Psychonauts: Setup and Payoff Done Well (If Not Perfectly)
So about a year ago I posted a long lecture about how Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3 had major problems in the story department when it came to setup and payoff. I basically said that Final Fantasy XV had lots of scenes with payoff that were not set up very well and Kingdom Hearts 3 had some excellent moments that set up story elements but never followed through on them. And while I think some of those issues have been addressed with some of the DLC released for both games (I reserve my right to be a little salty Episodes Aranea, Luna, and Noctis were canceled) I still stand by my statement that these games have big problems with this.
During the past year, I have received a couple of comments regarding my position on this, ranging from “Can you give a good example of setup and payoff?” to “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you come up with a better example?” And I thought, well, what kind of game would be a good example of excellent use of setup and payoff? What game or series would I say does the job so much better than any writer has or does, video game or otherwise?
And then, the middle of a repeat playthrough I always do before a game’s sequel comes out, it came to me:
Now Psychonauts has been out since 2005, so a spoiler warning might seem a little silly here, but I think a lot of gamers have been playing it for the first time since the sequel was announced, so just in case: Major spoilers for the original Psychonauts game under the cut.
Whenever someone tries to argue whether or not video games can be considered art, one of the first games that comes to my mind is Psychonauts, and not just because of its amazing aesthetics. It has some of the best storytelling, script writing, level design, music, voice acting, and art direction I have ever seen. This game is possibly one of the best video games I have every played, despite the flaws that it does have (I’m looking at you, Meat Circus), and it is easily on my list of top ten favorite video games. Is it really any surprise that Psychonauts 2 reached its crowd-funding goal of over $3,000,000 in about a month? And yes, I admit that I am one of those backers, just to put out there any bias I know I have.
But this isn’t meant to be a review of Psychonauts.
I replayed Psychonauts a few months ago with the idea of the first game being fresh in my mind when the sequel comes out, which is supposed to be sometime this year of 2020. I was absolutely inundated with examples of effective setup and payoff as I played, so it seemed like the obvious choice to go over how this story-telling technique can be used not only well, but also to the point where it’s almost like there are far too many examples.
Honestly, I could go on and on and on about setup and payoff in Psychonauts’ story, but for our purposes here most of the focus is going to be on just three big things that are really important to the main storyline: Linda the Lungfish, bunnies and meat, and Raz’s dad.
One thing about setup and payoff is that the setup has to actually happen in a way that the audience, in this case the player, can’t miss it. There are several moments in the game that Linda is mentioned, the first time being in the opening cutscene, where Bobby teases Dogen about the monster at the bottom of the lake. You can’t miss the setup when it is thrown in your face that way.
But that’s not the only time we get references to some sort of lake monster. Before going into Basic Braining, the first official level of the game, if Raz talks to Mikhail, the adorable Russian psychic mentions a “giant, hairless bear” in the woods, asking if Raz has seen it and wanting to wrestle with it. Now, it’s not said for certain if Mikhail is talking about Linda or if he’s just referring to the telekinetic bears you meet later on, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it’s supposed to be the former.
The first time the player heads for the lake, Elton will run up to Raz and mention the “brain-eating fish” that supposedly lives there. Well, now we’ve got both a mention of the lake monster and the fact that it goes after brains. Hmm, sound familiar in retrospect?
Optionally, Raz can also talk to Elton about the fish being spooked by something in the lake.
Although only the first lake interaction with Elton is mandatory (whether it’s when you go to see Milla or before then), both of these moments act as reminders of the setup of the lake monster established in the opening cutscene.
And then there’s the scene in the woods between Raz and Lili on the way to Sasha Nein’s Secret Lab. Raz says that something was watching him, a shadowy being that smelled like pond scum.
I absolutely love Lili’s face in this scene, by the way.
We kind of get distracted by their interactions and Lili basically trolling Raz, but that’s part of what makes good writing. The scene is foreshadowing something without making it overly overt…not that the game is subtle every time, but the point still stands. This game does a great mix of the obvious and the subtle.
The game also has optional dialogue with Coach Oleander and Raz reporting on a UPE (Unidentified Paranormal Entity), which he suspects is aquatic in nature. And Oleander seems oddly insistent that the lake monster does not exist, that it’s just a camp fable.
