“Psychonauts” is easily my favourite video game of all-time. So I was incredibly excited to talk to Tim Schafer, the 49-year-old founder of San Francisco-based Double Fine Productions and the creative mind behind this incredible game.
In “Psychonauts,” you play as Raz, a kid who runs away from the circus — the family business — and sneaks into a summer camp for psychic children who are all vying to join the Psychonauts, an elite group of psychic heroes.
'Psychonauts' gushes with creativity, from the clever and funny writing to the quirky art style to the levels themselves.
When you're not exploring the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, you're jumping into people's minds using a psychic portal, which lets you help those people by fighting their internal demons and sorting out their emotional baggage -- plus several other clever, literal metaphors -- as you navigate their unique and bizarre mental worlds.
I've played 'Psychonauts' to completion three full times over the past decade -- the game launched in April 2005 for the original Xbox, and has since become a cult classic.
Right now, Double Fine Productions is working on more Psychonauts experiences.
The company is working on a full sequel to the game coming in the next year or so, called 'Psychonauts 2,' and just a few weeks ago, Double Fine released a $US20 game that covers the events between the first game and its upcoming sequel, called 'Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin' -- you can buy it right here.
'Rhombus of Ruin' also happens to be Double Fine's first-ever virtual reality game: You can only play this game if you own a PlayStation 4 with PlayStation VR.
Having tried the game for myself (you can watch our Facebook Live broadcast here), I can say that 'Rhombus of Ruin' is one of the best VR experiences I've ever tried and a satisfying Psychonauts adventure in its own right. It does a wonderful job of bringing you back to that bizarre, colourful world first introduced over a decade ago, and the puzzles and dialogue are just as clever and funny as ever. The visuals also look great, thanks to Unreal Engine, and the VR controls are very intuitive: Most of the game involves jumping into the minds of various characters, seeing what they see, and solving puzzles accordingly, a mechanic that works extremely well.
After playing through 'Rhombus of Ruin,' I got on the phone with Schafer to talk about the future of Psychonauts, building a VR game for the very first time, the new Nintendo Switch, the game industry as a whole, and much more.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Dave Smith: As a fan of 'Psychonauts,' it's great to be back in that world again.
Tim Schafer: Yeah it was great for us too, to jump back into that world and those characters. In some ways, we never left that world -- at least, I never left that world in my head -- so it was helped out a lot by the fact that all the actors came back, all the original cast came back, so we had some of the same artists, same character modelers, and we had the same character designers and some of the same programmers and level designers. So it was very natural to get back into that world that we liked so much.
Smith: Was this your first VR game?
Schafer: Yes. This was our first VR game. We really wanted to try it. We're all very interested when new technology comes out, we always want to see what kinds of new opportunities it gives us, like what kind of new gameplay we can do. And VR is natural for Double Fine because we really like to drop people into strange fantastic worlds and have them feel like they have left the real world -- they're in our world, and we want them to stay as long as they can. So it made sense to try (VR). And then we started talking about not wanting to move around too much and not wanting to make the player sick, and how would you control things that way -- would you control things with your mind? That idea naturally led us to psychics, and our favourite psychics are the Psychonauts.
Smith: I noticed 'Rhombus of Ruin' has a very clever way of getting around the nausea issue in VR, by jumping into people's minds to move around a level. It works really well -- sitting still in VR a much better experience than moving around.
Schafer: The thing about using clairvoyance in Psychonauts is that it didn't just let you teleport around, but also let you feel like you're seeing the world through someone else's eyes. So if you're looking through the world through the POV of a big person or a small person or a tiny crab sandwich, or some insects, or giant creatures -- you want to feel big, or you want to feel small. We want to represent that altered mental state as you see through their eyes, so it's teleportation but also an empathy device.
Smith: You previously said 'Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin' was generously funded by the folks at Sony PlayStation. How did that go down? Did Sony specifically ask for a VR game -- or even a Psychonauts VR game -- or did they just want to partner with you guys?
