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Interview

Double Fine’s Lisette Titre-Montgomery And Tim Schafer On Returning To The World Of Psychonauts

We sat down (virtually) with Double Fine

It was December of 2015, and Geoff Keighley’s annual awards ceremony/industry hype show The Game Awards was broadcasting its second-ever iteration the world over. We’d seen premieres of new titles like Batman: The Telltale Series, Shaq himself had come on stage to talk about the new Shaq-Fu and CHVRCHES had played Leave a Trace live on stage. Eclectic as it was, I could never have predicted what would come next. As familiar motifs and characters flashed across the screen in a brief teaser, ending with the appearance of an all-important title, I was just about reduced to tears. Psychonauts 2 was in the works at Double Fine, and I was mere minutes from dropping a few hundred bucks on the Fig crowdfunding campaign that Tim Schafer himself would announce on-stage.

Fast forward almost six years later and Psychonauts 2 is mere weeks from release. WellPlayed was fortunate enough to have been included in a hands-on preview opportunity for the game, getting access to around six hours of content to play ahead of its full release on August 25. Alongside this, we also had the immense honour of speaking privately with the game’s Art Director, Lisette Titre-Montgomery, as well as Mr Double Fine himself and the creator of Psychonauts, Tim Schafer. Naturally, I was excited to sit down (virtually) with the two to talk about how Psychonauts 2 came to be, what goes into crafting a sequel after a decade-long gap and how Double Fine expanded on the first game’s themes of mental health and empathy.

Lisette Titre-Montgomery

Tim Schafer

It might seem out of character for a studio like Double Fine, one where craft and creativity appear to take precedence over churning out market-tested concepts and cash cows, to be gearing up to release a big Microsoft-backed sequel to one of their early hits. Psychonauts is a pretty powerful IP though, one backed by critical acclaim in its initial release and a cult following that’s pervaded throughout the years to follow. Still, even in the midst of the excitement of the sequel’s announcement and the steady build up of hype as it nears release, it’s easy to wonder just what caused Tim Schafer and the team to return to the world of the Psychonauts a full decade later.

“We made Broken Age, and it was a journey back into adventure games and really beautiful 2D art, but then afterwards, I was like, ‘I love this 2D art, but I miss making a big 3D world, I miss making a big explorable space that you can just get lost in,” says Schafer.

“When we made the VR game, Rhombus of Ruin, we were like, what kind of VR game should we make? And we thought of these different mechanics and then we were like, it’d be fun to explore this world with the Psychonauts, with those characters. And so the Psychonauts seemed to be coming back to life in our studio, whether we wanted them to or not, they were just coming back, banging on the door.”

And so the Psychonauts seemed to be coming back to life in our studio, whether we wanted them to or not, they were just coming back, banging on the door

The head of Double Fine Productions and brain behind Psychonauts elaborates on those early moments after deciding to return to the world he’d created, illustrating what I’m sure many of the original game’s fans already believe – that there’s still so much left to be explored, so many more mysteries to unfold and a whole cast of characters that are still very much alive.

“After the first game, I had a lot of ideas for a second one that I’ve been keeping in this little notebook and the thing I realised is that, the way that we make games at Double Fine is that we go into sort of deep lore with all our character’s backstories and think about their families and try to make them feel as specific and real as possible. And then we left them at the end of the game,” explains Schafer 

“Then when I kind of opened that folder up and started writing dialogue, especially when I got back into the studio with the actors, I was like ‘Oh, wow, these characters have just been waiting for us this whole time.’ They’re still alive, there’s like a real thing to go back to, it’s not like you’re just trying to say, ‘What else can we do with these characters?'”

The idea that the basis for Psychonauts 2 was already sitting there, waiting to be returned to when the time was right rather than simply because it was possible says a lot about how Schafer and Double Fine operate. Still, it would’ve been a shame had that time never come given how many more ideas seemed to be lurking in the vault of Schafer’s mind and in this mysterious notebook that I would absolutely love to see for myself.

