After Pressing Start: Psychonauts’ Mental Dentist's Office

The human mind . . . six hundred miles of synaptic fiber . . . five and a half ounces of cranial fluid . . . 1500 grams of complex neural matter . . . a three-pound pile of dreams.

Psychonauts doesn’t even give you a chance to press start. Instead it says, “You don’t need to set up a profile or configure the look sensitivity and you already saw our logo when you looked at the box! Let’s get this show on the road!” I reserve a certain amount of praise for a game that just starts the moment you pop it in (or boot it up, since I played the Mac port from the Humble Indie Bundle V).

As a user experience designer still learning the finer aspects of my trade, I often overlook the importance of developing what happens the first time someone opens your application, game, website, etc. What better way to draw a new player into your interactive experience than just jumping right in? How many times do testers have to immediately select “new game” before it becomes clear to just have the game do it the first time it starts? Instead of dumping you at a title screen, Bioshock could have just dumped you in the ocean. Skyrim might have just as easily sent you straight to the chopping block, but when you boot it up the awesome theme music makes it difficult to even start the game. Except for Brütal Legend, another Double Fine game, you just don’t see this anymore.

Even though players tend to have this cursed thing called free will, that often goads developers into herding them through scripted sequences, Psychonauts grants you a modicum of trust to figure things out on your own. The initial area of the psychic summer camp is open for you to explore. Your teacher even suggests that you take a step back and check things out before entering “basic braining”. This gives you a chance to discover things on your own that you aren’t explicitly told how to do, like rail grinding and the jump attack, before the actual tutorial starts. Some great character introductions also spice up the encouraged exploration. The Reapers aren’t destroying Earth while you’re messing around and punching squirrels, so there’s no pressure to get things moving. The first level is there whenever you’re ready.

The wars of this modern age . . . the psychic age . . . are all fought somewhere between these . . . damp, curvaceous undulations.

Basic braining in the mental dentist’s office is a competent tutorial level that takes its time getting you used to platforming and cranial karate chops, just in case you hadn’t already figured these out. That’s another solid check off the list of good usability practice. One should always assume that their product is being used by someone who just found out what it even is a few minutes ago. Some might say that it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume the target audience of Psychonauts knew how platformers work at the time of its release, but those assumptions are just part of the problem. They’re part of a problem whose modern, often poorly executed solution is to assume everyone is a complete idiot. There is fine line between helping a new player along so they can discover the mechanics of your game with minimal assistance and an annoying companion character screaming, “Dodge the guys with hammers! They’re strong, but slow! Watch out! That fire is hot!” Did all of those underpaid QA testers really run into the fire? We live in a pretty stupid world, but I find that hard to believe.

An overhead view of the game's first level.

Designing a tutorial should be akin to what everyone who doesn’t have kids imagines parenting to be like. Let the player explore and discover, but be ready to lend a hand when they get confused. Don’t coddle the player like a mother hen and tell them how to jump before it’s even necessary information. Psychonauts mostly does a good job of this, taking that “first use” methodology to the game’s menu. Each time you open a new section for the first time, there is a brief, friendly description of its functions that reads like it was written by an actual person. On the other hand, a few pop ups that completely stop the game are a step in the wrong direction. These are thankfully far and few between the tiny moments of brilliance; like rewarding the player for completing a challenge by blowing up the annoying characters that were cheering them on. This is clearly a reward for the player, who likely has a lot less patience than good-guy Raz.

Psychonauts’ introduction and first level are a marvel of usability. There were a scant few moments where I felt more directed than I would like, but the freedom to discover my powers on my own was a breath of fresh air amidst the plethora of games that have less confidence in you than your middle school gym teacher. The game lets figure things out, but it also doesn’t want to assume too much. It certainly left a good first impression since I can’t wait to keep playing it. Oh, did I mention this was my first time playing it?

Now if you’ll excuse me . . . I have to go back in. I left some good men in there . . .