Schafer: We had the idea first, that we wanted to make a VR game. We started talking to various potential partners for it, but we've done a lot of work with Sony so we had a relationship there, doing all the remasters (for past games), so it just naturally came up. They worked with us before and they knew us, so they were excited about doing Psychonauts as a VR game. We also funded a little bit of it too. Like we're doing with 'Psychonauts 2,' we're a little bit more nimble than we were in the old days where we had to do a straight publishing deal -- we've crowdfunded things like 'Psychonauts 2,' but also a mix, like a publishing partner. And then we have our back catalogue of games now, which creates revenue for us, so we're able to invest maybe not the full budget of a game, but we definitely contributed to the funding of this game. The majority of it did come from Sony, though.
Smith: By the time you started working on 'Rhombus of Ruin,' were you already thinking of 'Psychonauts 2' at that point? Was this game a realisation that you needed to create a bridge to 'Psychonauts 2,' or did you just want to make a VR game and Psychonauts made the most sense?
Schafer: Yeah like I was talking about, the controls we wanted to have kind of suggested psychic powers, so that made us think of Psychonauts. But we also had Psychonauts on the brain because we were already thinking about how we were going to make a sequel, so there are just a lot of things we were thinking about.
We thought it'd be a natural tie-in, a great way for us to get back into that world and start thinking about what Psychonauts look like in the modern day, because the art for the old game was old. We're like, 'What do those characters look like on a modern device, and using Unreal Engine?' So we're using Unreal Engine for 'Rhombus of Ruin' and 'Psychonauts 2,' and this gave us a great excuse for us to get our feet wet in Unreal (Engine).
Smith: So what was it like to actually build a VR game for the first time? Did you run into more challenges since it's a new platform? Did this experience encourage you and your team to make more VR games in the future?
Schafer: I think our dev time for this game was a year and a half? By the time it was done, I was pretty sold on the promise of VR. I always thought it was promising, but the final result we came up with wasn't just a tech demo of some kind of an experience, but a real game: a real environment with real characters. I think that's one of the things that makes this game stand out among VR games too, that its emphasis is on narrative and characters and humour -- I don't think there's a lot of games doing that. So I was encouraged.
The challenges of it were really great learning experiences: Our project lead Chad Dawson had done VR in the 90s, so he knew some of those risks you have with VR, including the nausea and all that. We learned a lot about not just motion, but also how the dialogue has to change when you're in VR, and how audio has to change. These are all new challenges, but they were all made a lot easier -- you mentioned 'Broken Age' took three years, but we were making an engine from scratch. This time around we were using Unreal Engine and that helped us a lot. From the get-go, we were up and running and Unreal, specifically, has created tech to make doing VR a lot more possible. They have their own VR solution and we can just tap into that, so we're working on the design challenges of our specific game instead of getting a basic VR engine up and running.
Smith: Does this game change how you feel about VR in general?
Schafer: Well it definitely made me more excited for VR. I always knew it'd be good but I could sort of see the power it has to really just teleport you somewhere, make you feel the presence and sense of wonder and awe. But we're going to wait and see -- we're going to wait and see if this takes off, and hopefully it adds a lot of new doors for developers.
Smith: Do you guys have plans to make another VR game?
Schafer: Right now we're just kind of waiting and seeing how this one does. So far things are encouraging.
Smith: There was a lot of excitement around VR before the first headset came out in 2016, but one year later, it still hasn't gone mainstream. Do you get the sense things will change soon for VR? That it will catch on with a wider audience?
Schafer: Well, I'm really bad at predicting the future, but I think some of the hold-ups are the amount of expensive hardware you have to buy to get it and set it up. You feel like for some of those setups, you need to have an IT person come to your house and set it up for you.
I think PlayStation VR has a big advantage in that way, in that it's an understandable consumer product that you just buy and upgrade to. It's still not cheap, but it's easy to go into a Best Buy or GameStop and just walk out the door with a package that would let you be up and running in VR in a few minutes once you get home. That's one of the advantages that PlayStation VR has over the other solutions. As soon as one of them makes a really understandable and low-cost consumer product, I think it's going to be much easier to see it under everyone's Christmas tree.
Smith: Aside from virtual reality, are there any other platforms you could imagine Double Fine experimenting with? Maybe augmented reality?
Schafer: I think AR is really interesting, we did a little bit of that with Kinect Party -- mixed media in your living room -- and it was really fun to fill people's living rooms with lava or bouncing balls and all that stuff.
