Talking Dreams and Nausea-Free VR with Tim Schafer
'Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin' seeks to break new VR ground: looking into the mind.
Double Fine Productions is launching a new Psychonauts game today. It feels so weird to type that, 12 years after the studio first made their mark on the industry, with a 3D platformer-adventure set in a weird and wonderful psychic summer camp, with psychedelic levels based on individual characters' warped minds.
Playstation VR's Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin is a standalone adventure that connects that 2005 game with its upcoming, 2018-expected sequel, and picks up right where the psychonauts themselves left off. But this isn't a platformer—it's a first-person puzzle-adventure steeped in the same warmth and zaniness that made the original game so special.
"I love being back working on Psychonauts again, because it means working with those people again," Double Fine Creative Director Tim Schafer told us by phone. Those people being "our great artists and composers, and the actors," including the voice talents of Richard Horvitz and Nicki Rapp from the original game.
"Being in the studio with them again, it was just like 'this feels really comfortable', and this is a chance—now that we know a lot more about making games and we have new ideas—I feel like we can make an even better game from the first one. It's super exciting."
Rhombus of Ruin started as an exercise in "what if" around VR.
"We wanted to make a VR game and we asked, 'what could we do that would be cool in VR?'" said Schafer. The team thought about gameplay, and quickly hit on one of the biggest challenges for VR: nausea. "I'm always the first person to get sick, I put on the headset and I feel sick for hours afterwards!" he exclaimed.
"So, I was like, 'we're not going to move in our game!' And we're not going to include motion that's trouble for me, or anyone else. But then, if you're not moving, how are you interacting with the world and moving around?"
And then it hit. Psychic powers! "It quickly turned into a Psychonauts thing."
"If you're sitting in a chair, you can move objects in the room with telekinesis. You can move them around, or burn them, or psi-lock them, or any number of powerful things that players could do in the first Psychonauts."
One new thing for Rhombus of Ruin, which is integrated into its puzzle design, is the ability to use clairvoyance (one of the most hilarious abilities in the first title—the ability to jump into someone's mind and see the world from their point of view). And then, you can actually chain it, popping from one mind to another in order to solve said puzzles. It's a smart design conceit to an environment that strives to be immersive. VR was a good fit for that brain-framing device.
"VR really does mesh with what Double Fine wants to do, because we always want to take you and teleport you to a strange fantasy world and have you feel immersed in it, we're always pushing for more and more immersion," Schafer said, despite some early skepticism of the platform. "VR does some of that, right off the bat, for free."
It also presents new creative challenges.
"It changed a lot about how I write dialogue," said Schafer, commenting on how creators give up so much control of the camera and a game's potential flow to the player. And it also creates opportunities to break new ground.
"It's fun creatively, because, I was working in games in the early days, and it [was] fun, because you get to feel like you're taking part in designing what a genre is. It's very exciting when everything you make is new, when you're around for the invention of complete areas of gaming."
Schafer compared the early days of gaming to the budding of genres in film in the 1930s and '40s, when westerns and horror and comedies started breaking out of the mold.
"That's what VR feels like to me, we're just now figuring out what the genres of VR will be. It brings back a little bit of those old west days."
If you want to get creative, and break new ground, you could do far worse than to start with heady ideas about the mind and the subconscious, Psychonauts' bread and butter.
"I love all the stories people describe about their dreams," said Schafer, citing the college psychology of dreams class that partially inspired the first game. "It's kind of like populist poetry in a way—everybody creates metaphors in their sleep. You're fighting a bear, and that represents stress in your life—something like that!"
"You create these beautiful, poetic metaphors for your thoughts and your problems and loves," he continued. "It's all swimming around your dreams, in sometimes purposely clouded ways.
"The fact that people who aren't professional poets and writers can do this in their sleep, I think is very interesting, and the way our brains try to deal with stuff, unconsciously, unaware that we're processing in these unique ways—the idea of jumping into someone's head and seeing that is fascinating."
With all the talk of feeling and emotion, I asked if there was any anxiety going into the new game, based as it is on such a cult favorite with 12 years of fan expectations wrapped up in the franchise.
Schafer said there's no specific anxiety outside of the usual feeling that goes into a game that a designer wants to be, well, good. "Maybe, but the fact is that we're not trying to live up to the first game, but to people's memories of the first game," he said, which perhaps represents a bigger challenge.
"A lot of people forget, there are a lot of rough spots in the first game, and we can't go back there. We have to start from people's best memories and go up from there."
I asked if there would be any Meat Circus references in the finished product.
"Definitely, we'll make sure the last level is unbearably hard," he joked. "Otherwise people may be disappointed!" With a laugh, he concluded: "We were way ahead of the curve on that whole Dark Souls thing."
Disclosure notice: I have a personal friendship with the community manager at Double Fine.