Sponsored By
Danielle Riendeau, Editor-in-Chief

June 7, 2024

4 Min Read
A goat host character presides over a retro TV set
Via Double Fine productions/Seam user K174n

The idea to write about Compton's Cookoff came to me in a flash while I was looking at a draft of my colleague Holly's intro post for cooking week here at Game Developer. One phrase showed up: "cooking and performance anxiety"—that immediately made a beeline for my own gray matter, stirring memories of playing the Psychonauts 2 level wherein the player guides anthropomorphized audience members/ingredients (bear with me here) through a wild death trap of a kitchen to please harsh reality TV food judges and them... battle them.

If that sounds wild, it's supposed to! The Psychonauts games are all about literally jumping into the mixed up jumble of characters' brains, helping them deal with psychological trouble. There's a generous dose of humor here, and a lot of heart and empathy for every character in the world. Each level is a trippy, cartoonish vision of a character's mind, and Compton is a traumatized former psychonaut who has locked himself away for fear of causing harm to anyone ever again. He is all but eaten alive by his own anxieties, something I was immediately drawn to (my own OCD says hello).

Truly, what better way to represent that in an adventure-platformer like Psychonauts than a nightmare obstacle course kitchen that requires players to simultaneously juggle cooking tasks in different areas of the arena: a massive blender, a terrifying stove, a horrifying slicer—that's the subject of an especially cutting joke, given the ingredients' cheerful dispositions. It's strong level design on both a pure gameplay level and a narrative one. Success requires combining platforming feats of fancy with a multitasking element (most recipes require you to have multiple ingredients in various stages of prep at a time), and a countdown clock breathes down your neck the whole time. There is an element of risk vs. reward to juggle in each section: slower, safer ways to tackle the tasks, and faster, riskier strategies that may pay off big time: or cause you to lose precious seconds. The pressure, in every way, is on.

The narrative framing complements this perfectly. We're shooting a reality competition with these awful judges (who are also goats and hand-puppets: again, just go with it) who look for every excuse to up the drama and make it tough on their poor contestant. A lot can go wrong, and will! In between escalating rounds of the level, players contend with "commercial breaks" where they need to beat down waves of enemies, and boss fights with the judges themselves vomiting mayhem upon the battlefield. It's a lot, yes! But it's funny, deeply weird, and incredibly memorable.

A novice chef in the Psychonauts 2 kitchen

I was keen to reminisce about Compton's Cookoff without even knowing the context of how it came to be: my colleague Bryant pointed me towards relevant episodes of Double Fine Psychodyssey, the 25+ hour documentary from Player 2 Productions documenting Psychonauts 2's very long journey. The stage actually came from a smaller project lead by one of the documentary crew, in his first game development endeavor.

In one episode, studio director Tim Schafer breaks down just how herculean a task it is to build a Psychonauts "brain:" "The things you have to achieve to be a Psychonauts level [are] like, all this good platforming and stuff, but also, like, try to make it something people haven't seen in a game before," he says. "Have it completely tell somebody's emotional journey in the landscape, you know? Have it feel right narratively. Have it really be surprising and fresh. It's a lot of pressure to be original in a level."

It's fascinating to watch the documentary and see filmmaker Asif Siddiky pitch the idea of an epic cooking challenge, go through a wild trial by fire in creating a functional prototype (with a professional team helping him at each step). Later, he's tapped to work as a level designer and fashion that prototype into this full-blown stage of the game—something so memorable and notable that my own mind shot it straight out of the proverbial toaster on reading a simple phrase, three years later.

Honestly, it's inspirational. The Psychonauts series has a special place in my heart for a few reasons—the quality of the level design (and level design-as-character design), the narrative, the overall weird and wonderful worldview on display in every little element. Knowing that this particularly exercise on anxiety and overcoming grief was born from a new designer's own brain gives me serious hope.

About the Author(s)

Danielle Riendeau

Editor-in-Chief, GameDeveloper.com

Danielle is the editor-in-chief of Game Developer, with previous editorial posts at Fanbyte, VICE, and Polygon. She’s also a lecturer in game design at the Berklee College of Music, and a hobbyist game developer in her spare time.

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