The Milkman Conspiracy is the Thesis Level of Psychonauts
My journey through “old” video games over the past three months has now arrived to some delightful experiences, many of which I’d love to write about but I’d honestly rather spend most of this time absorbing all the experiences I can while my life is free from employment for these brief few months. I’ve run through old Call of Duty games, Dead Space 1 (oh what a goodie it was), Advent Rising (oh its flaws are beyond anything I could’ve comprehended), I’ve retread the Raven Software Jedi Knight games (Outcast and Academy, they’d work as superb B-movies), and replayed Myst 1 (it’s…easier than 5th-grade me remembers). But in the face of the 24-hour Extra Life stream I did on November 3rd, which was mostly filled with the incredible Fallout: New Vegas, I jumped into Psychonauts.
Boy Psychonauts holds up so very very well (at least on PC). It runs well, it works with a 360 or Xbox One controller flawlessly (even utilizing the bumpers as the black and white buttons to great effect), lots of the textures are given heightened clarity over the original on its console releases, and unlike so many games from its time Psychonauts came out late in the 3D platformer’s first life cycle so it really never needed a remastered edition because it’s filled with so many great details that make its landscapes something you can’t easily consume thoroughly on one go. But really Psychonauts holds up not just as a finished product on the standard face value things like “worth your time”, “good story” and “replayability” that we’re looking at when considering most games. Psychonauts holds up as a treasure vastly ahead of and also peaking-at its unique placement in time as a pantheon of the adventure-platformer hybrid embossed in a zany creative endeavor that sticks like none other. Tim Schafer games have a knack for being overly difficult to produce, filled with puzzles that people either love or hate, well thought-out and developed worlds, and tons of writing that winds up taking up considerable production time. But Psychonauts is the pudding proof that this method can be worth it in spades. It’s the adventure-platformer that’s swimming in collectibles and yet doesn’t overburden me by being vague on how to find things most of the time. It has hilarious writing, a setting we’ll never experience again (until that sequel happens, fingers crossed that it comes out great), and permanent residence in my brain as one of the best games I’ve ever experienced. Going back in time still holds that up for me. I mean, just look at these spooky night skies in the game.
These are dev faces most likely sneaked into the game’s moodier nighttime sequence that makes the grave and comically-delivered horrors taking place much more present. And here are the devs leaning into it with outrageous “AHHHH, THE HORROR!” faces. I’ve played Psychonauts I think 4 times (once on Xbox, three times on PC) and I never noticed this.
But I’m here today to share with everyone one of the things going back through “old” games has revealed to me with the revisiting of Psychonauts. People loved The Milkman Conspiracy, and I did too (though I think my favorite level was the Napoleon board game one, no wait, there’s Black Velvetopia, or the theater…). But now I know that The Milkman Conspiracy is so gosh darn good in this game that it’s actually kind of the grand thesis statement of the game itself and all of what makes Pscyhonauts so mind-warpingly excellent. It’s not just the humor of it all either, the level design, the placement of items, the camera reworkings, all of it pays into this level’s incredible experience. So, let’s journey, shall we, into the mind of everyone’s favorite security guard.
WARNING: I CANNOT WARN YOU ENOUGH OF THE SPOILERS YOU’RE ABOUT TO ENCOUNTER BY READING FURTHER. JUST GO PLAY PSYCHONAUTS, OKAY? THEN COME BACK. IT’S $10 ON STEAM, IT GOES ON SALE PLENTY, IT EVEN RUNS ON WINDOWS 10. JUST GO DO IT IF YOU WANNA AVOID THE SPOI-
Okay, I think you got the message if you don’t wanna miss out.
At this point in the game Raz and the players have uncovered the secret plot by Coach Oleander to utilize children’s psychically powerful minds to fuel psychic-powered death tanks and take over the world. If those stakes didn’t seem nuts enough, a giant brainwashed lungfish named Linda has taken Raz’s female romance interest across the summer camp’s lake and delivered her into the hands of a mad dentist who’s performing the “lobotomies” to extract the children’s brains (read: He makes them sneeze out their brain with pepper in the most cartoonish fashion you can imagine). After an excellent trip through Linda’s mind and freeing her from the brainwashing Coach Oleander and “Doctor” Loboto placed on her, Linda delivers Raz at the foot of the Thorney Towers Home for the Disturbed. Loboto is at the top of the spire of this place, but the front gate is locked and a security guard nearby named “Boyd” holds the key.
