On The Level

On The Level: Psychonauts

Psychonauts: “The Milkman Conspiracy”

Understanding a twisted mind by exploring a twisted space.

By Joe Keiser • April 12, 2012

In On The Level, we take a close look not just at a single game, but at a single level (or chapter, or world—you get the idea). Last week, Gus Mastrapa surveyed the career of Tim Schafer from a big-picture perspective. In the debut of On The Level, Joe Keiser focuses in on an iconic realm from Psychonauts, one of the most fondly remembered games in Schafer’s oeuvre.

Twenty-nine seconds into the opening scene of this year’s biggest blockbuster so far, Mass Effect 3, a sizable number of chromed-out crates are visible on a storage dock in the background. This, according to the Crate Review System, gives the game a score of minus-301, making it one of the worst games ever made.

An invention of writer and comedian Erik Wolpaw, the Crate Review System was presented in 2000 as an objective measure of a game’s quality. “All games contain crates, therefore all games can be judged empirically on those crates,” he wrote, because that “represents the point where the developers ran out of ideas.” Simply count the number of seconds from when you start playing the game until you see a crate, and that’s the game score. If you see a crate before you can actually play the game, you start counting backwards. Barrels (“the circular crate”) count, and flaming barrels aren’t fooling anybody.

You may take a look at the high crate-and-barrel density of modern game worlds and think that nobody learned anything from this. In fact, this scandalized the level and visual designers of the time. Here was a salient and witty critique of their laziness, presented as a tool anyone could use to excoriate their work. It laid bare the fact that, really, everyone was just making monster mazes with hidey-holes for ammo and health. It forced them to ask, “What can we do instead?”—though most didn’t seem to find an answer.

Psychonauts: Boyd

It’s unsurprising, then, that one of the best answers lies in Psychonauts, the 2005 cult classic that is typically credited to industry celebrity Tim Schafer but was also Wolpaw’s first job writing for games. The most beloved level in that game, “The Milkman Conspiracy,” exposes mediocre level design as a lost opportunity to tell a story with space.

Psychonauts tells the tale of Raz, a kid honing his mental abilities at a psychic summer camp. He unearths a nefarious plot to steal the powerful brains of his fellow campers; stopping the evil-doers requires that he journey through the minds of those around him. Most of the levels take place in these minds.

By the time Psychonauts gets to “The Milkman Conspiracy,” the depth of this premise is not yet plumbed. Most of the earlier stages are training missions through the carefully conditioned psyches of the counselors, who only reveal their true selves in small, accidental doses. One level, in the thoughts of a lungfish, is a simple area fit for the simple brain of an animal. But Boyd Cooper is a man, a demented security guard, and not the least bit psychic. When you enter his mind to start “The Milkman Conspiracy,” the whole thing’s all Boyd, with nothing hidden or pruned.

Psychonauts: Assassin + figments

So begins what may be the first great example of game environment as characterization. Boyd’s paranoia warps a mellow ’50s suburbia so that, somehow, the neighborhood itself is staring at him. The hydrants and mailboxes that would be incidental detail in any other game reveal hidden cameras and watching eyes. Raz is searching for the Milkman, and the G-Men that populate the mindscape do the same. They’re impersonating Boyd’s neighbors, but their imitations are pathetic. Boyd can see right through them. Who are they working for? 

Aspects of Boyd’s world are presented as Figments. These are crayon drawings that symbolize Boyd’s incomplete thoughts—say, a translucent neighbor, or a chair—and can be collected for use as currency. In any other game, these would be meaningless scattered widgets. In “The Milkman Conspiracy,” they’re people and things that likely have a basis in reality but were too peripheral to gain the full attention of a preoccupied security guard.

Figments are probably the most interesting (and most often ignored) aspect of Psychonauts. In most of the game’s contemporaries, having a collectible that was even context-appropriate to the scene was too tall an order. (For example, Devil May Cry 3, another 2005 title, was content to have the player gather colored balls.) Figments work much harder. They unify the otherwise disparate visual styles of the mindscapes, since they’re drawn the same way everywhere. But while they’re consistent in style, they’re also unique to each level—thoughts specific to the brain that thought them. And they’re most effective in “The Milkman Conspiracy,” where they add a distant feeling of normalcy—a laughing child here, a potted plant there—to an otherwise twisted scene. They are vestiges of sanity on the fringes of delusion.

