Here’s a newsflash for you that is probably super obvious: game dev is messy. Like, extremely messy. It’s all chaos all the time and then suddenly WHAM, out comes a game. Even throwing super regimented and organized individuals into the fray doesn’t seem to stem the tide of just pure, unadulterated chaos. I read books like Press Reset and Blood, Sweat, and Pixels and see some of the fallout from all this chaos and I can’t help but wonder…why? Why do people subject themselves to all of this…(please don’t say chaos again…) disarray for some pretty bleep bloops?
Enter PsychOdyssey, the enlightening 32-episode documentary series about Double Fine during the creation of Psychonauts 2. You read that correctly. Thirty-two. Episodes. 2 Player Productions, the documentarians in this venture, followed Tim Schafer et al. around for seven years, recording the ups, downs, and all the diagonals of the video game creation process. And boy are there a lot of diagonals.
The first episode starts off with the intensive development and release of the first Psychonauts (a blindspot of mine I’m currently rectifying and enjoying with caveats). I was on the edge of my couch throughout the episode as they pulled long hours and rolled with all setbacks. The show could have stopped there and it would have given me enough to chew on, but then it kept going.
Almost immediately I saw Schafer kicking around the idea of a new game in the series and immediately related to what I am going to refer to as “the in-between.” You know, that space between one project and the next where you want to just do more of the last project, but you’re also a little burnt out on it, but you kind of want to play around in that space, but you’re tired and not sure you can take the ring to Mordor again. Ahem…sorry. Elijah Wood is in Psychonauts 2, and has some screen time in this docuseries, and it got me thinking about PJ’s LOTR and how I should probably watch it again.
Where was I? Oh yes, the project itself. It actually takes a little bit for the development of Psychonauts 2 to begin, and during that time they showcase the developers at Double Fine trying to work in the VR space. I’ve only edited video in the VR space and that was a huge pain in the ass, but watching them problem-solve the new hardware and software while losing staff to the slowly building Psychonauts 2 development juggernaut fascinated the hell out of me. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t even know they had made a VR game set in the Psychonauts world. Again, the show could have stopped there and I would have a lot to ponder about the ins and outs of game dev, but one of the unique things about this docuseries is that it really shows how messy the transition between games can be.
I could devote a paragraph to almost every aspect of this game’s development – like the tensions between a Lead Designer / Project Lead and the veteran developers, the one-off game jam that led to a level in the actual game, and the mad dash to deadline that gets completely upended by COVID. I could go through all of that, but I think you should see it for yourself and revel in the experience of people creating a friggin’ video game in all its chaotic, messy glory.
PsychOdyssey helped me appreciate my own impulses and sensibilities as a creative in my own field and it gave me an understanding of the messy and how to mind it when I talk about video games in a critical capacity. I’m sure I mentioned somewhere above that this thing was enlightening, and I’m okay with repeating it here. Go. Watch it now. Seriously.