It’s here where I want to consider the minds we have visited up to this moment in Psychonauts. Other than our own warped nightmares and Linda’s mind (a humorous satire take on Godzilla films wheras the players, through Raz, becomes a kaiju wrecking the fictional city of Lungfishopolis to bring freedom from Coach Oleander’s fictional character Ko-cham-er-a), the only human minds we’ve gone into are those of our school teachers: Coach Oleander has a frontal fake training mindscape that’s basically a hodgepodge of war aesthetics, Sasha Nein has a cube-shaped mind plane that opens up and allows the earlier childhood memories of his life to spring out and exist, the game’s first suggestion at repressed memories (though later kinda discredited), and Milla Vodello’s levitation dance party, which has a groovy disco look but has an even more haunting locked away tiny corner that really starts to suggest repression. Regardless, up to this point, the three minds we’re shown from teachers all showcase a level of control and and yet tackle some amounts of serious subject matter: The battles of war, even if Oleander uses it as a lie and a glorification of something he never had, the shadow cast over Sasha and his father’s life by the death of his mother when Sasha was a baby, a father who is unable to be close to his son as a result, and the tragic death of likely an entire orphanage filled with children in a fire while Milla was out getting groceries. Control is even a subject matter brought up several times in the story up to this moment. Sasha is teaching Raz about focus and control and it unlocks a game mechanic. And Coach later notices this focus and control when fighting Raz in Linda’s mind.
And so it’s here, at this big tonal turning point in the game, after a great satire approach to a Godzilla narrative, that the game points us to Boyd, who is lost in his mind, looking for “the milkman”. The game is more or less leading us to this “home for the disturbed” and Boyd’s mind is the game’s gateway saying, “What if we now look at minds that aren’t in control? What does the inside of a completely lost mind look like?”
The Milkman Conspiracy holds such wonderful memories in people’s hearts thanks to its incredible ability to ride the ideas of the bizarre and the strange while simultaneously giving it a logic of its own. This is the thing that makes Psychonauts work in spades, even when its not this bizarre. The first thing players are greeted with are Boyd’s wall writings and an inability to decipher them or to find this supposed “Milkman”. Boyd shows Raz how to use clairvoyance by…giving Raz a badge for it in a fridge (sure, it doesn’t make sense, but only ever happens in the world where it’s not supposed to). With this tool, Raz sees through Boyd’s conspiracy theory wall of evidence that the Milkman is dead, killed in a department store fire, but Boyd doesn’t believe this. From here, players navigate the twisted and turning streets of Boyd’s mind, exiting out from his heavily fortified house, surrounded in tall protective fencing and barbed wire. The streets easily showcase the odd and broken reality in which Boyd lives, and every step along the way players are being constantly followed and watched. Yard flamingos and mailboxes open, cameras float out of them briefly before taking a snapshot of you and then rushing back inside and closing up. Girl scouts practically stalk you and whisper to each other when you’re around, yet yell at you to leave them alone, considering you a creeper. Clairvoyance as a power makes this process all the more interesting and fun for players as most characters and camera sources provide the opportunity to look upon Raz from their perspective. The girl scouts see Raz as a creepy milk snatcher, the cameras see either an enigma covered in question marks or just…Raz. Censors see Raz as a flu, perfectly in tie with the game’s logic where censors exist to eradicate foreign presences in the mind. And my favorite little clairvoyance nod is the happy little snot bug that takes Raz from one section of a mind to another, he sees Raz as a package, a delivery, wearing goggles.
But clairvoyance for many are likely to point towards the noir-era g-men that litter the streets. These red-eyed, brown trench coat wearing oddities protect and guard off certain areas of the neighborhood based on the activity that would take place in that area. The hilarity and silly logic of it all ensues in how these g-men pretend to be doing the activity in that area with the necessary corresponding item. G-men guarding telephone poles hold a telephone in their hands and do marching band demonstrations with them, in place. They play golf with flowers as the clubs in the middle of a graveyard while boldly declaring, “We are grieving widows, come to mourn our losses” in the most monotone of voices. My personal favorite is one of these g-men brandishing hedge trimming shears, opening his head / mouth (almost like his head is a lid), slides the shears down his throat, while declaring, “We like trimming hedges.” Using clairvoyance on these g-men demonstrates the almost 50s and 60s-esque “perfect suburban life” viewpoint that these characters perceive one another as, including Raz if he’s holding any of the corresponding items to these activities. The devs even thought to take the time to have these g-men not-really-trimming-hedges to outright complain about their nagging wives and how they’d prefer to trim hedges instead of hearing her complain. And then if you walk into the house where the hedges are being trimmed, you find an exactly similar group of “wives” in the household, brandishing rolling pins in similarly incorrect ways talking about how much they love to make pies and how much they can’t stand their husbands. But make no mistake, Boyd’s mind sees these dudes in brown garb as seriously serious about the whereabouts of the Milkman. Step too far into g-men territory with the wrong item, or for too long, and they take you away for a brief cutscene in which they endlessly question Raz about milk, the Milkman, who he is, and where he is. They’re searching all right, they’re just hilariously bad actors, as a broken mind likely could perceive all of this nonsense.
Beyond the streets and winding telephone wire, much of what fractured Boyd’s mind long ago is hard or nigh-impossible to fully understand. He snapped when being fired from a department store and bombed it with milk molotovs (sound familiar?). But the snapping point and the other factors that have had an influence on Boyd’s mind are hard, if not impossible, to comprehend. The game doesn’t offer much. Except for the possibility out in the fog.