Finally we get to the Brain Tumbler Experiment. Needless to say, it’s in this level that a lot of the elements come together. We come across a demon in the form of a big, shadowy figure that spits out a diving helmet. Again, does that sound familiar at all?
There is a minor mention of the lake monster in the mental vault below the spooky thorn tower (more on that near the end of this post), but other than that there’s a break in the game where the lake monster isn’t mentioned for a while. We don’t get another explicit scene about it until Raz and Lili meet Linda properly at the edge of Lake Oblongata…where Lili gets kidnapped, we go through the boss sequence under the lake, and enter Linda’s brain of Lungfishopolis. And the final payoff occurs with the Hideous Hulking Lungfish transporting us to Thorney Towers and giving Raz her real name, Linda.
Now would any of that be nearly as rewarding if we had never heard of the Hideous Hulking Lungfish of Lake Oblongata prior to her official appearance? Every single player would just have visible question marks hanging over their heads if Linda just showed up out of nowhere. Deus Ex Lungfish, anyone? But that’s not what the developers did. They spent plenty of time building up to Linda, making her reveal not only make sense but also weaving her into the story so that her reveal is more than satisfying.
There is just one thing I’ve always been curious about, a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario. Did the legend of the lake monster start because genetically-altered Linda showed up and starting attacking campers? Or did the legend already exist and Oleander used it as an excuse to write off any “sightings” of the monster? Any ideas?
Moving on from Linda, we come to the imagery of meat and bunnies.
Without knowing the full ending of the game, most players would think that it’s a bit strange I would stick meat and bunnies together in the same category. Sadly, the connection between these things is a bit on the morose side, and they are actually first introduced at the same time as well.
When I first played Psychonauts, the first time I actively thought about bunnies and meat being related somehow was during the Brain Tumbler Experiment, but that’s actually not the first time the game introduces these. Anyone else notice that Basic Braining has figments of meat cleavers, butcher knives, a pig, a duck, and a fox? I could logic that a meat cleaver and butcher knife fit with the whole army theme, but a pig, duck and fox?
Kind of odd animals would be included in all this, especially animals that are either butchered or hunted. At least that’s what I thought at first.
It is in Oleander’s mind that we first see the “meaty plant” that Lili saves from being squashed by Raz. It’s also here that we see bunnies hopping around the snowfield with the Gatling gun. This early in the game, is this important or just set dressing? I’m ashamed to admit, but I thought it was just weird set dressing when I first played, but it makes more sense as the story goes on.
Turns out it’s important all right, since the next time we see both meat and bunnies is in the Brain Tumbler Experiment. “Mr. Bun” seems like a rather random animal to have in Raz’s brain, but then again bunnies showed up in Basic Braining as well. Is there a connection somehow? Sasha tells Raz that an animal may represent a primal fear or memory.
He’s right on the latter, although a player going through the game for the first time might not know why (and I admit, on my first playthrough, I didn’t). And there’s more meat and meaty plants here. Raz doesn’t directly mention these (at least he didn’t during my most recent playthrough, to my recollection) but they are pretty obvious, to say the least.
So that’s two things connecting the Brain Tumbler Experiment and Basic Braining. Is this a normal occurrence? Maybe these things just show up in brains? Lili does mention she had been dreaming of meat plants, after all, both in Basic Braining and in the cutscene before Raz enters Milla’s mind. Maybe it’s a primal need for meat? Don’t tell the vegans I said that. The Vegan Police would be very unhappy with the final level of this game.
After the Brain Tumbler Experiment is finished, we know that the brain interference was coming from Oleander, but it’s not explained why there are meat and bunny references up until that point. There’s actually no mention of either at all in the subsequent levels until the last. Lungfishopolis, The Milkman Conspiracy, Gloria’s Theater, Waterloo World, and Black Velvetopia are devoid of all meat or bunnies, which possibly leads the player to forget about the whole thing for a while (and when I say “the player,” I really mean me).
In fact, we don’t see any sign of either until the final level of the game, Meat Circus. And, oh boy, Meat Circus.
Yeah, it should come as no surprise that I hate this level. I hated it so much that on my first playthrough of this game in 2005, I rage quit and didn’t look at Psychonauts for several days. I eventually went back to it and beat it, but let’s say I was more than a little relieved that they lowered the difficulty for it in subsequent releases.
