A Blank Canvas

A Blank Canvas
The Milkman Cometh

Lara Crigger | 17 Oct 2006 08:01
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As for the Colossi themselves, they are elegant, magnificent creatures. However, they're so different from any other animal in our taxonomy that they seem only organic enough to be alive. Decorated with glowing sigils and aboriginal tattoos, they appear impossibly old; when they die, their twisted skeletons immediately melt back to the mud and dust from whence they came. That Wander chooses to slaughter these ancient, beautiful Colossi, only to face a similar fate himself, is a philosophical quandary. But the game makes clear that this cycle of death and rebirth cannot be averted, that struggling against it is futile.

This is why Shadow of the Colossus is not just another beautiful game. It's through these visual details that the game transcends its purpose and becomes a work of art, where tragedy, death and resurrection are the subjects.

Psychonauts achieves the same goal, but this time, instead of tackling tragedy as subject matter, the game addresses the experience of insanity.

Arguably, the way Psychonauts experiments with color and form is ugly, even hideous. Although the characters are ostensibly human, they look more like Tim Burton creations, straight out of Halloween Town or The Land of the Dead. The children look like nightmares; Dogan, Raz's friend, is little more than a walking robin's egg, and Bobby, the local bully, is a freakish monster with broken, yellow teeth and an candy-orange afro. Even Raz himself looks misshapen and malformed. All this is on purpose; Psychonauts' character design evokes the imagery of dreams, because the game takes place entirely within mental realms, in which people are held captive by their own imaginations.

Each of those mental realms in Psychonauts becomes a physical manifestation of a character's mind, in which intangible concepts assume corporeal form. Figments of the Imagination - or dim, shadowy figures of people, plants and household objects - haunt each brainscape like imprinted memories. Purple Mental Cobwebs grow in unused corners of the mind. Secret Memories that shouldn't be shared are stored in armored Vaults, which lightly gallop away from Raz whenever he approaches. And the only enemies you encounter are the Censors, whose job is to protect the mind from unwelcome or intruding thoughts - like you.

Thus, by representing these intangible concepts in easily digestible, cartoon-like images, Psychonauts depicts brain mechanics in a way a player can actually interpret. Had the brainspaces in Psychonauts been made of gray tissue, with electrical networks mapped out in vector form, sure, it might've been more accurate. But then it wouldn't have made as much sense, or have been as intuitively real, as this abstracted version.

Using this setup, the game explores the various forms of insanity by assigning each to a different character's brainspace. For instance, former actress Gloria, who suffers from bipolar disorder, acts out her worst memories on an internal theater stage. Shellshocked Oleander's mind is a thicket of trenches, barbed wire and land mines. Fred, afflicted with multiple personality syndrome, is locked in a room without doors, losing endless board games against his alternate personality, Napoleon Bonaparte.

And then, there's Boyd.

Boyd appears to suffer from deep paranoia; his brainspace is a quaint 1950s suburb, drenched in oppressive pastels and punctuated by identical subdivisions. Behind every hedge and inside every mailbox lurks a cameraman snapping photographs. Black helicopters patrol in indeterminate routes, too far away for the player to identify where they're looking, but close enough to remind you that you're always being watched. Men wrapped in trench coats with blank, green faces - possibly government agents - have assumed every occupation, from telephone repairman to homemaker, in an endless hunt to find The Milkman. It's clear from the architecture of his mind that Boyd feels he is always being watched, that someone out there constantly conspires against him.

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