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It's a travesty, isn't it? Nobody bought Psychonauts. It just fizzled out. Brutal Legend didn't do all that great either. People are just so dumb.
I just beat Psychonauts for the third time (five minutes ago, in fact). I bought it the day it was released; I played it again later; and I just beat my Steam sale copy. The writing is fantastic. Lungfishopolis and the Milkman are two of my favorite levels of anything, ever. The whole art style of the Matador section is fantastic. But as a game, this is just awful.
The secondary starting area, the Camp, is just boring. I realize that it's a gentle training area in all your new powers and the concepts of the game, but after your brief taste of excitement and fun in Coach Oleander's WW II mind, you are cast loose in a semi-open yet very restrictive world. Every single time I've played this game I've marveled at just how much more fun Lungfishopolis is than the previous hour of play. Once you've had that taste, you're hooked, but how many people make it through? Most people abandon a game in the first hour, so you just lost over half your players. More linear starting levels would have been more compelling.
But most damningly, for a game that relies so heavily on platforming Psychonauts is just awful at it. I thought this the first time I played it, but at the time I considered it acceptable. Now, after playing Assassin's Creed 2 and Infamous (which I refuse to CaPITALIZE), I'm just horrified. Raz handles like a clumsy oil-covered bar of soap. I love the writing and overall concept in the Waterloo level, where Raz is running around on a hex game board and moving pieces, but in my experience it's most people's least favorite level. Because the game requires platform skills and it's just a goddamn hypocrite. It's infuriating to be required to cross a rope and shimmy up a spire, and the game refuses to acknowledge that you are trying to climb up the spire and instead repeatedly kicks you back, or even worse down to the ground where you get to start all over again.
Oh well, at least it can't get any worse. Oh yes it can. MEAT CIRCUS. Anyone who's beaten the game knows how awful this was. Luckily (?) most people quit earlier so they never experienced this: Jumping from platform to platform while unseen adversaries throw projectiles at you knocking you off, falling is instadeath, you can't see where you're jumping because the camera obligingly turns to hide it with giant slabs of meat, and oh yes everything is timed. Meanwhile Evil Dad is repeating the same sound loops over and over again.
Well how about rail grinding? That's always fun. Except in Psychonauts. On the straight sections when you jump the game helpfully curves Raz to his death. And on the curved sections where you need to jump the gaps the game helpfully keeps him going straight to his death. All the goodwill built up over the previous 10 hours is just pissed away.
I don't regret playing this game three times. It's still brilliant in concept, story, and writing. But you can't let everything rest on the concepts. The foundations have to be solid, and I think Psychonauts fails hard here. It's just not good enough to be a commercial success without a crappy media tie-in. You could say the same about Brutal Legend's RTS mechanics. Deathspank, as an apropros counterexample, realizes this: The writing is great. The art and audio are fun. The game mechanics are nothing special (Diablo!), but crucially they are well polished and fun enough to support the writing.
Tim, I love you, but please realize that your brilliant writing can't hold the fort alone. Everything rests on the very basic game mechanics, and if you don't have that you've got nothing but critical praise and people wondering why your games don't sell. I know Double Fine is working on four games right now, and I'm looking forward to each and every one, but please make sure they're great games first, so you get the success you deserve.