The Milkman Conspiracy started, as many great things do, in a Thai restaurant. Or maybe it didn't. Tim Schafer can't remember exactly. Somebody—perhaps him—came up with the phrase 'I am the milkman, my milk is delicious', and it may or may not have been during a Double Fine team meal. "I wish someone had said it at the restaurant, because their milk was delicious," he says.

Either way, those eight words unified ideas that had been buzzing around his head for a conspiracy theory-themed Psychonauts level. It's how most levels for the zany platformer started: Schafer brought the concept, the artists re-imagined it, the designers dreamt up the gameplay, and then the world builders and programmers brought it to life. So how did The Milkman Conspiracy go from a simple, silly phrase to one of the most beloved levels in a beloved game?

How did The Milkman Conspiracy go from a simple, silly phrase to one of the most beloved levels in a beloved game?

Schafer has always been fascinated by people who genuinely believed conspiracy theories, and wanted to know what was going on inside their heads. "I loved the movie Capricorn One when I was a kid, on faking the moon landing. Just the idea that someone would think [it was true] was so funny to me, in the same way some people think flat earthers are funny now, but I find it very sad, because it's just a symptom of how scary and misleading the internet can be," he says.

He drew up a chart of conspiracies and linked them all to a central character, Boyd. Some of the theories were famous, or taken from movies. Some were inspired by office chats, others by a homeless man named Doug, who lived on the streets nearby. "We'd pay him $10 a week to sweep our driveway," Schafer says. "He had ups and downs. Certain days he thought the government was trying to do things with him, and some days he didn't. It was interesting to talk to him… trying to get inside of his head was very inspirational for the level. I still see him around the neighbourhood."

Psychonauts was an exercise in dealing with mental illness in a comic way—the team were conscious of never "punching down" and wanted players to empathise with the characters, Schafer says. For Boyd, that meant showing the problems he'd been wrestling with: Being fired from a string of jobs and having an alter-ego implanted in his mind by Psychonauts villain Oleander.

That alter-ego was, of course, the Milkman.

Visually, Schafer imagined Boyd's mind world as a giant spider's web, with Boyd's house at the centre. He also wanted it to give it a retro, '50s spy vibe, and thought a suburban neighborhood would be the perfect setting: Relatively mundane on the surface, but hiding a dark secret. He gave the concept to his artists. 

Art director Scott Campbell tells me he wanted to emphasise paranoia, and he drew eyes and binoculars popping out of trashcans, mailboxes and bushes to make the player feel like they were being watched. He also came up with the G-Men, who kept an eye out for suspicious activities. 

"I based their outfits on the classic '50s G-Men detectives in their overcoats and hats, reminiscent of the Spy vs Spy comics in Mad magazine and every single TV show from that time period," he says. "I just loved that spies always wore those overcoats and people were supposed to not notice them in hotel lobbies or on park benches with their newspapers covering their faces, with just their eyes showing."

Campbell says the team found it funny to simply give the G-Men a single object as a disguise, and have them act out what was clearly the wrong use for that object. It's why you see G-Men using red stop signs to hammer in imaginary nails, or playing a bouquet of flowers like a guitar, and it's the root of much of the level's humour. 

Schafer recalls the initial magic of the level coming from a drawing by concept artist Peter Chan. "Suburbia is supposed to look mundane, but what if it was all just vaulted up against the sky? He had this drawing of the roads bent and twisted in the air, like [Boyd's] thinking was twisting back on itself and illogical.

"And I was like, 'woah', the programmers were like, 'woah'."

Schafer knew instantly that was the road to pursue, but he still had no idea what the gameplay would look like, so he brought in lead designer Erik Robson. Up until that point in the game, the team hadn't used the player's inventory much, and Robson was keen on an adventure game-style level where players combined items in their inventories to solve puzzles.

Those puzzles would be themed around the G-Men guarding certain areas, and the players would have to carry the right item to blend in. It fit well with Clairvoyance, a psychic power that let protagonist Raz see through the eyes of other characters, which had come from Schafer's research into psychic abilities.

The trick, Robson tells me, was to make every possible item and Clairvoyance interaction entertaining, including failures. The team knew players would try to combine seemingly unconnected items, or try out their powers on inanimate objects, so they created a huge spreadsheet of every possible interaction, filling each box with a new idea.

