Now, I wish I could relay this funniness to you, but I can’t. The script is razor-sharp –peppered with the cool one-liners and those odd bits of sideways (even backwards) thinking that made Day of the Tentacle so great – but I don’t want to repeat choice moments because a) it’ll spoil them for you and b) they’re an awful lot funnier in context. There are surreal jokes, character jokes, even slightly childish vulgar jokes. Just take my word for it: if you can play this game without laughing out loud once, then be worried. You’re almost certainly the sort of dull, humourless misery-guts that people go out of their way to avoid in pubs.
What’s more, Psychonauts is the first game in ages where I’ve actually found myself liking the characters. We have a hopeless, naïve wannabe hero in the classic Guybrush Threepwood mould, a range of misfit kids with psychic powers, an ageing ex-agent who’s lost his marbles, a cool, levitating party girl and a cast of loonies who make Norman Bates seem like a mildly neurotic cross-dresser. Basically, Psychonauts has oddball charm in spades.
But oddball charm in spades wouldn’t be enough if it weren’t for the game’s secret ingredient: lashings of raw imagination. To understand how this fits in, you need to know a little about the plot. Basically, Psychonauts takes place in a wilderness training camp for would-be psychic agents. Into the midst of the ‘gifted’ and ‘special’ kids comes Raz, a self-taught teenage mind-warrior whose one wish is to join their ranks. Raz proves his mettle and joins the programme, but as he progresses he uncovers a plot to harness minds for the purposes of war. To defeat it, Raz is going to have to fight his way through the mental landscapes of some of the most deranged, disturbed and downright twisted minds around.
And it’s these ‘mindscapes’ – the levels – that have allowed the imaginations at Double Fine to cut loose. There are levels set in smoked-out battlefields, neon-lit discos, a revolving cube that shifts shapes and throws out mad platform structures. There is a level set inside the internal theatre of a washed-up loony actress, and another set inside a city that only exists inside the artificially boosted mind of a giant bottom-feeding lungfish, through which you stomp like a teenage Godzilla busting buildings and trampling tanks. The best level – the one that’s destined to be the game’s signature – is a trawl through the paranoid nightmares of a conspiracy nut, in which suburban neighbourhoods twist away in vertiginous patterns while agents in trenchcoats maintain feeble disguises in a monotone voice. These worlds are wild, distinctive and – above all else – original. There’s not an ancient temple or frosty mountain-top in sight.