But I digress.
We reach Meat Circus, the combined consciousness of Raz and Little Oly, and the payoff of all the meat and bunny stuff we’ve seen thus far. We have Frankenstein-esque meat bunnies, platforms made of steaks, rail grinding on bones, trapeze and trampolines of bones and skin, and of course the dark versions of both Raz’s and Oleander’s fathers, who not only are evil but also become a giant two-headed monster. When Sasha said that problems seem larger in your head than in real life, I should have known it would be taken more literally in this game.
I mean, is it really any shock that Oleander is carrying some trauma after seeing his bunny friend be decapitated by his own father? It’s never said how old Little Oly is, but considering his behavior he is clearly younger than Raz, so this happened when he was in the single digits of age. That’s really not something a little kid should see. That’s just asking for PTSD.
Anyway, back to setup and payoff, which is pretty obvious at this point. We have plenty of mentions of both bunnies and meat throughout the game, leading to the final boss that is both creepy and downright terrifying. Not only does this boss conclude Oleander’s trauma with his father being a butcher and killing his favorite bunny, but it also allows Raz to defeat his inaccurate mental image of his own father. Both of them are able to move forward from that point on. Defeating this monstrosity acts as the ultimate payoff and conclusion for both Raz and Oleander.
Speaking of Raz’s dad…
Raz’s relationship with his father at the start of the game is strained, to say the least. When Raz goes to learn Levitation from Milla, the very mention of his father showing up to take him home from the camp makes him nervous. Not the best sign here, and his other comments regarding his dad don’t make it much better.
Once Raz reaches cadet ranks ten and twenty, we get cutscenes of Raz talking with Cruller in tutorials for Pyrokinesis and Telekinesis. During Pyrokinesis, Raz first mentions that his father, Augustus, hates psychics and trained Raz in acrobatics to the point where Raz worried his dad was trying to kill him. During Telekinesis, Raz reveals his suspicions that his father is psychic as well. The memory vault we see of Raz running away from home only reinforces Raz’s perspective.
We’re led to believe that Raz’s statements are the truth, which is a logical conclusion since he’s the game’s protagonist, but the end of the game shows otherwise. At first I thought this meant Raz was simply an unreliable narrator, but that turns out to not be the whole story. While Raz is an unreliable narrator in that there are a lot of things he just doesn’t know, it’s not malicious in any way. Raz simply doesn’t know that he father really does care about him. That’s the magic of using the third-person limited point of view.
Up to this point, we’re led to believe that Augustus is a neglectful father at best, but it turns out that Augustus does love his son. He’s just apparently really bad at showing it. The very fact that he is the only one able to break into Raz’s “hard to penetrate skull” shows that there is a deeper relationship between them. And Augustus is clearly distraught that his own son sees him as a monster in his mind. Poor Augustus.
I think that a lot of the interactions between father and son in this game was cut out due to both budget and time constraints, because I feel like there is more to be said with these two than what we get in the final product. (I’m thinking we’re going to get more of that in the sequel, but that is up in the air at this time.) This doesn’t bother me too much though, since we do get effective enough setup and payoff that it doesn’t seem like it comes out of nowhere. They do finally talk to each other and express their concerns, mending their relationship…in the middle of a battle with a two-headed father monster.
Clearly these two have communication issues. The morale of this story is that it’s important to talk to one each other.
And this is certainly paid off in the end cutscene of the game. When Sasha says they want Raz to come along to rescue Truman Zanotto, Raz doesn’t just run off with them again. He turns around and gives his father puppy-dog eyes, clearly asking for permission to go this time. And Augustus not only gives it, he gives Raz his blessing and encourages him to “show them all.” Contrast this to the backstory of the game, where Augustus flat out forbids Raz from having anything to do with the Psychonauts and Raz running away in secret.
And if that’s not satisfying use of setup and payoff, I don’t know what is.
That’s not to say that all of the setup and payoff in Psychonauts is perfect. To be fair, there are times when the setup can be missed, and therefore the payoff that comes later can be confusing. The most obvious example of this is the nightmare that attacks you in The Milkman Conspiracy. When I first played the game all those years ago, my first thought was, “What in the world? What is this thing and where did it come from?”