That was a piece of technology I think removed a lot of barriers for people. As a consumer product, it didn't really catch fire and take over the industry, but every time you remove a barrier and let new people in, it's a good thing. Like with Kinect, everyone in the family could instantly play a game, and nobody had to figure out how a controller works. And with VR, even though the technology is daunting to purchase and set up, I think once they make the hardware less involved and heavy and cumbersome and expensive, and lighter on your face, once you put that headset on, a lot of the games are set up so that you're just kind of in that space and you don't have to worry about figuring out a really complicated controller. You're just, like, having a dream. It's more like a lucid dream. There's a lot of potential to that.
Smith: Speaking of emerging tech, lots of people are talking about Nintendo Switch. How do you feel about Nintendo Switch?
Schafer: You know I always get excited about every Nintendo system and I always buy it (laughs). I already pre-ordered it and I tried to get the red and blue one but it got taken out of my cart while I was ordering it and I had to get a grey one! I'm always excited about Nintendo, I love Nintendo games and I'm excited about this one. I'm excited about Zelda. The hardware seems cool and everyone seems excited about it, so I'm happy for them and I'm looking forward to playing.
Smith: You think Nintendo has recovered from the Wii U? Is this a better step?
Schafer: I don't know! I played a ton of 'Mario Kart 8' and 'Super Mario Land' with my daughter on co-op, so I got a lot of use out of that hardware. People have written a lot of articles about what Nintendo should do, what they're doing right and wrong, but Nintendo just keeps coming every year so they must be doing something right.
Smith: Does Double Fine plan on releasing any games for the Switch? Are you talking about that internally at all?
Schafer: We don't have anything to announce there.
Smith: But are you interested?
Schafer: It's not impossible.
Smith: So, back to 'Psychonauts': Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is probably the one game that's synonymous with Double Fine. It was your first game -- over a decade ago, now.
Schafer: It would be appropriate to call it our flagship IP, I think.
Smith: And that's what I'm getting at. People clearly love the game, but have you ever considered doubling down on one franchise, to be 'The Psychonauts Company' or the company that makes this specific series of games -- or is it in your DNA, or Double Fine's DNA, to always be trying new ideas?
Schafer: We don't have any set rules about that, but we always have been an inspiration-driven company. So if we get inspired to do something, we usually pursue it. And I was feeling a lot of inspiration to go back to the world of Psychonauts and that's why we're doing it. And also sometimes we just make up something else completely, like we want to do something on Russian dolls or we want to do something on heavy metal, and we have our inspiration and that's what gives us the energy to plow through all the difficulties of making a game and make something that's very personal and hopefully something really great. So I'd say there are no rules about it, but if we get an idea we all care about we chase it with everything we have.
Smith: As someone who's seen so many changes in the game industry, what's the biggest thing that's surprised you?
Schafer: Well I was definitely surprised when our Kickstarter took off. We had no idea -- we thought we were going to be publicly shamed by not being able to raise $US400,000 -- and we raised $US3 million. I think that surprised a lot of people and it led to the development of a whole bunch of crowdfunded games. And that's what let us make 'Psychonauts 2,' we tried to build on that surprise to create a new game. So that was a very pleasant surprise.
There have definitely been ups and downs over the past 25 years or so that I've been making games, but I guess I'm not surprised we're still around, that games have grown into this thing that matters a great deal of people. I mean, I've always loved video games since the 70s, but to some people they have grown to become this art form that has connected with them in a very personal way, so while not surprising, I guess it's pleasant to see that it has developed that way.
Smith: What kinds of games are you playing right now, aside from the development version of 'Psychonauts 2'?
Schafer: All kinds of games! I'm trying to get 100% on 'Rhombus of Ruin' before anyone else at the company gets it, get all the trophies… other than that, I'm playing a mix of everything from 'Nioh,' the PlayStation exclusive from Team Ninja, and also 'Night in the Woods' just came out, that's very exciting. I'm enjoying that.
Smith: Is that where you go for inspiration? You're a super creative person -- does a lot of your inspiration come from playing video games? Or elsewhere?