Psychonauts: Figments

By their nature, the Figments also add to what the player knows about Boyd. His paranoia is everywhere. The reasons for his mindset and the consequences of it, both real and imagined, are all in there as well, relating stories of Boyd’s past. It’s worth noting that in the “real world,” you don’t say more than a few words to this man. But by scouring his level, you end up learning everything about him.

“The Milkman Conspiracy” is, in part, a maze where ammo and health is tucked away. It’s also a scene where a hilarious mystery unfolds. These things are not overly ambitious (though the writing of the mystery is quite good, and there isn’t a single crate in the entire thing). But it’s also a character, and since games are so much better at simulating interactions with environments than with people, it builds a compelling relationship between the player and that character.

This was an important trick for games to learn, and was used with even greater success in 2007’s Portal and 2011’s Portal 2. Not coincidentally, Wolpaw had a significant hand in both of these works. There happens to be a crate in Portal, but that’s a different trick for another time.

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422 Responses to “Psychonauts: “The Milkman Conspiracy””

    • AuroraBoreanaz says:

      Was that the guy in charge of the Old Man Murray site back in the day?  I seem to recall the Start-to-Crate Ratio beginning there…and yeah, you know when there’s crates in the intro movie BEFORE you start playing, it’s bad.

      I still love Mass Effect 3 though, crates and all.

      • Brian Ward says:

         Yes, Erik and Chet. There will never ever be a gaming website better than OMM. I’m mad that some things on the site are no longer preserved, like the Alien vs. Child Predator game.

        • AuroraBoreanaz says:

          Alien…Vs Child Predator?  Wow…that’s brilliant.

          The only gripe I had about OMM’s site is that it nearly got me in trouble at work for unmarked NSFW pics in one article.  (I think it was the rant about Roberta Williams and Sierra games.)

      • I’m sure a lot of people know this— surprised the article name checks erik then doesnt mention it— but Erik Wolpaw helped write this game.  Im pretty sure his game writing resume goes:

        Alien vs. Child Predator

        So he did well for himself.

  1. green_gin_rickey says:

    I really loved the design of Milkman Conspiracy. Playing through it… not so much. I didn’t realize until a while into the level that hey, I can open the trunks of cars! So then I had to go back and open them all to look for necessary items. Also, I’m terrible at jumping and tended to fall off the level at inconvenient points. There were more frustrating parts of Psychonauts, but for me the greatest coolness/unfunness ratio was in Boyd’s head.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

      Honestly, I felt the same way. I love Psychonauts to death, but the actual gameplay, while solid enough, left me a bit disappointed. Though it’s probably because I absolutely loved every other aspect of the game’s design. I ran back and forth through this level way too many times just looking through every nook and cranny for whatever thing i missed. 

    • Merve says:

      I discovered that the trunks could be opened entirely by accident. I jumped off the roof of a house and accidentally clicked my mouse, so I ended up doing a perfect ground slam right on the trunk of a car.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      Huh.  I feel the same about every Schafer game but Psychonauts.  1 of the reasons this is his best game is that he combines a hostile environment with graphic adventure-inflected platformer exploration.  To me, there was just (good) tension between what Joe wrote about and what you need to do to 100-percent complete it. Black Velvetopia was the key example of this, though it’s not my favorite stage.

  2. Merve says:

    The best thing about Boyd is that you don’t cure him right away. You “solve” the conspiracy, but he’s still batshit insane…until he lobs the Molotov cocktail at the mental facility. Then he asks the other mental patients if they want to split a cab. That had me in stitches.

    I love the concept behind the Milkman Conspiracy, but the best overall level for me is probably Black Velvetopia. And I really love Basic Braining and Milla’s Dance Party too. Heck, I really love the whole game. Even the Meat Circus.

