February 4, 2008

Lili would like to be added as one of your friends!

If you ever read a Tim Schafer interview in the last four years, you're already familiar with what I'm about to point out. Nonetheless I will continue in my condescending ways as if I'm dramatically pulling back a curtain to unveil King Kong or something. Now you gasp.

Characters are unusually important in Psychonauts -- a mundane observation since almost the entire game is shaped to reflect individual psychologies. Besides that, there's still a large contingent of summer camp kids--minor characters, comparatively--who don't inform the gameplay. The player never got inside their heads and probed their memories, like they did with Sasha Nein and Coach Oleander. They never got that chance. Or did they?? A ha ha. Ladies and gentlemen, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Schafer knew these characters had to be catered for, and early in the game's development, it helped him to define their personalities by creating their Friendster profiles. That covered their likes and dislikes but, of considerably more interest, how these characters felt about each other.

They're still online, too, transposed to MySpace. Start here and work your way through the other 19.

Here's some more observations, starting again with the mundane.

Tim Schafer clearly has no trouble being funny but he's remarkably "on" here for what amounts to a design document. I feel comfortable putting on an authoritative air and proclaiming that these comedy profiles are absolutely the best thing Friendster ever produced. And people probably got married through Friendster. Pfft, how long is that going to last.

Who knows when those profiles were written (Tim Schafer does) but they're remarkably consistent with the characters as they appeared in the game. There's no deviation. This isn't concept art. Because Psychonauts followed these profiles so closely, they're fully compatible with the game's fiction. This should be on a recommended reading list after finishing Psychonauts.

It's excellent supplementary material. Minor oddities from the game suddenly click into place: Elton's fascination with water, in the game a simple quirk that no one noticed, now sadly makes sense. You'll learn the extended saga of Phoebe and Quentin's band, and who has a crush on who.

I'm not a fan of backstory. I don't believe that you need to chart entire histories for your characters before actually writing anything. The writer does not need to know what happened on the character's 18th birthday unless the story is about her 18th birthday. That's a pointless exercise. Characters should be informed by the story that's being told rather than by a pre-production brainstorm. Fortunately, that's not what this is. Schafer didn't write their biographies. These are honest snapshots of the characters that are also completely plausible as Friendster pages, rather than a character sketch or exposition dump. Schafer has become more and more adept at writing believable characters who have lives beyond the game. He manages this with relatively little dialogue, unlike other games which try to do the same thing by engaging the player in meaningless conversations about total trivialities, written by designers who think "being brief" is an underwear preference. Schafer is maybe the only game writer who gets it. He uses words to entertain the player instead of bore the shit out of them.

Keeping all this in mind, I am moved to ask: why were these pages not in the game? Imagine if there had been a computer in the lodge where you could pull these up. That's the kind of thing that takes you from an A to an A+. Chris Todd wouldn't have blown that! Look at those profiles and try and match that wit, charm and pathos to any other game. That stuff's too good to leave as a post-mortem anecdote. It saddens me.

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