Peter McConnell takes us through the process of composing the mental worlds of ‘Psychonauts 2’

The LucasArts legend talks about his history with Double Fine, scoring a platformer and the influence of the Grateful Dead.

Peter McConnell is a legendary video game composer responsible for crafting the eclectic soundscapes of classic adventure games like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. In the early 2000s, he lent his ear to fellow LucasArts ex-pat Tim Schafer’s Double Fine to score the studio’s surreal debut, Psychonauts. A 3D platformer where you explore the inside of other people’s minds, McConnell’s music helped Psychonauts’ unfathomable environments come to life, making fans out of a generation of players who engaged with the game’s artistic interpretations of mental health concepts.

More than 15 years after the first game’s release, Psychonauts 2 is here, and McConnell has slipped back into its unique world, delivering over three hours of original score. “It was very satisfying because Psychonauts was the first game I worked on as an independent composer,” McConnell says. “Back then, Double Fine was literally in a garage,” he added.

“They drove into this garage South of Market that had a big door that looked stunningly like the garage door puzzle from Full Throttle,” McConnell says. “And when all the monoxide had, you know, floated up in the air, they went up into an open area above the cars and worked. That was where Double Fine was in those days. So let’s just say we didn’t have the same resources to work with that we do now,“ he says.

McConnell created most of the score for the original Psychonauts in his small apartment in Berkeley, California. “Sometimes the neighbours weren’t too happy about that,” McConnell says. “I did everything I could live, but I did not do all the things live I wanted to do live. And it’s sort of like, okay.. who’s gonna play the bongos? Well, I guess I’m going to play the bongos … but I’m so proud of the vibe of the original Psychonauts music and that sprightly sound that it has.” Tracks like The Meat Circus and Whispering Rock still resonate today, painting vivid pictures of the game’s environments.

Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2. Credit: Double Fine Productions

From the heavy metal operatics of Brutal Legend to the matryoshka mayhem of Stacking, McConnell has been a key musical collaborator for Double Fine as the studio has grown over the years. Studio head Tim Schafer explained their relationship as part of a recent interview with NME: “We’ve been working on music ever since I think Monkey Island 2, it’s a long time,” Schafer said. “Having a composer that could do any style, because you never know what our setting is going to be — like oh, it’s a Spanish Villa, or, you know, under the sea or spy-themed — and he can just hit all these different genres and just go between them, but then still maintain, you know, Sasha’s Theme, or a theme for Milla or something and still keeping that theme going behind any sort of style. he’s a pro!” Schafer added.

But returning to score another Psychonauts game has felt particularly special for McConnell, especially given the expanded scope of the sequel. “It’s so wonderful to be able to come back and go, right, now we’re going to treat these themes, and we’re going to take them somewhere,” McConnell explains. “Everything’s gonna be live; we’re not gonna have any fake instruments in this version, and to me, that’s everything”, he adds. “I want human beings to be playing. If you were hearing a trumpet, I want it to be a trumpet!”

Returning to an old IP like Psychonauts is a chance for McConnell to deepen what he has done with the material. But before you get there, how do you even bottle and convey something so abstract as a mental world?

“It’s pretty much an unconscious thing,” McConnell says. “I might be having a conversation with someone on the team, and they’ll say something, and I’m like, okay, there, yeah, grab the iPhone and just hum something because there it is,” he explains. “So if I get, you know, the inside of Ford [Cruller]’s bowling shoe or whatever, it’s hard to describe, but I will look at the thing and be very open to what happens, and I’ll usually hear something … you learn to listen to yourself.”

Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2. Credit: Double Fine Productions

McConnell would receive images and stories from Double Fine to help stoke ideas in the early stages of development. “I’m visually driven, so to me, a picture is worth 1000 notes,” McConnell says. Sound Supervisor Camden Stoddard then passed playthrough video from QA to McConnell to help him visualise the levels in motion. “It makes it a little bit more like scoring a movie, and then I will write music to that,” McConnell says.

McConnell also mentioned that his undergraduate honours thesis was a cycle of songs about a series of dreams. Hence, the concepts that the world of Psychonauts plays with were undoubtedly of interest to him ahead of his work on the series as a composer.

One special part of composing Psychonauts 2 was that McConnell was able to reunite with his fellow LucasArts composers Michael Land and Clint Bajakian, who worked together on games like Sam and Max Hit the Road and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. The trio played together at the legendary Skywalker Ranch to create part of the soundtrack, including some of the music for the PSI-King’s Sensorium, a psychedelic level inspired by The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

“Clint, Michael and I had all been in Skywalker and worked there behind the control room in different ways over the years, but I think that was the first time that all of us had walked into the musician entrance and actually played on the stage,” McConnell says. “It’s just like the best possible situation to play rock and roll, so yes, that was amazing!”.

McConnell, Bajakian and Land recorded one of my favourite pieces in the game during these sessions. It plays when you drive a campervan into the woods of the PSI King’s mind. An eclectic guitar tune comes through with a powerful intermittent effect that warps the sound as you leap up logs and soak in the vibrant tones. “That piece was probably the most inspired by the Grateful Dead,” McConnell says.

One look at the cover art for the Grateful Dead’s Smiling on a Cloudy Day and the parallels should lock into place for anyone who has had the pleasure of playing this brilliant level. “We had all been fans of the Dead at different times, and so that was kind of an opportunity to pay homage to that,” McConnell says. “Clint played the guitar solos, and he used some really special vintage pedals to get that psychedelic sound.”