    •  I’m actually replaying it right now and I’ve just finished Black Velvetopia. Just stunning. Well, except for the boss fight which is an utter pain in the ass, but then they all are. And don’t forget Lungfishopolis!

      • TheOnceAndFutureCheese says:

         No! That was the orphanage! The puppy orphanage!

      • Basement Boy says:

        Been a few years since playing it on the PS2, but, yeah, this game was one wild ride. I loved exploring the campground environs and YES, Lungfishopolis was insanely fun… I think the final warped tower level was my favorite tho.

        • Merve says:

          The warped tower level has a lot of great platforming, but man, those exploding confusion rats are a pain in the ass.

    • alguien_comenta says:

      I was having a lot of fun on Milla’s level until I found the “secret” room. Man, that was a gut punch

  3. Emperor_Jim says:

    This seems like an awesome idea for a regular column. Now do Kuribo’s Shoe! 

    • Merve says:

      Oh man, there are so many great levels that could be featured here! Just off the top of my head:
      – “Freeman Pontifex” from Half-Life 2: Episode 2
      – Hong Kong from Deus Ex
      – The companion cube puzzle from Portal
      – The mission from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas where you have to shoot the gangsters on the train. (I forget what it’s called.) You do the mission, thinking that it’s nearly impossible and unfairly difficult, but then you later find out that the mission is supposed to be hard because Big Smoke is actually working for a rival gang.
      – “Low Earth Orbit” from The Operative: No One Lives Forever. It’s in MOTHERFUCKING SPACE.
      – And if we’re really digging back into the vault, “Tick-Tock Clock” from Super Mario 64. The first time you enter it is the perfect combination of “Oh my God what the fuck” and “Holy shit this is amazing.”

      • jarviscockblocker says:

        That San Andreas mission was not difficult just for Big Smoke reluctance to shoot, but for the fact that you had to ride your bike in a very narrow lane next to the train tracks, to have him actually hit the targets. If you went closer or further just by a a few inches, he’d miss. When you realize that, it becomes really easy to complete.

        Oh, and my submissions would be:

        * Death Tower in Flashback
        * The first map from Duke Nukem 3D
        * Getting the parts for your Big Daddy suit in Bioshock
        * And I know this is kind of a stretch but the whole Tenpenny Tower conflict in Fallout 3.

        • Binsbein says:

          Or just simply do a long series of articles about all the maps in the first Half-Life because that entire game is a level design masterclass.

        • AuroraBoreanaz says:

          Flashback was the bomb!  I love the old single-screen shooters.  Flashback and Blackthorne were my favorites.

          Sadly, the sequel to Flashback, Fade to Black, was a horrid 3D action game with characters inexplicably stolen from the Terminator.  (Sarah and John O’Connor?  Really?)

        • AuroraBoreanaz says:

          @Binsbein:disqus  – Hell yes.  To this day, the only game that was as entertaining to watch someone else play as it was to play yourself.  (My friend bought it and we took turns.)  The level where you’re in a ventilation shaft, hear soldiers yelling about you, then get shot OUT of the shaft into a garage?  AWESOME.

        • Marozeph says:

          @Binsbein:disqus – I wasn’t a fan of the “Jump ‘n Run”-section in Half-Life that took place after the army guys stole your weapons and the quality of the “Xen”-Levels is debatable. Apart from that, the level design is indeed excellent. A writeup here would be most welcome.

          I also would like to see some levels from the “Thief”-series here.
          Thief 1 had an interesting level that changed depending on the difficulty level (can’t remember the name, you had to find a horn in a catacomb).
          Thief 2 had “Partytime”, a great example of an open level that allows the player to approach it any way he likes it.
          And Thief 3 had “Shalebridge Cradle”, which might be one of the eeriest levels ever.

        • Basement Boy says:

          In one of the Jax & Daxter PS2 games (similar to Ratchet & Clank in style and tone, but more desert-techy) there was a level where you chased a GINORMOUS robo-spider all over an island with your rocket-launching dune buggy… you had to hit a bunch of particular weak points on its joints while avoiding its various attacks. It was tons of fast-paced fun and not impossibly hard… but, man, I’d love to relive that initial moment when you find out exactly what IT is that you’re “after” and how fricking HUGE it is!! Quite an amazing experience from such an “insignificant” title.