"We know we have to have something fun for if I use the clairvoyance on the feather I'm holding, for example," he says, "We knew those interactions would all be possible… it ends up being a situation where a bunch of creative people have to brainstorm and come up with fun solutions, and hopefully, that ends up being entertaining for a player."

Sometimes those interactions would be simple: When used on a keypad, Raz is seen as a giant finger. But others would require more time and effort, and one of the brilliant things about Double Fine was that three designers were allowed to take three days to come up with the right concept.

All the things that seem like antagonists, in the level, are like an immune system trying to understand an alien body in its midst.

Designer Erik Robson

The Milkman Conspiracy ended up much larger than originally planned, partly because of the team's relative gravity tech. The programmers came up with a way to flip gravity as you moved between the twisted, spiralling streets that Chan had drawn, and the camera would react in kind. It worked brilliantly, and the level naturally expanded as Robson took players off in different directions.

The sprawling design also fit into the theme, he says. "Broadly, the goal of every Psychonauts mind level was to express the personality of the character in whatever way possible. I think there was something appealing about it being an open-air maze. That's a weird contradiction that seems consistent with Boyd: 'I'm lost, but I can see everything. I see my goals, but I can't suss out how I'm going to get there.'"

In the end, Robson feels Milkman sprawled too much. "There's maybe two or three of those ambient houses when there should really only be one. As a level designer, my proclivity is to make things too big, so there might be a bit of guilt kicking in there."

Robson also wishes the team could've better expressed Boyd's inner turmoil throughout the level. The opening sequence, where the player uses Clairvoyance on Boyd and sees the conspiratorial scrawls he's made on the walls of his house, is an example of when it worked, because it gave the player a sense of what was to come while revealing something about Boyd's character, Robson says.

"All the things that seem like antagonists, in the level, are… like an immune system trying to understand an alien body in its midst. And that alien body is the what the Milkman represents, this thing that is there and buried, but he can't get rid of, and he knows something bad is going to happen as a result. There are a bunch of things I think we did get, the sort of confusion and how nothing is quite what it seems, the open-air maze. But I think that would have been cool to kind of drive that emotional point home better."

Partly because of these niggles, Robson says he's never thought of Milkman as a standout level. But he says it's one of the funniest, and Schafer's writing undoubtedly brings the whole thing together. Simply written down, the jokes—"The most pleasant sewers can be found in Paris, France"—have almost zero impact. But their deadpan delivery works so well in the context of the level, and the ultra-serious G-Men talking about how "rhubarb is a controversial pie flavor" as they try hopelessly to blend in with their given roles proves to be hilarious.

That was only possible because writing all the dialogue came last. After the designers and gameplay programmers had finished, Schafer would assess every piece of the level, and write dialogue based on all the work that came before. "That was the most solid foundation for the jokes to get layered on top," Robson says. "Half of my memory of Milkman is playing it without any of that dialogue, so that stuff still almost feels like a sort of recent edition. And then after you're done with the level, six or eight weeks later, this dialogue appears all of a sudden in the game."

Schafer tells me he wanted Erik Wolpaw to write the dialogue, but Wolpaw ended up being too busy. "So I ended up writing all the G-Men dialogue myself and I'm so happy I did, because it was so fun," he says. "It's just that matter of fact, straight-laced: 'Who was the milkman? What was the purpose of the goggles?'

"We just happened to be talking about pie a lot, about people thinking rhubarb can be dangerous if you cook it wrong. You can poison people. So it's a very controversial variety of pie—being able to sneak stuff like that in was really fun. It was really relaxing to write in that flat tone. 'My helicopter goes up and down.'" 

It's those jokes that I, and many other players, remember best about The Milkman Conspiracy. But for Double Fine, it carries its own legacy: a reminder that "no one person makes a level", Schafer says. "I didn't think of the twisting roads, and I didn't think of the way the G-Men functioned. But I still feel like the ideas that I cared about are in there, and each department got to contribute an essential part of the level. Any one piece of that, you took it away, and it's not the same," he says.

Psychonauts - (Alice O'Connor)

Double Fine Productions, the studio behind cheery games including Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, have been bought up by Microsoft. They say they’ll continue to make those Double Fine games in that Double Fine way, which I suppose is what everyone says after their business is acquired.



Double Fine Studios - developer of Psychonauts, Costume Quest and Brutal Legend - has been snapped up by Microsoft. The annoucement was just made here in LA at Xbox's E3 2019 press conference.

