Taking a cursory glance at the nominees for game of the year at The Game Awards 2021, you may be mistaken in thinking that you’ve stepped back in time about twenty-five years or so. Out of the six nominated video games this year four of them were platformers, and three of them were 3D platformers specifically. It was with this renewed, heady sense of nostalgic enthusiasm that I predicted Psychonauts 2 would walk away with, if not game of the year, at least the awards for best art direction and best narrative. This was not the case.
As it turned out, Tim Schafer did not get to take to the stage in his incredible-looking pink paisley suit, and Psychonauts 2, much like its predecessor, accepted the mantle of fan-acclaimed, niche cult classic. You would be forgiven for thinking otherwise this year, as (due to Microsoft’s acquisition of Double Fine) Psychonauts 2 enjoyed an advertising push not afforded to the first game. Indeed, you will still see clips from the game used in tv commercials for Microsoft streaming products, laptops, and the Games Pass service. It is clear that a great many people truly believed in Psychonauts 2 as a project, both internally on a creative level, and externally as a product that could be marketed to a consumer base. While it was encouraging to see a huge institution like The Game Awards acknowledge Double Fine’s magnum opus with a total of five nominations, it was just as disappointing to see it snubbed for a win at every turn.
Saying that I am happy that the second-best choice, Hazelight’s It Takes Two, was crowned game of the year. Josef Fares accepted the award with his now patented ‘fuck the Oscars’ fervor and gave the impression of a man truly passionate about the industry and his place within it. It Takes Two is a fun, mechanically creative co-op platformer with a story that oscillates wildly between distinctly passable and the unholy embodiment of toe-curlingly saccharine nonsense. The game is original, flawed, and very much a passion project. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Psychonauts 2 does most things It Takes Two does better (combining original, inspired art design and platforming up with a poignant, expertly written plot), but if something else had to win, I’m pleased it was It Takes Two.
I should also mention that Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, despite receiving even more nominations than Psychonauts 2, did not receive a single award. This, to me, however, is less surprising in some ways. I was very excited for the latest Ratchet & Clank, and while enjoying it a fair amount, it continued the rather toothless direction Insomniac has decided to take the duo in. The ‘Pixarfication’ of Ratchet & Clank has left the series without much of a defining character since as far back as 2007’s Tools of Destruction, which traded the acerbic wit and satire of the original trilogy for a straightforward attempt in setting up a kid-friendly franchise. Rift Apart looks good and plays well enough, but I can’t give it much more credit than that.
Other nominees for game of the year, Metroid Dread, Deathloop, and Resident Evil Village are all very good titles, and in any other year, would have easily swept the floor with the competition (maybe not Deathloop, but it would have at least given them a run for their money). Honestly, I shouldn’t be disappointed that Psychonauts 2 lost out during a year with such strong competition, especially since many great games were not nominated, or even acknowledged at all (The Forgotten City, The Great Ace Attorney, etc.). It just feels like, to an extent, that history is repeating itself. As someone who was excited for and played the original Psychonauts upon release, it was heartbreaking to watch it (initially, at least) wallow in cult obscurity despite a warm critical reception. Part of me truly believed that it was Psychonauts 2’s time to shine and its turn to experience the kind of mainstream success and popularity that the first really should have. Fans can at least take comfort in the fact that the series will remain rooted in that special overlap of niche and critically successful, that ‘worst kept secret’ game that sits beside titles like Earthbound, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Killer7. Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll get Psychonauts 3, or some kind of adaptation that launches the series into the public eye like never before — receiving its ‘Yakuza moment’ of long-deserved recognition. Or maybe it’s better if Psychonauts just stays the way it is — special, underrated, and celebrated by those unique, handsome few.