Tim Schafer reflects on Psychonauts 2 and this unique point in Double Fine’s history
Double Fine Productions is a studio that knows the ups and downs of game development all too well. Between publishing deals falling through the cracks, layoffs, multiple game delays, and a lawsuit involving two of the largest video game companies in the business, the team has had to deal with its fair share of instability.
When the company announced the sequel to its cult hit Psychonauts, founder Tim Schafer thought making the game would be a “two-year cakewalk,” Schafer told Polygon in a recent Zoom call. Turns out, developing the title became a “five-year roller coaster.”
Although it had taken five years to make the first game, the team had learned a lot, and Schafer felt they were all more prepared to take on the sequel. This time around, though, there were new obstacles to navigate, Schafer explained. “No matter how many years you’ve been in game development, there’s new challenges, new teams, new technology, that makes every game its own unique challenge,” he said.
Still, the team persisted. After three delays and financial struggles on the part of the studio’s prior publisher, Psychonauts 2 will finally come out on Aug. 25. That’s over five years since it was first announced as a Kickstarter campaign at the 2015 Game Awards.
Despite these issues, Schafer had a noticeably bright tone when talking about the game’s impending release. Perhaps that’s because his studio is in a more stable place. Microsoft acquired the company in 2019, and now it’s looking like blue skies are ahead for Double Fine.
Psychonauts 2 marks a new chapter, a unique juncture in the studio’s history. The game’s story also marks a life change for the protagonist of the series, the intrepid young psychic Razputin “Raz” Aquato, who ventures into the big official world of the Psychonauts HQ for the first time. The sequel picks up directly after the events of the VR game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, which was set after the events of the first Psychonauts game released in 2005. Polygon played a preview of Psychonauts 2 on the Xbox Series X that included the first four hours of the game as well as certain other sections.
When Raz arrives at Psychonauts HQ, he’s quick to see that it isn’t anything like the summer camp he attended in the first game. It’s a vast, corporate, futuristic campus that’s a far cry from the rustic, scrappy atmosphere of the camp. When he shows up, he faces a “new kid on the block” scenario. Raz gets bullied by other psychics and gets assigned the role of intern.
Raz’s story just so happens to parallel that of Double Fine, in a way. In the studio’s early days, it was a scrappy operation started by ex-LucasArts developers in a garage-turned-office space in San Francisco. “We used to be the coolest kid in summer camp — and now we’re the smallest kid in the giant headquarters,” Schafer said. To be clear, Schafer didn’t intentionally write Raz’s story in relation to the studio’s situation, and there are no references to Microsoft in the new game. “But who knows? You know what, that’s the thing with art, you never know why you’re making the choices you’re making.”
Unlike Double Fine, which has undergone a lot of change in recent years, Raz feels preserved in time. The sequel stays true to the formula of the first game by making a 3D platforming experience that focuses on storytelling. As a psychic, Raz journeys into the minds of other characters and resolves their mental trauma by exploring their inner minds and supporting them in defeating the negative thoughts that manifest as bosses. The first part of the game is about Hollis Forsythe, a leader at Pyschonauts HQ who must deal with her own anxieties that come with leading the Psychonauts.
As the player character explores her mind for the first time, a veritable treasure hunt awaits. Like the original Psychonauts, this game brings back figments, which are floating drawings that help level Raz up. It also adds some more ways to strengthen Raz. You’ll be collecting pins that give Raz specific powers; for example, a “glass cannon” pin ups his power significantly, but makes him especially susceptible to attacks. New abilities await Raz as well; his new mental connection power allows him to zip from thought to thought through the air, almost like a hookshot between the tiny swirling spirals that represent thoughts. Raz can also unite brain lobes to increase his health, and bring luggage tags back to their “emotional baggage,” in his quest to rank up from being a lowly intern.
Throughout it all, Raz maintains his boyish charm. “I really love just the intensity of this really serious little kid who was a martial arts master,” said Schafer. “[Raz] doesn’t have an inch of an ounce of sarcasm. When he’s talking about the Psychonauts, he’s deadly serious about it. Like, he loves — he worships them, and he really wants to be one.” In the game, whenever you unlock a new psychic power for Raz, he gets a new patch on his messenger bag, and then he strikes a little pose. It looks very dramatic, with spotlights and all. It’s a way to help us see Raz the way he sees himself.
Schafer wants players to understand the way Double Fine sees itself, too. Despite the Microsoft acquisition, one core mission remains true within the studio: they hope to pull the curtain back on making games and show that games are made by people. Schafer told Polygon, “I’ve always wanted game players and game makers to not feel this wall between them, that there’s people who make games and people who play them, because the people who make games also play them a lot.
“I think a lot of times you’re playing a game you get so mad because you know your shotgun doesn’t have the right power that you wanted, or something — but if you really knew how much work went into making that shotgun work, and how much care went into those decisions, I think it would only enhance your enjoyment of games.” The studio created a documentary series about development of the game Broken Age for anyone to watch on YouTube, and Schafer has talked openly about challenges the studio has faced.
Schafer appears to be optimistic about the studio’s future with Microsoft. The additional support from Microsoft allowed Double Fine to finish the game completely, as well as add the boss fights back in. Beyond that, Schafer told Polygon he is “excited” for the game to come to Xbox Game Pass. To him, being on the service will allow so many more people to enjoy it.
“When someone’s in a retail store, and they’re holding a physical copy of a game and trying to figure out which one to buy, it’s a tough decision,” said Schafer. “But when they’re on Game Pass, there are so many great games. They’re much more willing to give a strange-looking game a shot, and we try to make strange-looking games.”