When Double Fine's Tim Schafer took the stage at Microsoft's press conference at E3 2019, everyone figured we'd get a new trailer for Psychonauts 2 and some fun jokes. What nobody expected was for Schafer to announce that Double Fine had been acquired by Microsoft Game Studios -- a major change for a studio that's been a symbol of fierce independence in game development and publishing since its inception almost 20 years ago.
Psychonauts 2 was initially a massive crowdfunding hit, with a surprise announcement at the 2015 Game Awards and a subsequent backer campaign raising over $3.8 million (disclosure: I'm a proud backer and O.G. Psychonauts stan). Three years later, a trailer arrived at December's Game Awards. Now, at E3 2019, Double Fine showed off the first part of Psychonauts 2, and I got to check it out and speak with Schafer himself about the acquisition and the newest installment in the Psychonauts universe.
If you loved the original Psychonauts, you'll be thrilled to hear the sequel appears to retain all the charm of its predecessor. Raz and the rest of the gang are back and better than ever, firing off jokes and jumping right into the mind-bending action. The 30-minute preview we watched was a live demo taking place at the start of the game; dentist Caligosto Loboto's mind is the first location you'll navigate as Raz, and it's a mesh of a mundane office environment and... teeth. Lots of teeth. Odontophobics be warned! The story carries some themes and threads from the first Psychonauts but hints at a much greater, more sinister villain in the sequel.
So what does a Psychonauts level look like based on what's inside Tim Schafer's head? We brainstormed about it and landed on "Lisa Frank art come to life, with a shitload of feral Jack Blacks all over the place." (It felt important for you to know that, and now we can both enjoy that visual forever.)
When asked to compare Psychonauts 2 with the size of the first game, Schafer says, "It's roughly the same size range for a similar experience, where there's, like, a hub world (a real world location) -- in this case, not a summer camp but Psychonauts headquarters, the real Psychonauts headquarters ... I think the world might be a little bigger, though."
Three skills from the first Psychonauts were on display in the presentation: PSI-Blast, which now appears to use psychic energy from a shared pool instead of ammo; Pyrokenesis, which has morphed into an area-of-effect ability torching anything it comes into contact with; and Telekinesis, which drains aforementioned psychic energy (also, no more throwing NPCs -- sorry everyone). They're refinements that look and feel much more in line with the idea of spies that use the power of their minds to navigate the subconscious of their targets.
If you're a completist, rejoice! Figments are back for your collecting enjoyment. I didn't catch any other "secret" items in the first level, but I'd be shocked if vaults didn't also make their return, and maybe even a few other collectible items. Doubts (flying enemies carrying weights) and Regrets (goopy foes that slow down progress) are also present this time around, adding to the mental health mayhem Raz encounters on his journey.
It's all very tongue-in-cheek, but it's also a genuinely cool way to depict real mental health issues and how they might affect someone's mind -- one of the best things about the first Psychonauts.
As for Double Fine's goal to get the game in the hands of as many gamers as possible, it looks like Microsoft Game Studios is a large part of the plan. Schafer refers to Microsoft as a "big brother to have behind your back" and believes the company's Game Pass "might get someone that wouldn't have bought the game outright to see it and be curious enough to try it out and realize how much they love it."
Schafer also talked about Microsoft appealing to the studio with a hands-off approach to acquisition, and how he felt it would positively impact game development at Double Fine.
"I was not interested in acquisition until I talked to them and they talked about how they leave the studios as they are," he says. "Being in a place that's well funded but creatively free is, in some ways, like a golden ticket for that situation. In some ways it harkens back to what I had at LucasArts, where we were well funded, but we weren't allowed to make Star Wars games. So we just had to make stuff up. And that's where a lot of adventure games like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango came from."
If more whimsical, wacky, well-funded games from the merry band of weirdos at Double Fine is what acquisition means for them, consider me sold.