first game. And he gets new abilities that expand his repertoire even more.
Tim Schafer: Lauren implemented a system where you can actually choose where you get those upgrades. Unlike the first game where you go down a linear path, where you get to actually think which power you want to specialize in if you want to do it that way. And there are more, quantitatively more upgrades to the psychic powers that there were in the first game. That’s one of the reasons they come so much quicker to Raz.
Q: In the 15 years since the original Psychonauts release, there must have been a lot of ideas floated for a potential sequel. Can you talk us through any ideas that didn’t cut?
Tim Schafer: I mean, we definitely were editing when we were making this game and kept all the ideas we thought were best. I feel like we’ve never been a studio that’s very restrained as far as putting things into the game that we care about. So, any idea we thought was great we managed to make it work. I think a lot of the things that we edited out, we ended up looking back on and thought “We’re glad we didn’t do that.”
Q: What we’re seeing is the brain, psyche, hubris, fear, et cetera. How difficult is it to rein in your conceptualization of these things as play spaces with potential enemies, these tools, systems and the like? It seems like you can really go very far in one direction with one and further still in a different direction with another, and then lose a part of the game’s identity in doing so. Can you talk about the process of keeping parts of the game grounded and connected, even if the themes at hand are hugely disparate and potentially tangible?
Tim Schafer: I think it’s because we were not just exploring these themes in the abstract but exploring them in terms of both narrative and gameplay. It’s really about what aspect of the psyche do we want to explore to serve the story better and what do we want to explore to serve the gameplay? I mean, what aspect of your psyche helps with combat? You know, you’re projecting an archetype that might help you with the combat. And so, there are lots of I mean, the brain is an amazing and mysterious and unknown thing and there’s so much of it that we have not covered in this game. But it was a great resource for bringing in new contextualization for powers and environments and story beats. That was really how we made the selection.
Lisette Titre-Montgomery: From the design side of things, the way we sort of approach these like big topics, I think the key of it is distilling the idea down into its core identity, I guess, and keeping it really, really simple. So, for example, for a couple of enemies, we have The Doubts. What do doubts do? There are a ton of different ideas that might come out of the aether that you might latch onto. You need to pick one and the one that we picked is that Doubts slow you down and they make you hesitate and second guess yourself. To show that, we made that enemy really sticky and slow that splats on the ground and slows Raz’s movement down if he walks over the sticky stuff on the ground. Focusing on that and honing in on the one key part of it and making that resonate with the player is that I think was the key to a lot of the gameplay features.
Lauren Lawrence: We took a similar approach to how the brain levels work. Every human is unique so we felt that every brain level should feel like a completely different experience. We needed to make sure that there were things that the player understood to navigate through these spaces. So, we kind of really captured the essence of the style of the first game, and we looked at what we could do to make sure the movement primitives were consistent.
Even though a rail may look very different across all the brain levels, the shape and form are the same. So you have an instinctive language that communicates how you should move through space, even though each brain may have a different expression of what that object is.
Q: Given that Psychonauts 2 takes place moments after Rhombus of Ruin, aside from the opening cinematic is there any concern about players new to the series being able to jump in?
Tim Schafer: We kept new players in mind as well, when we were developing the sequel. Some references might fly by that are little in-jokes for people who are familiar with the material. Things you need to know to understand what’s going on in the story are all spelled out for you in the game. So you could really start this game and you say, “Wow, there’s some rich lore I’m missing out on,” then you go back and play Psychonauts on Game Pass. We definitely took pains to explain everything that the player needs to know.
Q: Can you speak about the aesthetic design inspirations and where the visual and artistic vision come from?
Tim Schafer: During the development of the first game, we were thinking a lot about The Nightmare Before Christmas, the film by Tim Burton. We were thinking how stop-motion we could go with everything. We like certain artists like Mike Reagan and Joe Zorin, but all kinds of different inspirations for fine art and from movies and film. I think people, you know if people call it Burton-esque it is because we were really inspired by Nightmare Before Christmas.
Lisette Titre-Montgomery: I think we started with what we did with the first game and that style concept and how everything and nothing is symmetrical or the same size, everything is slightly off-kilter. That helps us make sure that the player always feels like something’s a little off and the construct of someone’s mind is unstable. So, that’s one of the tenets of the first game we applied throughout the game.
That’s the signature look of Psychonauts and we’re also looking at what we could do with our current technology to make everything feel a little bit more modern, especially in our sequences where we’re doing these tricky transitions or transitioning you from one part of someone’s brain to another. We really look to some of the really cool psychedelic influences of the past. You know, our E3 level from last year was highly influenced by, you know, Yellow Submarine and that sort of Beatles style in the 60s. While we also have levels that are extremely influenced by, you know, some of the really more modern styles. It really is a wide range and the way we developed each brain to have a unique art style each, you really see a wider range of influences than you see in most games. And I think that’s part of the joy, you know, every brain feels like a different ride.
Q: Any desire to remaster or remake the original down the road?
Tim Schafer: We’ve talked about that for years but one of the things that are held us back has been, and I don’t want to say this out loud, but a lot of the source material doesn’t exist. Some of the game’s cutscenes would have to be reanimated from scratch. I think it’s possible and I think it might be possible in the future but we really felt doing a sequel will actually be in some ways easier than remastering Psychonauts. Although there’s a lot of things in there like the acting and that really holds up in that first game. You know, someday I’d love to reanimate those things and keep them true to the original. Maybe someday!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity