What colour is the sky in your world?

Thursday 23 March 2023

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been glued to one of the best documentary series I’ve watched in ages - PsychOdyssey. It’s a glimpse inside the videogame studio Double Fine, as they work on on a new sequel to their beloved cult classic, Psychonauts.

Previously, on PsychOdyssey

First, some background:

Double Fine are known for being an extremely creative studio. Founded by Tim Schafer, who previously worked at Lucasarts. He worked on some popular games like Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and Full Throttle. While working on Full Throttle, a game about a biker gang, he wanted to have an interactive peyote trip. Lucasarts objected, so he quit and founded his own studio.

Double Fine’s first game, Psychonauts, was an action platformer in the lineage of Mario 64. You play as Raz, a boy who has ran away from his circus acrobat family to join a summer camp for children with psychic abilities. He hopes one day to join the titular Psychonauts - a psychic spy agency.

Psychonauts differs from other platformers by its level setup. In most games of that genre, the levels pull from common archetypes like ice, lava, jungle, etc. In Psychonauts, you enter people’s minds and exist in a space representing their mental state, defeating enemies and completing tasks centred around their particular condition.

It’s most famous level is The Milkman Conspiracy. Set inside the brain of Boyd, a Milkman obsessed with conspiracies, you explore a 1950s American suburban street populated with shady G-men watching you. The G-men pretend to be housewives and construction workers and speak in nonsense while the street itself twists within 3d space back onto itself, representing the twisted logic that Boyd sees in the world around him.

The development was difficult for the team, and although it wasn’t a commercial success, it received a lot of critical acclaim. Over the years, more and more people have played Psychonauts and loved it so much, that even the existence of a sequel was hotly anticipated by many.

Office culture

At 21 hours long and spread across 31 episodes, on the face of it, it’s a huge commitment to watch this thing. It absolutely flies by and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in creative work. It’s a fascinating insight into work that is software development in the traditional sense, but coming at it from a different angle.

Like all workplaces, personalities can get in the way and people clash, but nobody is exactly a villain or a hero. People come and go during the 6 years of filming. Some departures are amicable, while others are not. There’s an old and new guard, and some people completely new to the industry join during the development.

Lots of the old guard have worked together at Double Fine for nearly 20 years, and they have some amount of shared culture and bonding from the time spent together. You see them try to adapt to new people and new ways of working, while the new people try to adapt to the existing culture.

Psychonauts 2 is a much bigger game than anything that Double Fine have made before. The creative nature increases the scope of work involved as many characters have many different artistic depictions matching the artistic style within each level. You see this challenge really hit the team hard. There’s some amazing story arcs as they struggle to handle the workload, deadlines, and finances.

Making a good game

It’s great to see such an in-depth look within one of the most creative teams in the industry working on one of the most creative games in recent memory. After having played Psychonauts 1 and 2, watching this is amazing. You see how a passing comment or a joke turned into an idea, which turned into a prototype, which got the whole team thinking, and then they build something good, fun, heartfelt, or just plain weird.

Not everything is a fully formed idea right at the start, and you get to see the process that forms the finished product.

One level involves reuniting a brain in a jar with a body, who then gets overwhelmed with their new senses. You enter the brain, which eventually manifests a trippy music festival camp ground in the style of Yellow Submarine. It started out completely differently, and seeing the iterations of that level and how it came to be is one of my favourite bits.

The C word

Psychonauts 2 eventually came out in August 2021, so it’s probably not a surprise that you see the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic in the documentary, alongside all the other shit the world threw at us between March 2020 and then.

Finishing the documentary left me missing life before 2020.

I’m now working from home 100% of the time, and if I could pick my perfect setup, I’d work somewhere hybrid. I miss the comradery of office life. The lunches, the jokes, and the drinks after work. I like my own space and my own setup, but I also like hanging out with other people.

The Journey They’ve Been On

I loved Psychonauts 1 and 2. I love videogame documentaries. I love documentaries. I love learning about how creative people work. I love absolutely everything about this series.

Even though I have no interest in sports, I loved Welcome to Wrexham. Although it is technically a sports documentary, it’s also not about sports. It’s about working class people and investors making a business gamble.

Similarly, PsychOdyssey is a videogame documentary, but it’s about how creative people build something so creative. It’s about how close businesses like Double Fine can come to running out of money. It’s about how working relationships can blossom and break with equal ferocity. It’s about art.

Give it a go. I think you might like it