See the exterior of Boyd’s mind is covered in an endless web of white strings, almost similar to the “mental cobwebs” players are introduced to in the game’s tutorial level. While the placement of this hazy turquoise and white skybox likely was placed for its particular capability to work well as a skybox from any angle (as the map in this level is constantly turning as the player progresses), the additional theory I add is that Boyd’s mind is just too buried in mental cobwebs for us to ever truly clean up whatever is wrong in his mind. The ending The Milkman Conspiracy holds surely suggests that we do exactly the opposite for Boyd. But more on that later.
Other elements here in this level of the game suggest and pay into the sort of “lost” and loopy nature of Boyd’s mind. For starters, the “emotional baggage” in this level is particularly hard to sort. In other levels of Psychonauts, “emotional baggage” is a grouping of five different actual baggage types that players find across a person’s mind. The baggage is crying and needs to be reunited with the corresponding “tag”. Once reunited, all is well, and once all five baggage are sorted in a person’s mind, some concept art gets unlocked. Boyd’s mind, however, proves particularly difficult in this category. Most baggage across the game are found in order, and by the time you stumble across a bag you’ve likely already got a tag ready to go. With Boyd’s mind, the opposite happens and you’re almost finding every tag to go with a bag you haven’t found yet until you have explored the entire level and finally have found all of the tags. It’s a wild, albeit frustrating experience, and I’d argue that this just goes to show how difficult it is to sort through Boyd’s problems. They’re just all over the place, in all the ways that make it extremely difficult to resolve, and we’re not gonna get anywhere anytime soon. Another addition I really like is the presence of an underground demon creature, that just randomly grabs Raz right outside the post office for a quick boss fight. While I bet this is a chosen change of pace, since the level is heavily lacking in censors (because they’re all hiding and searching for the intruder), the boss is also something unexpected and straight-up so weird it doesn’t even make sense in Boyd’s crazy logic. And then there’s the camera angles. While a little odd to control, every time Raz enters a household along the Milkman Conspiracy’s street, the camera switches to a unique corner perspective of the house, while the players are left to navigate the simplistic interior design of the house.
While they don’t represent much, the household cameras are something I can never really forget as this simple addition to the skewed and broken perspective Boyd likely looks through every single day. It also begs the question: Where are all the people? Probably non-existent, the neighborhood only existing to further Boyd’s delusion. Now, the climax of the Milkman Conspiracy. Raz has successfully tracked down evidence that the girl scouts (named “Rainbow Squirts”) have the milkman in a basement underneath a faraway house. Upon sneaking into this house, Raz finds a gathering of the Rainbow Squirts and their matronly leader, the Den Mother. The Rainbow Squirts appear to have almost a cult-like status as they “promote niceness, make the world prettier, share candy with everyone, obfuscate the true nature of the milkman, protect the milkman at all costs, destroy all who would harm the milkman, etc. etc.” It’s pretty wild stuff, and right as Raz is in trouble the g-men show up with censors bursting out of the g-men’s vehicles, rushing the household to eliminate the Rainbow Squirts as their decided mental intruders.
Upon battling the Den Mother in the basement, the Milkman awakens, declaring himself to be the Milkman, and that his milk is delicious. He flies up out of the very deep basement, and proceeds to bombard the remaining Rainbow Squirts, the g-men, the censors, and even Raz gets caught in the crossfire, pulling him out of Boyd’s mind and back to reality. Here, Boyd disappears, and the Milkman takes over, revealing him (to the surprise of few) to be the Milkman. Boyd then opens the gate and proceeds to ready his next “delivery”. It’s here that we can assume the Milkman is definitely Boyd’s alter ego, but more importantly we can understand that our meddling in Boyd’s mind actually undid the mental hypnosis Oleander likely placed on Boyd’s mind to keep him just sane enough to guard the gate. Boyd’s dangerous, milk-molotov wielding alter ego is now cut loose, at our own doing. Oops.
No one we visit later in the game is quite lost in his own world as Boyd is, and it’s a fair argument that more lives and brains were on the line than Boyd’s when Raz undid whatever Oleander did to Boyd. But for this first venture into the minds of people who aren’t quite as stable as others, players were given the craziest ride of their lives, and the experience became unforgettable. One nice little addition I found upon revisiting the game, all these years later, was in revisiting Boyd’s mind after completing the Milkman Conspiracy. The game spawns you outside of the Rainbow Squirt hideout. And there stands Boyd / The Milkman.
Bombing an endless wave of spawning censors, the very things built to protect his mind.
Post-climax stuff in the original game suggests that Boyd kinda returns to “normal” after he unleashes his fury in the real world one last time. And that’s a nice wrap-up. But for me, there’s plenty more oldies to explore. I’m always “still be exploring Psychonauts”, but if this has been revealing to you at all, I recommend re-checking some games you haven’t finished, or your favorites that you haven’t played in over ten years. Especially Psychonauts.
You’ll never know what you uncover.