It's the latest huge acquisition for Xbox Game Studios after last year's purchase of Ninja Theory, Playground Games, Undead Labs and Compulsion Games.

Double Fine's next game is the long-awaited Psychonauts 2, which received a glorious new gameplay trailer during the show. Not a new Windows Excel, as Schafer joked on stage.

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Psychonauts - Spaff
Unpack your emotional baggage and prepare to battle your mental demons, the very first trailer for Psychonauts 2 premiered at The Game Awards this week!

You can watch it here:

If you know anyone who has yet to play the original, now is the perfect opportunity - we've discounted Psychonauts 1 by 90% for the weekend! Enjoy! :)

Psychonauts - (Jordan Oloman)

Memory is a funny old thing. Our brains are like faulty cameras, letting us unconsciously suppress moments of our lives and swap them out for brighter, more palatable realities. When we re reminded of these small time capsules, the serene environments we were in and the people we were with, we often feel an endorphin rush and a lurid longing for something that isn t there anymore. Plenty of games toy with the fascinating concept of memory, but it s often very black and white. An amnesiac character to serve a twist, for example, usually employed in the final act to give a narrative some shocking gusto. The trope gets a bit stale once you ve seen enough of it.

Double Fine s 2005 debut Psychonauts doesn t settle for that. The platforming adventure follows protagonist Razputin Aquato as he ventures into the troubled minds of his peers. He explores the unique landscapes of their grey matter and remedies their mental health issues in order to unravel a complex conspiracy. It s wonderfully strange but ultimately thoughtful, as per Tim Schafer s usual MO. Hidden it its eight levels are unique collectables called Memory Vaults, sentient safes that run in circles to avoid you. Once subdued, they give up a stereoscope Viewmaster reel with a beautiful hand-drawn story from the memories of the person whose mind you re exploring. (more…)


Twitch has revealed the line-up of games that Twitch Prime members will receive as part of their subscription in May, including Psychonauts and Gone Home.

Neither of those headliners likely need much introduction but, as a refresher, Psychonauts is Double Fine's inimitable brain-probing 3D action platformer - a classic that still hasn't lost its power to amuse and delight, some 13 years after it first released.

Gone Home, meanwhile, is developer Fullbright's fiercely atmospheric, but unquestionably divisive, exploration of family life and family strife - as told in walking simulator form. That one didn't resonate with Eurogamer editor Oli Welsh back in 2013 as much as it did for others.

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Psychonauts - (Alice O'Connor)

Sure, you’ve jacked into someone’s mind to wander through their memories, but have you jacked into someone’s mind while jacked into cyberspace? You can now do just that in Psychonauts In The Rhombus Of Ruin. Double Fine’s VR spin-off from peachy physic platformer Psychonauts arrived on PC last night, supporting Rift and Vive cybergoggles, following its debut on PlayStation VR in February 2017. It’s set right after Psychonauts, bridging the gap to the upcoming full sequel Psychonauts 2, and looks a little something like this: (more…)


Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, the PlayStation VR-exclusive new chapter of Double Fine's adventure game series, is now available for other virtual reality devices.

Launched for PSVR in February 2017, Rhombus of Ruin is now available for PC to play on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

A sort-of sequel to the original Psychonauts, Rhombus of Ruin can also be played as a standalone story. It's a decent return for the series, though, before the launch of the full Psychonauts 2 for PC and consoles - expected sometime next year.

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Tim Schafer will receive this year's prestigious BAFTA Fellowship prize, following in the footsteps of John Carmack, Gabe Newell and Shigeru Miyamoto.

The Monkey Island writer/programmer and Double Fine founder will pick up his gong at 2018's British Academy Games Awards, held this year on Thursday, 12th April.

"I am surprised, humbled, and honored to be receiving the BAFTA Fellowship this year," Schafer said. "BAFTA's long-standing support of video games and championing of creativity and strong storytelling in that medium have had an extremely positive impact and I'm very grateful to be recognised."

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The Humble Store is holding a huge Double Fine sale today. The sale runs through 10 a.m. Pacific (1 p.m. Eastern) tomorrow, Thursday, January 25, and includes games that the studio both developed and published. You can find all the games in question by searching for Double Fine in the store, or by following this link. Here are some of the best games and discounts available:  

Some online stores give us a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Read our affiliate policy for more info. 


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