          And (didn’t realize I was such a size-freak) but virtually all of the monsters from Shadow of The Colossus are masterpieces, but that last guy who was castle-sized and -shaped was especially awesome (in both the new and original sense of the word)!

      • Justin Wheatley says:

        Tick-Tock Clock was fucking insane. I’d that game was my first introduction to crazy, off-the-wall, really innovative gameplay. 

      • AHyperkineticLagomorph says:

        No One Lives Forever is that game that I, until I read you mention it just moments ago, just assumed was a part of my imagination. I remember playing it, loving it, and laughing the whole way through. I remember the side-splitting writing, the crazy gadgets, the exotic locales, and all that. But I never met anyone else who played it. Or even heard of it.

        I guess what I’m saying is that I would love to see an article devoted to its levels.

        • Merve says:

          No One Lives Forever is probably my favourite first-person shooter ever. I don’t have many friends who play a lot of computer games, so my gauge for how popular No One Lives Forever was is how much people talk about it on the Internet (which is a terrible gauge, I’m aware). So I always just assumed it was a highly popular game that none of my friends happened to play.

        • asdfmnbv says:

          There were two sequels, so it can’t have been that unpopular. But I have also never met anyone else who played it.

        • Merve says:

          @asdfmnbv:disqus: I would literally throw wads of cash at Monolith Productions for NOLF3, and I don’t think it would be as risky a proposition as some analysts believe. It’s true that development would be difficult because the game’s globetrotting nature makes it difficult to reuse assets, but after the immense popularity of the Portal games, no one can argue that the “comedy game” is a dead genre. If I can blow shit up and laugh my ass off while doing it, then I’m a happy man.

          Seriously, Cate Archer in HD – make it happen, Video Game Industry!

    •  And of course St Francis’ Folly in the original Tomb Raider (or Anniversary, for that matter). One of the most exceptional examples of level design there is. Every time I play it it, its elegance and complexity astound me.

    • PugsMalone says:

      I’d go with 5-Tower or 6-5 (the one with the hidden exit) for a level from SMB3. Or Tubular from Super Mario World.

      • Marozeph says:

        Tubular is an interesting example of a level that does something completely different.
        I remember getting completely frustrated while playing and only beating it after countless attempts, more or less by accident (I discovered the “Blue Yoshi Trick” much later).

        Rayman Origins also has a lot of levels that walk the thin line between “Motivation” and “Frustration”.

    • alguien_comenta says:

      If we can suggest levels then:

      – Yoshi’s Island: Hit that switch!
      – Bayonetta: Epilogue (before the boss fight)

    • ThoseEyebrows says:

      Anything from Shadow of the Colossus would be great, but especially the 13th.

      Also, “Curtains Down” from Hitman: Blood Money is one of my all-time favorites and doesn’t get talked about enough.

      • Swadian Knight says:

        I’ve played through that level so many times that your comment triggered Tosca to start playing in my mind.

        That entire game is brilliant, and the level design in it is consistently amazing.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      Hopefully, they add non-American/western European games for week 3 here.  Go with Treasure!

  4. dreadguacamole says:

     “We all work on the road crew. Our backs are killing us.”

     Man, the way the whole level wraps around you (or Boyd, to be exact), and the mechanic where you grab an icon of whichever profession and become a part of the conspiracy… and get tons of clueless dialog from the impersonators…
     One of my favorite levels ever.

  5. Binsbein says:

    I was never really sold on Psychonauts despite having played through it all of it. The game itself is a not-so-timeless platformer at its core and I feel that your feeling about the game comes down to your feeling on Tim Schafer, who I find to be cloying and annoying in his game writing/design. (I think he may have said one time in a junket that games should be more ‘funny’ but judging from the majority of comedy in games I prefer they didn’t.)

    I’m not trying spread wildfire or anything, just how I see things.

  6. ToddG says:

    Looks like I have to be that guy this time around and admit that I have not played this game, despite its presence on my 360’s HDD for the past year or so.

