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It’s been a long wait, but Psychonauts 2 is nearing its August 25 release. This 3D platformer will have players exploring minds and an organization of professional psychics on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
The original Psychonauts launched back in 2005. A lot has changed since then. 3D platformers went out of style … and then saw a comeback. Psychonauts developer Double Fine went from indie darling to becoming a part of Microsoft.
GamesBeat talked with Psychonauts 2 senior systems designer Lauren Scott and lead environment artist Geoff Soulis about the game’s development, how it hopes to attract new players, and what surprises old fans can look forward to.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Is it difficult having to catch up players who didn’t experience the first Psychonauts or the VR spinoff, Rhombus of Ruin? I know the game starts with an cutscene explaining the events of those games.
Scott: With that the challenge is always walking this line of fans who know the game inside and out, who have been waiting for it all these years, and then also new players, which we’re going to have a lot of because of Game Pass. We’ll be front and center. You can just download and play, even if you haven’t played the first or the VR game. We needed something that would give enough context to be able to go into this second game, but also something that was punchy and quick and funny, something that would engage the long time fans, and would even maybe reward them with some nods to the past. But yeah, overall I think it walks that line pretty well.
Soulis: There are people who weren’t alive when the first game came out.
GamesBeat: It’s been such a long wait for some people for this sequel. For a lot of peoplem, it’s a game they thought they would never see, and then because of crowdfunding, it was announced before development even started. Does that increase the expectations or stress? Or is it just like any other development project?
Soulis: I think more than anything it’s just making sure we’re paying the proper amount of respect to the first game. Making sure that Raz and the Psychonauts world are presented to people in a way that has the amount of reverence and care that the rest of us at the studio have for the game.
GamesBeat: On the same line there, what does it feel like being so close to the finish line and releasing this thing?
Scott: [Laughs] Sort of surreal. We’ve been doing this so long, this is life now. What is life after this? It feels great just to see so much of this stuff come together. We’re all playing the game right now. It feels like every time we start a new playthrough, there’s something cool, something new from every department. Some new design stuff, a new piece of environment art, a new dialogue line by [Double Fine founder] Tim Schafer. It’s just really amazing to see stuff that was conceived three, five years ago now on the screen and realized.
GamesBeat: Setting stages inside of people’s imaginations give you a lot of creative freedom. What is that process like. Do you say, I’m going to make a casino level because it makes sense for the story, or do you just think a casino level would look cool?
Soulis: A lot of it starts with Tim. He will give us the framework of the level. Usually it’s what he would call an elevator pitch for the space. A sentence or two about what the space is. From there the designer and environment artist and concept artist will start to hash out the space and bring certain themes into it that build on top of the goal that Tim set forth for us. A good example, and this is not in the game in any way, but we would get something that says this is Coach Oleander’s level, and he has a war brain. It’s a mental battlefield. We take that and extrapolate that across the level.
Once we get the base framework of that in, Tim will come back through and write out the narrative for the space. In the final polish phase we’ll go back in and make sure all of that is being conveyed properly, and any additional environmental narrative to support the story. A lot of it is making sure that the amazing narrative that Tim writes gets put front and center for the game. That’s what we’re known for, is building games with stories. The story is very important. And it’s not just told through words, but also through visuals and gameplay and every aspect of that.
Scott: The core concept always comes from Tim, but it’s interesting. Every concept just has so many different interpretations. For the Hollis level we got a casino level. That level has been iterated on so many different times. It looks so different now than it did at first. Even within that high level concept there’s a lot of wiggle room, a lot that we can explore in each concept. That’s really fun.
Soulis: There’s so much of each team that worked on these levels in the level itself. It’s amazing. Lisette Titre-Montgomery is a fantastic art director in that she manages to keep it all sewn together.
GamesBeat: Did Double Fine create an outline for the whole game? Or were things more in flux? Is there a lot of stuff that gets cut or put back in? I wonder how clean or how messy the process is.
Soulis: That has stayed pretty much set in stone from the beginning. Tim will do an outline for the entire game. We will basically take that outline and he will say, OK, these are the minds I want you to go into. We’ll go from there. That process gets broken down further and further. In terms of cutting things, we really didn’t. The only thing we cut were bosses. When we got acquired by Microsoft, then we were able to put those back in because we were able to have the extra time.
GamesBeat: That was another question I wanted to ask. How did the Microsoft acquisition impact development? It’s interesting to hear that boss fights were thrown back on the table. Was anything else impacted by that?
Scott: It just helped the team overall to free up a lot of head space, not having to worry about all this other stuff that’s happening, and focus on just making a great game, which is what we all want to do.
Soulis: The acquisition gave us the freedom we have to build this game to its utmost.
GamesBeat: Did you get more people to work on it?
Soulis: Yes, we were able to get some more contractors. We’re a relatively small team.
GamesBeat: We’re seeing 3D platformers making something of comeback. Many of them are focusing more on mechanics and exploration. Your game has a narrative focus that you don’t see as much in this genre.
Scott: We’ve always been an amazing linear narrative. This is what we want to support. This is the core of the game. This is what makes us special. We’ve always developed around that. But we also have tried to make sure that we do include features that enrich the game and that make it feel more full. We bring back a lot of the stuff that you already loved from the first game, like figments to aid in ranking up and also give you little narrative tidbits in the brain you’re in, and vaults you can open to get an even deeper dive into the secret memories of a person. And then we added on some new stuff. We have these items called pins you can equip to customize your powers in cool ways. Even though we’re not an open world game that’s focusing on feature soup and trying to cram in as much as possible, we do try to judiciously select the features that are going to support the strong elements in a linear narrative game.
