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Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin is a fresh take on VR and pillows as toilet paper

Pro wrestling has its own weird language. I like to think it’s related to carny and vaudevillian lingo. Good guys are babyfaces. Bad guys are heels. Fans who go along with the stories are generally called marks. If you love a good guy or hate a bad guy, you're a mark for them.

I got to thinking about pro wrestling during a demo of Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin at E3 2016. Inside the PlayStation VR world resurrected from a decade-old game that’s finally becoming a franchise later this year, I used my telekinetic powers to give a pillow to a man stuck in a bathroom.

"A pillow?" Coach Morceau "Morry" Oleander asked from behind a closed door. "Well, any port in a storm!"

I laughed like a numbskull, realizing that for the better part of two decades I've been a mark for Tim Schafer's humor.

Sixteen years ago, Schafer left LucasArts, where he developed Monkey Island games, Day of the Tentacle and (my beloved) Full Throttle, and founded Double Fine Productions. Schafer’s first project at his new studio was Psychonauts, released in 2005. It became a cult classic, the term of art for games that people love passionately but that don’t sell terribly well. Beloved as games like that may be (hello, Alan Wake!), publishers don’t tend to throw sequel money at them. But all hope was not lost. We live in a fascinating age where, in part thanks to the rise of crowdfunding, game makers’ desires aren’t tethered to publishers’ purse strings. Double Fine Productions knows this well.

After Psychonauts, it moved on to other projects, including in 2012 a record-setting $3.3 million Kickstarter campaign that became Broken Age. Last year, the studio launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for Psychonauts 2. At PlayStation Experience 2015, the studio revealed Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, a bite-sized game that will bridge the gap between the original and its sequel. That game is headed to PlayStation VR this year.

At E3 2016, I put a VR headset on, grabbed a PlayStation 4 controller and boarded the very same plane where Psychonauts ended and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin begins, surrounded by the same cast of characters who’ve laid dormant since 2005. Despite my intellectual predilection to enjoy a game that Tim Schafer wrote, my initial joy came not from the dialogue but from the gameplay, which is a novel twist on the possibilities within virtual reality.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s awesome to shoot a gun in VR. It's also pretty obvious, which must be why so many games at the dawn of virtual reality turn the controller in your hand into a firearm. But as with any medium, there’s room to experiment, and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin does exactly that. And I learned right before I started playing that, like its dialogue, its gameplay is inseparable from its creator.

"I'm the first person to get sick in VR," Tim Schafer told me as we waited for a demo station inside PlayStation’s E3 booth to free up. That’s why, he said, the characters in what I was about to play are all sitting down.

That … seemed weird at first, but as soon as I began playing, I understood that it wasn’t just a practical choice, but a choice entirely in harmony with the foundation Double Fine poured a decade ago.

A novel twist on the potential within virtual reality

Psychonauts and its sequels tell the story of Razputin "Raz" Aquato, a boy who runs away from the circus to join the Psychonauts, a team of elite secret agents with psychic powers. As you might expect from a game with that conceit, Raz learns abilities like pyrokinesis and telekinesis. Much of Psychonauts takes place within the trippy worlds other characters’ minds, too. Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin isn’t a platformer like its predecessor, though. Instead, it uses Raz’s psychic abilities to both leap from character to character and manipulate the world from where they sit.

Rather than feel like a compromise, it makes sense within the context of the game to travel with your mind instead of your feet. And that's exactly what I did, hopping from body to body and having brief conversation with everyone.

The more I played, the more I understood that game’s first level is really a scene from an adventure game. It just happens to be in VR, and that happens to fit naturally within so many of the genre’s conventions.

Beyond the witty dialogue, the game also reacquainted me with Raz’s other psychic abilities. As as I learned how to use my telekinetic abilities, I was unlocking a cargo compartment in the cabin. And as soon as I unlocked one filled with toilet paper, I learned that Morry was in dire need of some. With a combination of my actual head’s movement and the DualShock 4’s analog stick, I moved roll after roll into his pleading hand. I set some on fire with my mind because I could. He still wasn't satisfied. Then, of course, came the pillow and the line I can't get out of my head.

I’ve spent a lot of time in VR headsets at this E3, but nothing else I played was like Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. The 20 minutes or so that I played are about 10 percent of the game, which puts this squarely into the smaller kind of experiences that PlayStation VR will make available, like Batman Arkham VR. The big difference in Double Fine’s take is that it eschews so much of what other games put front and center. In doing so, it showed me that VR isn't all guns and ammo, cool as they are. I’m looking forward to a world where I get to play both.

The next level of puzzles.

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