Schafer: I get inspiration everywhere. You get inspiration sometimes watching movies, or reading a book, or walking down the street, or just talking to somebody. And definitely playing video games. It's not that you necessarily take ideas from them, but you have the experience of loving or hating something in a game and you think 'I want to create and/or avoid that.' I think you naturally think about ways you can make one. And so, I think it's really important if you're in the games industry you keep playing games. A lot of people will stop at a certain age because they just don't have time, but if you really stop having the urge to play video games, you really need to think about if you're in the right industry. Because you've got to stay inspired, which is something we always have done by pursuing things that we love instead of things that are just purely chasing something that's popular.
Smith: What would you say is the hardest part about working in the video games industry? Or, what's the hardest part of your job, doing what you do, and working in this field?
Schafer: I'd say it's trying to manage and protect some really delicate, creative and artistic ideas against the trials of development. Games are the subjectivity of entertainment and art, multiplied by the complexity of engineering and software, so it can be challenging to take an idea that sounds silly or frivolous -- and maybe that's the heart of your idea -- to suffer the slings and arrows (is that too much?), to go through the whole process of schedules and budgets and engineering setbacks and bugs and collaboration and disagreements and seeing that all the way through to the end is a challenge, but I think that's something we find enjoyable and wouldn't do it if it weren't.
Smith: Have you ever gotten interesting feedback from people that play your games -- or anyone you've worked with, or random people you've encountered throughout your life? Is there any piece of feedback that's stayed with you over the years as you've developed games?
Schafer: In the early games of making adventure games at LucasArts, I'd write stuff that I'd think would be temporary, like, 'Look behind you, there's a three-headed monkey!' and I would think that's silly, we have to cut that, and then (LucasArts producer and game designer) Ron Gilbert would come up, read it, and go like, 'No, that's going to stay in the game.' That helped me realise that sometimes, our best ideas are the most silly ones, and to not censor yourself. Sometimes your biggest critic is yourself, and if you censor your ideas before they get out into the world, you won't know if they're any good or not.
Smith: Are you still working with Two Player Productions, the company that documented the complete development of 'Broken Age'?
Schafer: They're filming everything we're doing on 'Psychonauts 2.' That's going to be a similar documentary, maybe a different format, but we're not releasing it every month as we go. We're trying to tell stories with a longer arc, and those guys are going to edit it as they see fit, but they're filming everything so people will be able to see the whole story of the development for the game. We did one with 'Rhombus of Ruin,' there's a mini-documentary (on YouTube) about how we got into VR and it shows how we got some of the rough versions of the game.
Smith: So clearly there's something about this setup with Two Player Productions that works for you and Double Fine -- financially, and maybe from an ideal standpoint, to show transparency and that you're not messing around with people's money. This idea of transparency: How important is it to you? It was a big idea from the outset to make 'Broken Age' as a game and documentary to go with it, but is this the plan for the future? To always be documenting your games? And how does that fit into your business?
Schafer: (Two Player Productions has) always had their own desire to do these examinations of the creative process with people like us, and it meshes with my own mission to pull back the curtain and let people see what goes on in game development, because when I was younger, I wanted to have a job in game development but I couldn't imagine someone like me could ever do it. So you want to show people that these big collaborative works of art like 'Rhombus of Ruin' are like the ideas and hard work of many people coming together, and it's not like magic, and it's not like people that are much smarter than everybody else, they're just regular people working together to make a collaborative work of art.
I like having that shown -- it can be tough, tough on the team as it exposes them to the internet, as people can make viral videos and nasty animated GIFs out of (Double Fine employees), but I think it's worth it to have people understand a little bit better the humans that are behind a game like 'Psychonauts.'
Smith: Final question: What are your hopes for Psychonauts? 'Rhombus of Ruin,' 'Psychonauts 2,' but also the franchise in general?
Schafer: Well it's definitely a world that has a lot of emotional hold for us, because we really love that world and those characters, and that feels very real to us. The first game, when it launched, it did ok, but when we got the rights back to it (in June 2011), we were able to sell more and more, and it sold more in the last five years than it did in its first five years. And I think that's shown the audience has grown kind of organically over the last 10 years, so we have hopes it will reach more people than it did the first time. But I think what we're really concentrating on now is more of the 'If they build it, they will come' philosophy: Just make a great game, make it true to Psychonauts, and if you make a great game, people will come play it.