D-PADS AND DICE - 'Psychonauts' a video gamer romp

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Tim Schafer is sort of like the Terry Gilliam of video games.

His visually inventive games are filled with absurdist comedy tempered with a surprising amount of emotional depth. He's lauded by almost everyone as one of the greatest game developers of all time.

And just like Gilliam, no large corporation wants to give him money because his stuff is too far outside of some perceived "mainstream" aesthetic.

When Schafer founded his own company, the first game he produced was Psychonauts. It follows a kid named Rasputin - or Raz, as he calls himself - a psychic who ran away from the circus to join the Psychonauts, psychic secret agents who travel the world having adventures.

The game is primarily set in the Whispering Rock summer camp for psychics, and inside the minds of various people Raz encounters. The camp itself is pretty large and a lot of fun to explore. There are tons of stuff hidden throughout, including what is amusingly the only scavenger hunt-style mission in a game that's an actual scavenger hunt.

The real bulk of the game takes place inside the world of the mind, and this also is where the game shows off its creative design in both art and game mechanics. The sheer variety is astounding; each level is strange and offbeat in the best possible way.

For instance, there's a level set inside the mind of a descendant of Napoleon. You see, it turns out the genetic memory of Napoleon will not let him rest until he defeats it at a war game. The level is set on the game board, all of the areas are on hexagonal tiles, and most of the characters are actually models with bases, like game pieces. And you actually have to move the pieces around the board while at the same time convincing the soldier pieces to join your cause.

Another level is set within the mind of a conspiracy theorist. You wander through a distorted (literally!) 1960s suburb, attempting to find "the milkman" while avoiding government agents in "disguise."

And I'll just leave you to find out for yourself where Lungfish, '70s dance parties and Meat come into play within the twisted psyches you'll explore.

And how do you explore them you ask?

Psychonauts is a 3D platformer, which means a lot of jumping around, dodging enemies and fighting the occasional clever boss foe. The game is a bit schizophrenic in this area, as the platforming can sometimes be tricky and sometimes doesn't really matter much at all. Most levels focus on puzzle solving over jumping through obstacle courses.

Psychonauts has been an underdog ever since it was released. It took more than a year to actually make any money for its developers, pretty much because no one knew exactly what to do with it when it was released. Now it has a cult following and rumors of a sequel in the next few years. Psychonauts is still unlike almost anything else out there, and is still more funny and imaginative than most modern big-budget releases.

Psychonauts was developed by Doublefine, and is available most easily on PC for about $10-$15 dollars. It was originally released on PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2005 and rereleased as a download for Xbox 360. Personally, I'd go with the $15 dollar PC download from Steam, since it's got a number of minor enhancements and an easier final level.

Walla Wallan Noah Hinz is a tabletop and electronic games aficionado. A graphic arts student at the Evergreen State College, he's working on various art projects and game designs. Send your questions and comments at noahhinz@gmail.com.

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