“There were a lot of, kind of, dangling loose ends in the first one that were acceptable as mysteries [at the time] like ‘Who cursed Raz’s family to die in water and who are The Galochios and what’s up with Ford’s changing character all the time? What is the headquarters of the Psychonauts actually like, do they only have a summer camp?’ So there are all these things I wanted to get into and answer and the second game has given us a great opportunity to do that. The idea of a gambling mind was something that was in my notebook from the first game as something I wanted to do. That kind of imagery of rolling dice and everything being on a giant roulette table, was just something I wanted to do for years. And so that was nice to actually get that in the game after, I would say, 15 years of holding on to that idea.”

So other than opening up new possibilities to explore the rich and untapped lore, Psychonauts 2 is also a chance to bring the series to modern standards and let fans explore its world in a form that feels fresh. During my hands-on time with the game that certainly stood out as the case, with improvements pretty much across the board in exploration, platforming, combat and the use of Raz’s psychic powers.

“We wanted to take what we liked about the first game and then improve things we thought we could,” says Schafer. 

“The combat in the first game was very simple and I think we wanted to do more with it and have it be more integrated with psychic powers, because you didn’t use them a ton in combat, except for Psi-Blasts,” Schafer continues. “And so now it’s much more important to use telekinesis and, certain enemies are really vulnerable to fire, and even clairvoyance has a use in battling certain enemies. And so it’s much more flowing, all the powers are used, and I think there was so much we really improved upon in this game.”

Of course it’s far from a one-person operation over at Double Fine, and having the game’s Art Director, Lisette Titre-Montgomery, on the call meant that we could dive deeper into the studio’s development processes and learn what goes into crafting the game’s unique and abstract ideas.

“It was a really fun journey, because I was able to sort of take this strong legacy from the first game, this strong style legacy and language that was pretty innovative and fun, and, you know, the same sort of references from the first game work for this one,” answers Titre-Montgomery when I ask what it was like coming into Double Fine with the sequel.

 “If you feel like you’re watching a Burton film, that’s somewhat intentional. The first game was very inspired by A Nightmare Before Christmas, and Burton was inspired by German Expressionism – so we’re always looking at the original references as we’re making this one. But mostly, my focus was taking those really strong parts of what was done with the first game, and bringing them up-to-date with our newest technology, and also trying to execute on the vision of what Tim was trying to make with the story. So my goal was really taking what was great and just pushing it as far as we could.”

Something that has always stuck with me about the original Psychonauts and immediately struck me again as wonderfully impressive in my time with the sequel is how the studio manages to pull together a vast number of different functional, structural and visual elements into a whole that still feels incredibly cohesive. Despite flitting from one art style to another, one gameplay mechanic to the next in quick succession, everything feels completely true to the Psychonauts DNA and nothing comes across as out of place. It’s a testament to the strength of the core design and visual language, but it’s especially indicative of how Double Fine leverages the talents of its members in a collaborative and constructive way.

“We really were looking at how we could focus on the brain levels, since these are the unique spaces that’re going to be brand new to players, and what we could do to make those feel unique. So we restructured the team and changed how we work so that we’re almost doing an improv style of development that can really nail, you know, the narrative and pacing, and also the great style of Psychonauts,” says the Art Director of the work behind the scenes to produce something that feels authentically Psychonauts.

“It was definitely a highly collaborative process. You know, on previous games I’ve worked on in some of the larger studios you’re in a sort of assembly line approach to how content is made, and assets kind of flow from department to department. But with Psychonauts, we quickly realised that that wasn’t going to work, especially for our brain levels. So we better restructured how the team worked,” explains Titre-Montgomery.

“We essentially created a small strike team of stakeholders that were cross-discipline that could collaborate and quickly iterate together to nail some of these big story moments and make game mechanics that serve some of these mental phenomena. And that’s the core nucleus, you know, that those brain trusts or people on those strike teams are really supported. And I think that’s why it feels like a cohesive and also very bespoke experience. Because we, the leadership team kind of made sure every single level felt like a new and unique space.”

