Double Fine's debut 2005 adventure Psychonauts is a game about dreams. On the surface, it's about actual dreams as your pre-pubescent psychic commander Raz hops inside the subconscious of others like a benevolent Freddy Kruger, but it also represents a dream for fans. Psychonauts may have been a critical darling upon its release a decade ago (it even snagged Eurogamer's highly coveted Game of the Year Award), but it failed to sell very well and any hopes to see a sequel were almost immediately stamped out.
Back in 2012 Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson offered to front $13m, the cost of the first game, to Double Fine in order to fund a sequel. This ended up not happening, mostly because Notch made this offer the day before Double Fine was to launch its now famous Kickstarter campaign for Broken Age (then codenamed Double Fine Adventure). What began as an experiment to fund a tiny flash game suddenly raised $3.3m, leading to a project that would consume Double Fine founder and Psychonauts creator Tim Schafer for the better part of three years. Needless to say, Psychonauts 2 was put on the backburner.
But now Broken Age is out and Double Fine has outlined an opportunity to fund this sequel many grew convinced simply wasn't possible.
Speaking with Eurogamer over Skype, Schafer explains that part of this is due to crowdfunding. Broken Age made more than eight times its $400k goal with very little to present up front, so Schafer is confident the studio can match that $3.3m target with an already established franchise. Furthermore, Psychonauts 2 is campaigning on Double Fine's new crowdfunding platform Fig, a service that lets people invest in a project then actually see a return on that investment in the form of royalties. The first couple projects on Fig only allowed those with serious capital (making over $200k a year or with $1m to their name) to invest, but this time anyone can get in on the action so long as they invest at least $1k. (There are also smaller rewards tiers for T-shirts and the like, same as other crowdfunding platforms.)
"With Fig people are actually going to be able to participate in the success of it. So if the game is a hit, they'll get royalties from it," Schafer tells me over Skype. "That allows us to go bigger."
Schafer also notes that another anonymous investor (but not Notch) is pledging a good sum of money into this sequel. And finally, Double Fine itself has been a profitable company as of late, so it's got a decent amount of dough lying around that it can throw into the Psychonauts 2 coffers.
"All three of those things combined will bring us to a scope similar to the first game," Schafer says before estimating it will receive roughly a cumulative $13m budget. "Each of those three parts on their own would not be enough to fund this game, but together it makes it possible."
That explains how Double Fine is able to match the budget of the first Psychonauts, but that was 10 years ago and inflation hasn't been kind. Schafer isn't worried about this, however, as he's found a couple of workarounds to keep costs low. One of them is to develop Psychonauts 2 in Unreal Engine 4. "We're going to be using Unreal this time, so we're not writing an engine from scratch," Schafer explains. "So that's a big chunk of our budget that we don't need to worry about."
There's also the fact that Psychonauts was Double Fine's first game and the studio has since refined its craft. "We know a lot more than we knew with the first [game]," Schafer says. "The first game took five years because we were just big dummies, and now we're not big dummies anymore."
As for what Psychonauts 2's story is actually about, Schafer notes that it follows Raz as he becomes a fully-fledged psychonaut and grows disillusioned with the institution he grew up idolising. "The first game was about summer camp and Raz trying to be a psychonaut, the second game is Raz is now a psychonaut and he's going to Psychonaut Headquarters to see how they do it downtown. So he's going to be hanging out at the actual psychonaut's headquarters where they do international espionage and he's going to be meeting the actual people who run the psychonauts," Schafer explains.
"Sasha and Milla are going to return, and Lili, and you're going to be seeing them in their natural environment; not in their summer camp clothes, but in their super secret spy headquarters. And from that hub you're going to go into another series of mental worlds and exploring the secrets of the history of the psychonauts organisation. Raz finds out that they're actually not as perfect as he imagined they were from the comic books he read all his life. And they actually have in some ways things that are very troubling that he's going to have to fix, and they in some ways need him more than he needs them. But to do that he's going to have to go into his own backstory, exploring a lot of things that were eluded to in the first game in terms of the curse that's been put on his family - to die in water - and where that curse came from and how that ties into the history of the psychonauts itself."
Clearly Schafer has a pretty solid outline for this saga, raising the question of whether he plotted it as a multi-game series all along. "I had this larger story that I wanted to get back to. So it wasn't planned to be a certain number of games, but there were these other elements that I wanted to revisit," he says. "There were a couple of seeds planted in the first game that hook into the story. Some questions that in some ways were asked that this game will answer."
Expanding upon Psychonauts' lore will no doubt be exciting for fans of the first game. but what of its mechanics? Psychonauts was a hybrid between a 3D platformer and a point-and-click adventure with plenty of inventory puzzles and secret humorous interactions, but its gameplay never strayed too far from the template of Mario 64 or Monkey Island. Furthermore, Psychonauts wasn't exactly known for its refined mechanics, which hardly held up to the more polished platformers of its day. Schafer seems confident that Double Fine has come a long way since the storied developer's first stab at a platformer.
"The major twist with Psychonauts I felt was that each level had a big twist on the gameplay. Not so much in changing every power that Raz had, but how the world behaved and how Raz behaved in the world," Schafer says. "Sometimes he would stick to the ceiling, sometimes he would be a giant monster going through a town full of tiny monsters, so each level put the same mechanics in a weird situation and context. But you were still part acrobat, part psychic and using those powers to get through the game. That's going to the same, but much more honed and polished and refined."
It all sounds good. Maybe too good. But at the moment it's just a pitch. And even the most devout Double Fine fan will admit that Broken Age was pretty small in scope compared to Psychonauts, yet it took three years to develop. How can Double Fine expect to make a more massive game in a projected 2.5 years?
Schafer notes that Psychonauts 2's dev team will be a lot bigger than Broken Age's, but it's not going to be all hands on deck the way Double Fine operated with the first Psychonauts or Brutal Legend. There's still team members working on Headlander, Day of the Tentacle Remastered, and another unannounced project (that may be announced sooner than you think). "I think in some ways it's fun to imagine working on a bigger team, but we've learned a lot being a multi-game studio and I think there's a benefit to that creatively and financially that I think we're going to stick with," Schafer says.
Double Fine producer Greg Rice adds "I think that also the multiple teams, small teams working on a variety of projects, is going to lend itself nicely to Psychonauts just because each of those levels kind of has a unique art style and a twist on the gameplay, so we've been used to juggling a lot of different ideas at the same time like that."
It's worth noting that Psychonauts 2 will be Double Fine's second sequel (the first being Costume Quest 2, though a Brutal Legend 2 was briefly in production before the first game tanked commercially), leading to the question of whether we'll see more Double Fine sequels on the way? Perhaps Double Fine could collaborate with Lucasarts owner Disney on one of Schafer's previous properties like Grim Fandango or Day of the Tentacle?
"I would say every single game I've ever made I have a bunch of ideas for a sequel to. That's for sure," Schafer tells me. "But I also have a bunch of ideas for new stuff, so I don't think it's going to be one or the other. I think it's going to be an intersection of opportunities and inspirations. Like I felt really inspired to do a Psychonauts sequel right now - and we're kind of creating our own opportunity to do it. So in the future it really depends on what we get inspired to do and what opportunities we can make happen."
For now, all we can do is back the Fig campaign and see if the Psychonauts' fanbase really can make dreams come true.