During the PSI-King Sensorium’s crescendo, players will enjoy a musical performance with Jack Black of Tenacious D providing the vocals. The song, which is all about healing, was revealed last year in the run-up to Psychonauts 2’s release, but it has an entirely different vibe when you experience McConnell’s work in-game. It becomes even more profound because players have explored the PSI-King’s mental world and helped reunite this lonely, senseless mote of light with his old friends. The empathy rings out!

“You’ve had Jack setting you up with his amazing personality and acting and huge presence up to that moment,” McConnell says. “He’s told you how afraid he is and – that thing that only he can do – that sort of vulnerable, tough guy, has been put on all the way up to that moment… and then he’s pouring his soul out, and you can feel it,” McConnell says. “It’s a stunning performance.”

In the halls of The Motherlobe and the game’s many open-world areas, certain tracks punch through that “aren’t part of the underscore, but are part of the actual drama,” as McConnell puts it. One example of this pleasant diegetic sound is some Muzak that plays in the reception area of headquarters. Coincidentally, this had another purpose earlier in development.

“That was originally supposed to be Compton (Boole)’s music,” McConnell says. “But that level changed so much that it no longer became appropriate for the level.” Originally Compton’s Cookout was going to be “more Julia Child than The Price is Right,” McConnell says. “And this is something you do, you know, we tool things, we find a different use because especially with Double Fine, it’s a very organic process when you’re creating,” he adds. “As a composer, you kind of have to be ready to dodge and jump and, and readjust based on the new design.”

“There are plenty of situations where it changed big time,” McConnell says. “I think in the very early stages, Jack Black’s character was supposed to be an opera singer, but I never actually wrote any opera,” he adds.

A game’s genre can also impact how it is composed during development. Having worked on many classic adventure games, employing music in a platformer naturally requires a different strategy from McConnell. “The interactivity that you use in a platformer overlaps with what we might have done in Monkey 2, but some of the really intricate things that we did in Monkey Island, they’d be a little bit distracting, I think,” McConnell says. “In an adventure game, you’re mostly scoring dialogue. You can really be intricate with that or just get out of the way,” he adds.

Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2. Credit: Double Fine Productions

“In Psychonauts, since there are so many cutscenes, those are the things that you tend to score on the nose, whereas the interactivity where you’re cruising around, and having combat and exploring, that’s less tied to the moment,” McConnell says. “So most of the interactive techniques have to do with creating a sense of variety and unpredictability,” he adds.

One example is found in The Questionable Area, an open-world hub in Psychonauts 2 where electric bassoon and banjo solos and orchestral parts can appear in the mix randomly as players explore. “It’s just to make the whole thing a little bit more organic, as opposed to just being a tape that’s playing over and over and over again,” McConnell says.

Psychonauts 2 also contains a couple of remixes and re-orchestrations of works from the original game. The campground nighttime music from Psychonauts is interpolated in the Green Needle Gulch area in the sequel. The delightful humming bass tune heard in Sasha’s Lab is also a remix of the character’s theme from the first game.

The central theme was another part of the Psychonauts score that McConnell could flesh out in the sequel. “In Psychonauts 1, it’s kind of a gist, it was partly a budgetary thing, there was only a short screen, and you only needed a certain amount of music,” McConnell says. “That theme to me always felt like unfinished business, and with Psychonauts 2, there’s a very important character, a very important new villain, and that music became the bridge to the theme and finally made it what it wanted to be, a nice orchestral theme,” he adds.

Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2. Credit: Double Fine Productions

McConnell also wrote a sole clarinet line for a scene in Psychonauts 1 that was brought back to become the basis of the Aquato Family theme in Psychonauts 2. This is heard when the protagonist Razputin Aquato visits several new characters – his relatives – at their in-game camp. It’s a nice throwback for fans and a clever bit of musical reupholstery. “I’m playing the violin, and we’ve got an accordion, clarinet and tuba, but that came from that one tiny little thing, so it was great to weave that out into something that was more of a piece of music,” McConnell says.

Another small part of the original Psychonauts score was the Emotional Baggage jingle, which is heard when players reunite troubled duffle bags and purses with tags hidden throughout the game’s levels. The concept returns for the sequel, the cheeky, uplifting jingle playing as you sort each piece of mental luggage. “It’s definitely ironic, right? But so is the visual,” McConnell says. “I spent an inordinate amount of time as a youngster in front of the television, so I have a real sense of what a good commercial should sound like about 1970 to 1978. There’s something special about that era, and I’ve always tried to capture that aspect of fun and tunefulness in my music in general, really, but certainly in a situation like this where it’s like quasi-commercial,” he adds.

Scoring Psychonauts 2 also meant saying goodbye, at least for now, to a series that McConnell has a deep connection with. In our interview with studio head Tim Schafer, he indicated that there were more stories to tell in the Psychonauts universe, but the studio wants to work on something completely new after looking in the past for so long.

“I honestly didn’t really think about that because [Psychonauts 2] is resolved in a nice way, and so from the point of view of the music, it’s a satisfying ending to the score,” McConnell says.“ I wouldn’t necessarily say it precludes doing anymore, but I didn’t feel a sense of mourning or anything like that, just more like ‘okay, well that’s a really nice resolution!’,” he adds.

Psychonauts 2 is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S and PC.

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