Episode 15 - Breaking Down our "Brain in a Jar" Trailer
Greeting Fig Folks! Content and Community Manager Heather Alexandra here! As the world continues to spin during these strange and unpredictable times, we here at Double Fine have worked to hone our processes and meet new milestones for Psychonauts 2. From cinematics to boss fights, the speed is ramping up as the team comes together to build mental landscapes. We know you’ve been waiting for this game a long time--some folks have been waiting 15 years! But after all that time we have to make sure the game is good enough for Psychonauts, good enough for us, and most of all, good enough for you! Thank you so much for your support and patience. Without you there’s no way we would have lasted as a company for twenty years. Oh yeah, that reminds me! We just had our 20th birthday party!
Adjusting to a work-from-home reality took a bit of time but after months away from our home base, the studio’s adjusted. While we’re mostly meeting through computer screens and connecting to remote servers, progress continues on Raz’ newest adventure. Today, we’d like to share more details on the level you saw in the last trailer and give a behind-the-scenes look at our 20th anniversary party. We’ll start with the party!
20 whole years ago, in the age of the dinosaurs, a small team including our big boss Tim Schafer and programmers David Dixon and Jonathan Menzies came together to form Double Fine. By coincidence, the first day of work fell on Tim’s birthday. Their first project was Psychonauts but the development wasn’t entirely smooth sailing as an initial deal with Microsoft went through and it was only a last-minute publishing deal with Majesco that saved the project and the studio. There’s an alternate timeline where the game was never made! And everybody there is a little sadder. And when someone there says, “My favorite game is Psychonauts!” You’d just say, “Huh?” You wouldn’t know that that person must be a traveler from another timeline. I feel bad for everybody in that timeline and I’d like to invite them over to ours. But then they’d take our jobs and it’s a whole thing. Anyway, we’re glad to have made it these 20 years and back to the world of Psychonauts.
It’s been a time-honored tradition for some time to celebrate our anniversaries at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco but that wasn’t really possible this year. The solution was some party bags with tee-shirts and other goodies, as well as an online party with some activities. That sounds kinda silly but it worked out. Tommy’s resident tequila expert Julio gave an informative booze breakdown, we had karaoke rooms and side activities, and Tim gave a rousing speech from atop a chair. In all, it was a great night even if we’re eager to meet up in person again as a team.
Where does that leave Psychonauts 2 and what details can we share with you right now? Plenty! Currently, we’re in the middle of a milestone that’s getting boss fights off the ground and adding new ways for players to engage with Raz’ various powers. After that, we’re heading into a period of tweaking and tightening where we’ll take everything we’ve done and polish it into an even better version of what’s already playable. Microsoft’s funding and some design sprints have allowed us to really beef up the content and meet our goals faster. Part of that was coming together to work on the “Brain in a Jar” level highlighted in our last trailer.
“Brain in a Jar” started partially as a way to explore a specific concept: synesthesia. People with synesthesia have unique ways of perceiving the world around them. Sometimes this means associating colors with things like numbers or other people’s voices. In other cases, it can mean feeling certain sensations when hearing specific sounds. In early ideation processes, the team came together and listed a variety of concepts that levels could explore and this was one of the most compelling. It also made sense as Tim wrote out the story, as Raz’ journey in Psychonauts 2 takes him into the mind of a brain that’s been stuck in a jar for decades. Unlocking the brain’s secrets involves waking up their dormant senses like sight and touch. As Tim puts it, Raz is bringing the band back together.
The level’s gone through a few concepts since then. Some initial pitches were even more explicitly musical than what we’ve shown off. Other ideas had darker spaces before awakening the senses. You can see an example of that in this early concept art from senior artist Levi Ryken.
As the concept came together, the direction became more psychedelic. Artistic touchstones included the animations from the Peter Max-inspired Yellow Submarine as well as the work of Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky and even some old cartoons like the Looney Tunes. The Brain in a Jar’s senses are unlocked at a variety of locations. You can see how that art direction grew out of concepts like these drawings from senior concept artist Emily Johnstone. These show both the “Eye Shrine” segment you saw in the trailer as well as a few other spaces.
We’ve only shown off a small portion of this level and Raz’ new Time-Bubble ability and it’s definitely a different vibe from Loboto’s creepy tooth-packed level. If you want to learn more about the art design process, you can listen to this chat I had with art airector Lisette Titre-Montgomery and senior concept artist Emily Johnstone.
Keep an eye on our YouTube channel for a follow up level design chat with senior level designer Joshua Jon Herbert where we talk about designing new powers and platforming segments.
Before we go, there’s one more thing! Check this out!
If you’re able to grab a copy of Edge Magazine #349, there’s an entire story and interview with Tim about the game. The cover’s pretty great too and even glows in the dark. Definitely worth picking up if you’re looking for more tidbits or want something cool to frame for a collection.
That’s it for now. We’re heading into that tightening and review phase I mentioned earlier but I hope to be able to share more stuff with you soon. For backers, we’re looking into some surveys to confirm information for things like the Hall of Brains as well. There’s still a lot more development left and it’s going to be an exciting time as we move closer and closer to the finish line!
Thanks for reading, thanks for waiting, and thanks in advance for playing Psychonauts 2!