During my hands-on time with the game, one of the prevailing feelings is that what Psychonauts fans will be walking into come August 25 is something so much larger than we know from the original game. It’s like the world of the Psychonauts has been made real, no longer a pipe dream for a pre-teen boy in a psychic summer camp but a reality for a pre-teen boy in a psychic secret agent headquarters. Stepping into The Motherlobe for the first time is like being slapped in the face with the history and lore of the Psychonauts that players were only tickled with the first time around. It’s not just the setting either, but the expanded gameplay that sees Raz gain new moves in his repertoire and the number of unique enemies and brain levels drastically increased.

“We really kind of looked at what we did well with the first game and what we could do with this one to make it bigger, and one of the things we really wanted to expand on was the total amount of brains that you go in, and all the experiences that you’re having within them. So we wanted to make sure that our puzzle gameplay was stronger, our combat was much more improved and that overall, the entire experience felt bigger”, Titre-Montgomery tells me.

“I think you also feel that when you play the game and you first enter the headquarters. In the first game, you kind of had a sense that there are these agents in there, in this organisation, but you were just kind of seeing the tip of the iceberg. But as soon as you enter that lobby, you get a real sense of like, wow, there’s so much more here that I didn’t know. And I think you feel that throughout the whole game.

“I think for us, when we got the Loboto level, the first level together for E3 last year was really, a moment where we were like, yeah, people are going to love this.  Then it just kept happening over and over again, because we were able to kind of make these really great experiences based on Tim’s story. I think you’ve also played the Compton level, which I thought from a design standpoint is super fun. I think from an art standpoint, one of the levels I really love is not in the demo, you’ll know when you’ve played. It’s based on going into a bottle, and I think once you play that, you start to really understand, like, how unique and special that experience is.”

No matter whose brain you might be exploring though, the immediate take away from Raz’s adventures is that the way a person presents on the outside and the actions they take have a lot to do with what’s going on in their heads. It’s a level of empathy afforded to Psychonauts’ characters that really isn’t possible outside of the medium of video games, and even then it is rarely explored in these sorts of ways. I remember reading old interviews with Schafer where the topic of depicting mental health in video games comes up and it’s revealed that the original Psychonauts wasn’t designed to tackle those ideas, rather it naturally ran adjacent to them in a way that seemed to resonate with people.

“We didn’t talk about, like, we didn’t use that term a lot back then, ‘mental health’. We didn’t talk about mental health, it was not something that came up, it was more about, we’re gonna go inside people’s minds, you know?,” says Schafer.

“And what happens is when you’re inside someone’s mind, empathy is just inherent in the gameplay mechanic. It’s like, you’re going into someone’s mind, you’re going to see what they’re going through, and you’re going to relate to them – even the villains in the game – much more. So that was kind of an organic thing that happened with the first game. It very naturally became a humanistic story for empathy, and I think that got us a lot of the way there.” 

“But then I think, we’re not psychologists, we’re not clinical technicians, we’re not professional in that way at all. We’re professional in making games but we’re not professional in psychiatry. So there were a lot of things we didn’t know,” Schafer clarifies.

“So working with Microsoft, they’ve hooked us up with groups like Take This, who’ve helped us review the game and look at areas where it hit the mark and where it was off and where we can make really easy-to-make corrections to, you know, do no harm to players who are experiencing mental issues of their own, or just to just to be a more enjoyable experience for everybody.”

“We’ve heard feedback, from players of the first game, that it really helped them approach the concept of mental health with empathy. So you know, people who are playing it when they’re small children are exposed to these concepts. So I think we definitely learned from that first game, and really approached mental health with empathy on this one,” adds Titre-Montgomery.

“One of the trademarks of Double Fine is a sense of humour and a sense of lightness,” the art director continues “But we also wanted to be empathising with these themes. So it was important for us to kind of tell these stories, but without punching down or vilifying someone who’s going through a rough time.”

