The Dark Story Behind 'Psychonauts'
A terrible and true secret.
To every passionate gamer, the name Psychonauts should ring a bell.
Everything started back in 1993 when Tim Schafer was developing Full Throttle with the studio LucasArts. Schafer imagined a scene where Ben, the protagonist, goes under a peyote-induced psychedelic experience, but the idea was discarded from the game because it was not family-friendly enough. He kept it anyway and developed it into Psychonauts while still working for LucasArts.
After the commercial failure of Grim Fandango, Tim saw many colleagues from the studio leaving the job and was unsure about his position in the company. So, when Razmig Mavlian suggested that they start their own developing studio, he accepted without hesitation.
Together, they founded Double Fine Production in July 2000.
Their first project was, indeed, 'Psychonauts.' Schafer had the story ready, and in 2001, they started developing the game, not without some technical and economic problems, but that is a different story.
In the year 2005, the studio released this wonderful (and a bit creepy at times) platform game for Microsoft Windows, Xbox and PlayStation 2.
This title could not remain unnoticed, mainly because of its graphics that recall a bit of Tim Burton’s style, its catchy soundtrack and, of course, its out-of-the-ordinary backstory with quite eccentric characters.
In this game, the players will follow the character Raz, a young boy who developed psychic abilities. Raz is running away from the circus, trying to sneak into a summer camp made specifically for other kids with his kind of powers, called Psychonauts.
A Psychonaut is someone able to access the mind of other people to solve psychological issues, defeat their nightmares, understand where their fears and weaknesses come from, and get to the root of mental illnesses.
The game explores the meanderings of the human’s mind, and Raz will explore the psyche of the other Psychonauts in order to help them overcome their fears and memories of the past so they can successfully complete their training. What is extremely interesting and thoughtful about discovering the past of the characters is how it is possible to learn about the darkest secrets and memories they cherish: when accessing a mind, at some point the players will see a safe running in circles to avoid them. That is called Memory Vault, and once subdued, it will unlock a beautifully hand-drawn story that will show the darkest memory of the person whose mind the players are exploring.
The concept is just perfect: a vault that is running away and that does not want to be unlocked. This is something people usually do, keep something in a vault in the deepest part of their mind so they can hide it from the others. Brilliant.
Everything seems like it's going according to the plan until some mysterious events start happening in the camp. The brains of the kids get stolen and an unfamiliar entity is wandering between the minds and the memories of the veteran Psychonauts. And this story is all about one of them: Camilla “Milla” Vodello.
She is the only female veteran Psychonaut, and her personality is the most eccentric one. Milla loves parties, the psychedelic 1960s mod style, and dancing. But what will immediately catch the attention of the players is how sweet and protective she is with the kids.
Raz will have a long journey inside the psyche of Milla. As soon as he enters her mind, Raz will find a never-ending party, an environment full of colours and music. Apparently, Milla is the only one with a perfectly sane mind,and it seems that nothing from her past is haunting her. She appears to be someone who just wants to have fun and dance, even though she will try to push Raz out of her head as soon as possible.
The main and biggest room of her brain is composed of a cylindrical section where there are various doors which will lead the players to different sections of her mind. These doors will be quite easy to reach since they are all connected by a path. However, there is one door apparently hidden and out of range; the only way to go through it is to learn every ability in the game.
This door will lead to a room that is different from the others. In fact, it will be a dark place, with no lights and colours. Once Raz enters the room, Milla will try to push him away by saying, “Now, why would you want to come in here. Come on, this room’s no fun. Let’s leave, baby.”
What will immediately catch the attention of the players are the different children drawn on the dark walls and the only objects inside of that dismal place: a chest and a Memory Vault.
The second the Memory Vault gets hit, it will reveal how Milla discovered her psychic abilities and the darkest secret of the whole game.
She was a caring worker in an orphanage, and she had a special bond with the children. While she was out shopping, the building burned down with all the kids inside. She could hear their screams for help inside her head, and she still hears them.
The chest, instead, will lead Raz to a secret place. Instantly, the players will hear some overlapping and confusedwhispers from different people. Then, once the room is shown, a terrifying scene will appear on the screen: a scorching cage is keeping out several deformed creatures with big and round eyes. Those creatures are the burning children constantly asking Milla for help with creepy murmurs.
Milla will ask us to leave the room several times, saying that she worked very hard to segregate her nightmares in a remote side of her mind.
What is so scary about the nightmare of Milla?
It is true.
Tim Schafer always lived with his parents before attending the University of Berkley, and he was curious about the story of the past owners of the house: Jonathan and Camilla Coelho. They were a couple who moved from Collinwood,near Cleveland, to Sonoma, California. Back then, traveling from one side to another of the USA was not so easy at all, and nobody could understand why they did it.
But time slowly exposed the real story behind that sudden change in their lives. Back in Collinwood, Camilla was a caretaker in an orphanage that was mysteriously destroyed in a fire around 1910. Every child in the orphanage died, along with two teachers and the headmaster.
Later on, it was discovered that a wooden connector in the building caught fire because of the high temperature of the heating vent. The fire was fast and impetuous; since the stairwell acted like a chimney, the wood glaze inside the classrooms fed the fire, and worst of all, the doors wouldn’t open. Nobody could escape from that death trap.
A lot of rumours were spread around the tragic accident. Someone said the fire was triggered by an oil lamp of left by one of the children, while someone else stated that it was the headmaster who set fire to the building.
The man was famous for being choleric,and for some reason, mysterious and macabre events happened while he was administrating the orphanage. Many people said that thanks to his corporal punishments, a lot of children died, and their bodies were destroyed with the help of the incinerator located in the lower part of the building.
The continuous complaints from the workers of the orphanage and the tragic psychological and physical conditions of the kids forced the government to close the place immediately. Maybe this was the main reason that drove the headmaster completely crazy and led him to commit suicide in the fire he started.
Camilla, most probably, did not want to live in Collinwood anymore after the tragic episode and wanted only to forget about it. That is why she chose a very distant town where nobody knew about the orphanage.
The mysterious and uncertain events of Camilla’s life always stimulated the imagination and curiosity of Tim, who decided to tell this story in Psychonauts with the character of Milla.
By digging more into the file of the game, players have found many bits of cut dialogue, and most probably, these terrifying sights were once part of a larger sequence in the game. The cut lines contain Milla screaming and crying as the children burn to death.
"Hey, what's that smoke over the village?"
"Ahh! The orphanage! It's on fire!"
"The children! Someone save the children!"
"Please! Someone help!"
"Oh god no!"
"I can hear them!"
"Can't you hear them?!"
"Don't cry, my darlings!"
"Please stop crying!"
The last few audio clips are Milla crying in agony.
The way this story is shown in the game is simply brilliant. Even the happiest person can have a dark secret locked in the most hidden part of the brain. We wear masks every day.