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.
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.
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.
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.