Of course, on subsequent playthroughs, I did find the demon room in Milla’s mind, showing the same nightmares she had caged away. This is the difference between a sane mind and an insane one. Milla has all her demons under control (although notice that they have not gone away) while Boyd’s run amok because he has no way of mentally dealing with them, since his brain is a little bit busy with this, well, milkman conspiracy. The nightmares that attack in Boyd’s brain make more sense after I saw the ones in Milla’s brain. In this case, the payoff wasn’t bad since the nightmare miniboss wasn’t a bad fight, but context in the form of the setup made the payoff better.
Other times the setup can be missed? The other big one is the resolution of all the campers’ storylines. Unless the player spends time going around camp throughout the game and seeing the interactions the other campers have with each other, the little scene you have with each one once they are re-brained won’t make a lot of sense. The love triangle between J.T., Elka and Nils? J.T. and Chops having conflict about J.T. abandoning his best friend for his new girlfriend? Crystal and Clem attempting suicide to become more powerful? Chloe thinking she’s an alien? Maloof basically becoming a mob leader with Mikhail as his right-hand man? Elton and Milka’s blossoming love? …Just to name a few? Yeah, the context of all that is missed if the player doesn’t bother to talk to the other campers throughout the game, but I attribute that more to the player than the game. The developers accounted for this in the story, so it’s more the player didn’t look for the setup rather than Double Fine just not bothering to include it.
That’s just some examples of setup and payoff that I feel are probably the most important to the main storyline of Psychonauts. They are far from the only examples. Really far from it. Oh boy, could I go on about the scenarios of setup and payoff that happen in this game.
Dogen talking to the squirrels, who tell him that the short man is going to kill everyone, only for them to really be talking about Oleander?
Elton saying that Oleander’s recruiting office in Basic Braining resembles a dentist office, only to find out that one of the main antagonists, Dr. Loboto, is in fact a dentist?
Oleander having a mental vault trapped behind some mental cobwebs? Well, he has something to hide, despite him saying he doesn’t when you first play through Basic Braining. Of course, getting angry at Raz for snooping around a room with a curtain doesn’t give off the idea that Oleander has something to hide. Nope. Not suspicious at all.
Agent Crueller having all the different personalities around the camp, hinting as his unstable mental state?
The Hand of Galochio appearing in the lake as a reference to Raz’s family having a curse to die in water, and said curse just so happens to show up not only as a gameplay element but as a story element during Meat Circus?
Raz being able to read Lili’s thoughts when she doesn’t mean for him to, then for him to do it two more times near the end of the game?
How Lili’s cold stops her from sneezing out her own brain?
Sasha’s hatred of tacky lamps having to do with his past working in a tacky lamp factory? Or the shoeboxes indicating his father was a cobbler? Or the bed as the location of where his mother was horribly ill and died?
Raz needing to climb the “creepy thorn tower” in the Brain Tumbler Experiment, only to later need to climb Thorney Towers Home for the Disturbed?
The mention of the town of Shaky Claim on the giant tree stump at the camp entrance referring to the sunken town that is (somewhat) explored during the boss sequence under the lake?
Raz talking about being back in high school in Black Velvetopia despite being ten years old? Not to mention the stories the dogs tell about Lana/Lampita and Dean/Dingo?
Lastly, do I really need to mention the incredibly weird and seemingly out of place mental vault below the creepy thorn tower? A brain chicken hatches out of an egg, meets a fish in water, goes to a circus, gets placed in a teacup, and blasts people to death? Kind of a summation of Raz coming out of the egg in the Brain Tumbler Experiment, meeting Linda at Lake Oblongata, entering the Meat Circus, and getting placed in a brain tank and defeating two people? Was the mental vault a foreshadowing of the main plot of Psychonauts? I don’t know. What do you think?
*Takes a deep breath.* See what I mean when I say I could really go on and on about setup and payoff in Psychonauts? There are so many examples that it’s kind of ridiculous. It could be said that there’s too much of this kind of storytelling in the game, but I fail to see how that is a problem. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, but when it comes to setup and payoff, Psychonauts is not it.
Screenshots courtesy of the following:
Comic Foil, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCN-Y6XDe0oWyhgjcGunJqGw
Global Gaming, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pjsxNSwSSA
137 notes · View notes