We’ve heard feedback, from players of the first game, that it really helped them approach the concept of mental health with empathy

With the original game opening up the conversation, it seems the most obvious path for the sequel was to more intentionally explore ideas of mental health. A modern Psychonauts sequel, bringing its eclectic cast and unique narrative mechanisms to a market hungry for thoughtful and insightful depictions of relatable issues is just what the doctor ordered, after all. So how has Double Fine leveraged both the creativity and diversity of its team, as well as the resources afforded by being under the Xbox Game Studios wing, to really push the envelope while taking care not to misrepresent or cause harm? As it turns out, the desire to speak to conditions of the mind and the mission to expand on the game’s combat and enemy variety go hand in hand.

“It’s been really interesting to look at the concepts that Tim gave to the team and the prompts that he gave to the team to kind of figure out how to express, through gameplay, our story,” says Titre-Montgomery. 

“So, in the new game, we have some enemies where I think we really focused on how those particular elements of mental phenomenon could affect the player and translate to combat. A great example of that, are the Doubts. When you’re thinking about ‘What does a doubt feel like from a gameplay standpoint?’, you know, doubts slow you down, they’re sticky, they make you feel like you’re kind of encumbered and can’t move forward. So we took those prompts, those verbs, and really started thinking about ‘How will this play out in mechanics?’. And our combat designer, Lauren Scott, did a really great job of looking across all the phenomena that we thought would be fun, and figuring out what would work for the gameplay and how we can intermix powers and abilities to make combat very, very exciting.”

I definitely felt this most strongly during the later levels in our preview build, where enemies like Doubts, Bad Ideas and Judges evoked very similar feelings to their namesakes. That goes especially for the Compton’s Cookoff level, which is entirely centred around anxiety and pressure and being judged, presented as a high-stakes cooking show where Psychonaut Compton Boole’s peers are the impossible-to-please judges.

“From a visual standpoint, we wanted to make sure that we were depicting these phenomena in a responsible way,” explains Titre-Montgomery.

“For example, one of the enemies we have in the Brain in a Jar level is a Panic Attack, one of the enemies we debuted last year. And it was very important for us that you, the player, had an understanding of what it really felt like to have a panic attack. What it’s like when you approach that enemy feels very much what it’s like, when one of those come on. So we really focused on making that gameplay experience feel authentic. And then when we worked with Take This, our psychologist who was playing the game was like ‘I’ve suffered from panic attacks all my life and that’s exactly what it feels like for me’. And so I think it was a validation to know that we were kind of hitting that mark. But we’re also adjusting things based on their feedback as needed as well to make sure that we are handling things sensitively and not using words we shouldn’t be using and excluding people with our language.”

With our time at an end, and my shift at the day job about to commence, I reluctantly said my goodbyes to the Double Fine team. It’s an uneasy kind of excitement, jumping on a Teams call with the people responsible for some of your favourite video game experiences, but I couldn’t have asked for more insightful and accommodating interviewees. I had to know though, on my way out, with Psychonauts 2 so close to launch, what’s next for Double Fine? What’s on the calendar following the release of a game more than half a decade in the making?

“Sit back and bask in the glory. That’s my first plan,” Schafer says in a tone of voice that tells me the basking can’t come soon enough. 

“But afterwards, we’re going to work on new stuff. If you think about all the way back to when we started Broken Age, going back into adventure games, then remastering all the LucasArts games and then making a sequel, it’s been a long time since we’ve been like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a brand new IP.’ So I think we’ll be doing new stuff for a little while.”

I can’t bloody wait.

The quotes used in the above article have been edited for clarity and readability.

Psychonauts 2 releases for Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS4 and PC on August 25, 2021.

Written By

Kieron started gaming on the SEGA Master System, with Sonic the Hedgehog, Alex Kidd and Wonder Boy. The 20-odd years of his life since have not seen his love for platformers falter even slightly. A separate love affair, this time with JRPGs, developed soon after being introduced to Final Fantasy VIII (ie, the best in the series). Further romantic subplots soon blossomed with quirky Japanese games, the occasional flashy AAA action adventure, and an unhealthy number of indie gems. To say that Kieron lies at the center of a tangled, labyrinthine web of sexy video game love would be an understatement.

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