Soulis: And also, while Tim was writing the story, the only thing we could focus on was platforming and power interaction. There’s still a lot of that in the game. We just have the added bonus of Tim and his writing. We want to focus on that as much as possible.
Scott: I definitely think that’s a strength and a standout. I think that’s a good thing.
GamesBeat: There are a lot of abilities you can get via these upgrades, and other ones are doled out while you play the story. Was it difficult to decide which of these would go where?
Scott: Things are pretty cut-and-dried as far as upgrades and abilities. The things you just get handed to you during the game are the powers, psychic powers. You get your first four, and then clairvoyance, and then you have the three new ones, projection, time bubble, and mental connection. Those are things that you just acquire passively through the game. But everything else, as you rank up, you earn upgrade points that you actually have to choose to spend to customize your powers and power up stuff that you care about. And then the pins further customize and give you more gameplay utility or cosmetic funny stuff where you want it. We tried to build in quite a bit of player choice in this game. If you recall in the first game, all of your upgrades are just a preset list. You gain them passively. We wanted to make sure that there was a bit more player investment and acknowledgement of Raz’s progression and journey.
GamesBeat: Another thing I noticed was how so many of the collectibles relate to player power. So many of them increase your strength and help you unlock new upgrades. Was that a deliberate choice?
Scott: Yeah. We definitely wanted to make sure that every single collectible we introduced in the game in some way was important to the player, and it increased power. Either power or gave them some utility along some vector. We have the figments, the nuggets of wisdom that help you rank up for upgrades. We have the half-a-minds that you can collect and increase your mental energy to make you hardier in combat. But then we also have collectibles that are just completely narrative-focused, like the vaults that you have to run around and punch to find those really cool illustrated memories. We never wanted anything that was just going to be filler, just run around and collect these things because we want you to collect them. Even every last figment was considered and the lore and the background of the character’s brain went into whatever image is drawn. They’re usually something to do with the character’s personality or their past or something like that. Even these little things that you’re collecting still have so much thought going into them. We wanted to make sure that everything was very intentional.
Soulis: Yeah, everything pretty much feeds back into the story as much as we possibly could do it, from all aspects.
GamesBeat: With 3D platformers, a lot of players love see and collect 100% of the game. Do you have that in mind when you design?
Scott: Yeah, definitely. In designing the economy you always have that in mind. There are so many different pieces, and you want to make sure that they’re all doled out and presented in a satisfying progression curve, always. But we want to make sure that all of that always serves a purpose. One purpose it definitely serves is getting players to go to every little teeny tiny corner of the environments that Jeff and the level design team create. If you’re a completist and you’re 100 percenting, we want to make sure we put figments in spots that you might not normally ever go to, but you’re rewarded for going to them by seeing some cool little secret or something.
GamesBeat: Then there are the incompletionists. The game also has a mode that lets you be invincible. It feels like there’s some reaction out there you might want to address.
Scott: First off, I’m actually, despite being an economy designer, also an incompletionist. I usually barrel through stuff. But one of our goals that’s been built into the fabric of the game for all of our development was wanting the game to be playable and accessible by as many people as possible. It seems like a no-brainer, but we want as many people to have fun with the game as possible. We built in assist features like the invincibility and no fall damage and stuff like that to our plan, in addition to some control remapping stuff that you can do, vibration intensity control, even things like subtitle size and color blindness compensation. All of these things were things we thought about. We wanted to make sure that we just brought in that pool of players as much as possible.
Soulis: We’re all very confident in how amazing the story is. Getting as many people to experience it as possible is something we want to share with everyone. Why gatekeep that?
Scott: We’re not taking anything away. An accessibility feature doesn’t mean that a super-hardcore version didn’t happen. Everything is there for everybody, and everybody can play the way that they want to.
GamesBeat: We’ve all learned a lot more about mental health since the release of the first Psychonauts. Did that impact how you approached designing this game and it story?
Soulis: Much like the first game, none of us on the team are mental health professionals. We try to approach everything with as much empathy as possible, but we also have a lot of outside consultants that come in and take a look. Microsoft provided us [contacts at mental health nonprofit] Take This, with a lot of that additional information. All the feedback we get from that, we work it back into the game to make sure we’re treating everything with as much respect as we possibly can.
GamesBeat: I was impressed that around the casino level, there’s this whole idea of changing a person’s mind. Maybe that could have just been a fun mechanic. You change a person’s mind so they do this instead of that. But you establish it as negative thing. There’s repercussions there.
Scott: I definitely heard Tim say that the Psychonauts aren’t going in to mess around with people’s brains, or to force them to do things or whatever. They’re there to help with healing and help to with problems. They’re not trying to manipulate anybody. Showing the repercussions of an outright manipulation was important to him as part of the story.
GamesBeat: Diversity also stood out to me, especially among the intern characters. Was that an important philosophy in the game, to have a diverse cast, even with everyone kind of looking like Tim Burton monsters ?
Scott: I believe so, though I’m not the authority on that.
Soulis: Psychonauts are an international spy organization, so one would hope that they would be a very diverse group.
GamesBeat: What else is going to surprise players?
Scott: There’s some new stuff that’s going to be really cool. Combat is hugely expanded, with some of your favorite classics coming back, like the sensors, but a whole new cast of enemies to fight, small and big, that all represent a core mental concept. And then the new items you can get, from healing items to the pins. There’s just a lot of new stuff to play around with.
Soulis: There’s still a lot of crazy stuff to explore in the game.
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