    • Binsbein says:

      I was ‘that guy’ 3 years ago and honestly I still feel that way since the Psychonauts bug never bit me.

    • ElDan_says_Fuck_Disqus says:

      I got about halfway through it on the PS2 and kind of got bored. At heart, it’s a frustrating platformer, and I got fed up with all the same stuff I always get fed up with in platformers. Also, it was presented to me, before I played it, as a brilliant psychological exercise, and while It’s a little more brainy than your average shooter or whatever, I don’t think it’s as smart as it or its hardcore fans seem to think it is.

      My most embarrassing game admission: I couldn’t get past the first level of Killer 7. I tried three times, then put it on the shelf and never touched it again.

      • slammin_sammy_sneed says:

         I love Tim Schafer, I love the ideas/music/voices/images/etc of his games, but everyone of them are so fucking boring to play.

        Grim Fandango has awesome music, Manny Calvera is awesome, the artwork is awesome, the dialog is funny…but the game is a chore and a bore to play.

        Repeat that for DOTT, Throttle, Pyscho, Brutal, and I would be this upcoming game.

        He’s a great idea man and project leader…now just hire some people who know how to make a fun-to-play game.

      • duwease says:

        Let me guess, you couldn’t get past the weird queen creature that constantly rolls eggs at you, fairly early on?  Strangely, that is the most confusing and unintuitive part of the game, and it’s in the first 10 minutes.

        • ElDan_says_Fuck_Disqus says:

          It may have been, that sounds familiar, but it’s been so long that I don’t remember specifics.

      • Girard says:

        You’re not alone. I tried my damnedest to appreciate that game, I even got past level 1 (if memory serves), but eventually couldn’t make it past the bizarro combat, and the experience just wasn’t inventive or awesome enough to put up with the frustration. Now it sits on my shelf and taunts me for my Philistine impertinence.

  7. jarviscockblocker says:

    Holy crap, I thought of a great one to do. Nightmare levels in Max Payne 1. I’d love to see the comments for that.

    • Binsbein says:

      There was something disturbingly familiar about the letter before me. The handwriting was all pretty curves.

      “You are in an AV Club Game spinoff site . . .”

      The truth was burning a green crack through my brain.
      Phone games everywhere. Time trailing through my fingers like so much running water. What the hell was FreeCell doing here? Were they even getting review copies of new games?

      Gameological article about the Nightmare stages of Max Payne…Funny as hell, it was the most horrible thing I could think of.

    • TelephoneToughGuy says:

       Yeah, I’ll never forget those levels.  Falling off the really thin trail in slow motion while the baby’s wailing in the background.  Ugh.  Looking forward to the new one, though.

  8. Basement Boy says:

    Call me kooky, but I don’t understand the hate for the crate… they’ve *usually* got something GOOD in them, especially Treasure Chests which are just a fancied-up crate. Now a crate with a monster inside, that’s a whole ‘nother story…

    • It’s not hate, it’s simply an indicator that a designer is bein’ lazy.  Also, totally cribbing from OMM here, why do all these crates have like ONE chicken leg or band-aid in them??

  9. duwease says:

    Let’s see, what other levels would be good here?  Pretty much anything from Paper Mario 2 or the No One Lives Forever series..

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

      I totally agree that any level from Paper Mario TTYD would be great. The Train level, the wrestling thing with RAWK HAWK, etc etc. Damn, I need to play that again.

  10. Andrew Stewart says:

    That was a fantastic level, I enjoyed the hell out of it.  I got stuck there for several hours, because with all the topsy-turvitude of the level, I kept managing to skip over this one house because I thought I’d already been in there.

    Still haven’t finished that game though; there’s this really shitty graphical glitch that started not long after I finished that level, and I haven’t been able to figure out how to make it stop happening.  Although I did download a driver update for my graphics card the other day.  I doubt it’ll make any difference for Psychonauts, but I reckon I might take a look anyway.

  11. Shain Eighmey says:

    I just realized one level that is badly in need of being experienced in this type of article. “Life of the Party” in Thief 2 is an incredible example of game design.