INTERLUDE. Is My Copy of Psychonauts Buggy, or Does the End of the Game Feature the Idiotically Worst Design Decision Since Everything Sierra Did Ever?

a Play By Mail item by J Nash (Wednesday February 3rd, 2010)

(UPDATE. Thanks to the alerting efforts of pretty readers Mr Tom and Mr Dave, I can confirm that the cretinous lock is a design decision — at least for the X-Box version. In fairness to anyone else caught out like this who wants to know where the lock occurs and if their saved games are salvageable, highlight this bit for a SPOILING REVEAL-TYPE WARN: the moment you rescue Lily, you’re locked into the mental world. You can nip back to the Collective Unconscious as usual right up to the end, but if you save Lily with anything left ungathered in the physical areas like the campsite and had wanted to score 100%, you’re doomed. Bruisingly rubbish.)

After years of agonising Ebay gazumping, I recently managed to obtain at last that costly rarity Psychonauts on the X-Box. The idea was to add a new item to the world-fameless Play By Mail section (can you make it through the Driver 3 episode without a large glass of water and the supine position? Thrills!) but, tragically, Psychonauts is so full of tremendous excellence and fabulous surprise that I abandoned the piece FOR YOU — if I’d known before playing it what happened from level to level in Psychonauts, I’d have been quite cross and kicked the spoiling individual until they caught fire.

(The game has its problems and awkwardnesses, mostly because 3D platformers never work properly, but is a splendid thing and one that anticipated with a tangential bonus or funny joke almost everything I tried instead of going where I was supposed to; certainly more comprehensively than any other game I can remember wilfully ignoring in order to see what happens, which I do a lot.)

As you’d expect, Psychonauts has hundreds of bonus items to find throughout the game. These are worthwhile bonuses like power-ups and cartoons, not just a ticking number, and it’s typical of Psychonauts’ anticipatory friendliness that each discrete area tells you exactly how many hidden items you have left to find there and of what type. (As an aside, I can’t off the top of my head think of another game that does this incredibly simple and encouragingly helpful thing that prevents you entirely wasting your time shuffling around an emptied bit of map, especially when you come back to the game a few days or weeks later.) You’ll pick up a ton of these bonuses as you advance the plot, but obviously and naturally you’ll finish the story with further tons left undiscovered.

The problem is this: when you finish Psychonauts, it’s an absolute end. You’re flung back to the title screen. Any items you haven’t found are lost forever. What you’ll realise with popping goggles and draining disbelief is that once you reach a certain point towards the end of the story, it’s impossible to return to certain areas of the map, and that the game doesn’t tell you this. You’ll only work it out when you win, are flung back to the title screen, poke around the options for a bit assuming you’ve stupidly missed something, then goggle and drain, then leaf through your saved games to work out where the doors silently lock.

(That lock springs a long, long way before the climactic scene and, in fact, a long, long way before the door implyingly clangs in a story anim; by the time you might twig, you’ve lost. And here’s a thing: if you like games, you’ll have repeatedly wished Rockstar dead for the GTA series’ miserably miserly eight save slots so you can’t bookmark bits you particularly enjoyed. Psychonauts, with its similar scale and joy of exploration and better rewards, has five save slots. If, like me with finite slots, you cycle your saved games, it’s entirely possible in Psychonauts to finish with all five post the fatal lock you had no idea existed: ie, to have no chance to find the rest of the entertaining bonus items without restarting from scratch. By the sheerest chance, my oldest saved game was just before the fuse blows. To find everything, I’ll have to comb the map then play the entire significantly trickier endgame all over again, breaking off, of course, to nab every item in that sprawlingly complicated area too. Presto! A fun diversion transformed into a slogging necessity.)

This hurtful stupidity is so at odds with the rest of the game that I’m wondering if my copy is bugged. (Supporting this theory: the game previously crashed once with a disc read error; and when I win, there’s a “Loading…” screen followed, immediately and uniquely, by another “Loading…” screen as if something — my reappearance on the unlocked map? — was jumped in between.) The alternative, that Double Fine intentionally designed the game to be effectively unfinishable because you don’t know until long after it’s happened that you’ve passed a point of no return, is colossal dimwittery of cudgelling density. (Supporting this theory: near the end, everything you’ve picked up but not yet redeemed is automatically swapped for extra energy via a clumsy text box, as if the one-way plot lock only wafted into D Fine’s tunnel vision during playtesting and, rather than sensibly intrude with some kind of “Most of the map is locked once you go here. Continue?” or “You’ve won, but still have bonus items to find. Go and look, or unrecoverably watch the end sequence?” double-check, they hamfistedly intrude after it’s too late for you to do anything about it. Note that the auto-swap skips the prize cartoons you’d normally see during item redemption.)

A rapid glance around THNTRNTeiee with a fearful eye cocked for spoilers does not supply an answer. (I learn though that, if you find every last bonus item, there’s a super-prize. I have to emphasise again that finding the bonuses is worth it. Once you’ve seen one awarded prize, you’ll want to turn up the others. It’s not 100%-ing for the sake of it; I haven’t bothered with that type of guidebook-justifying pixel hunt as exemplified by GTA, even for Vice City, the best one. Psychonauts’ prizes are valuably interesting. I want to find them all, which brings us neatly to the existence of this interlude.)

I swivel therefore to you, the plucky, handsome, hand-plucked readers of Or something. If you’ve played and completed Psychonauts (and on the original X-Box, if that makes a difference), did the game run the end sequence then hurtle you back to the title screen, regardless of how you were doing with the bonus items? Did you care either way? Where’s my blue pen? Oh, here it is.

Play Psychonauts everybody! Then go and find T Schafer and (TO BE CONTINUED).