5 out of 5
Produced by: Gonsa (vinyl master)
Psychonauts is a game that, in theory, I really like: a platformer with quirky art design, with plenty of collectibles, and a story that digs into the freedom of imagination as part of its plot; that’s like straight out of a description of the kind of game I’d probably dream up, in the genre – goofy-mascot era platforming – for which I’m generally a sucker.
And I do like Psychonauts, but man, I’ve never beaten it. Not out of it being too hard, I don’t think, but because I can’t ever really seem to sit down and play it for more than a half hour or so at a time, with long breaks inbetween, and the worlds are big enough that I generally spend that half hour re-getting my bearings as to where I left off, and then quitting again.
Listening to Peter McConnell’s soundtrack for the game, as released on vinyl by iam8bit, I think I finally get why that is: the game is just overwhelming. Not necessarily from a content perspective, but by design: the look and feel of the game is all overblown, and the music is a huge part of that. As I was listening to – and thoroughly enjoying – the score, I had flashbacks to hearing these bombastic themes on loop during segments of the game, and as those segments are already pretty overwhelming, the klezmer / big-band music tips it over the edge.
Psychonauts, as a game soundtrack, maybe doesn’t work: it demands too much notice. Setting that aside then, and just focusing on the music itself, and it’s a damned impressive and fun swirl of head-bobbing, notable themes. McConnell shares some short thoughts on the back cover that perhaps inform that fun: that this was the first soundtrack produced once he and Psychonauts creator Tim Schafer had splintered off from Lucas Arts for the newly-founded Double Fine, recorded in a small, one-room studio with friends. That sense of freshness, and of the raw creativity it encourages, ripples throughout the score. It’s also amazingly rich for something that sounds like a low-budget affair, rippling with boppy wind instruments and strings and booming drums, producing variations on a big-band, jazzy wavelength, leaning into scene-setting affectations when necessary.
Although the way the tracks are mostly here and then gone – most capped at a minute and a half or so – should be disruptive, there’s a general flow between poppier and more soothing and emotive works that makes it seem cohesive, bookended by 4-minute captures of the wonderfully orchestrated opening and closing themes.
Peter McConnell’s Psychonauts soundtrack makes for such an attention-grabbing, toe-tapping experience that it’s hard to imagine distracting yourself from it to play a game. For me, that actually seems to have been the case, so it’s excellent to have such fun music isolated and presented as a clean vinyl recording from iam8bit, packaged in a fittingly distinctive “interactive” jacket.