Psygnosis: In Requiem

In 1993 things were changing. A company, previously unknown for developing consoles, had made decisions to push ahead with something called PlayStation and, quite seriously, they re-wrote history.

Sony’s development of the PlayStation involved them acquiring experienced players in the development and publishing industry. Ensuring that quality products would be available at and close to launch and, for me, one of the most influential of these was Psygnosis.

Before being acquired by Sony, Psygnosis already had a solid track record, trailing back to the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 but being truly forged with the Amiga. Their distinctive owl logo already standing for quality and design, so much that they formed the spearhead of the consoles launch in the UK with the first of a series of games: Wipeout.

Wipeout CoverartWipeout was a launch title for PlayStation in Europe as Sony took their console to a different market, the rave scene. At the time I worked as a head of security at rave venues and, in the eight plus hours of continuous drum and base, the chill-out rooms gave some reprieve on the breaks – rooms filled with PlayStations and games of Wipeout.

It wasn’t just the underground electronica acts providing the beat of the game, but the bright colours, concept and style that appealed. The attractive, even sexy, intro sequence of engines bursting into power to push your ship forward, the Designer Republic’s hands across the graphical assets and the idea that there was a story behind what was simply… a racer.

To be honest, without that launch strategy, the criticisms against Wipeout may have been stronger. Wipeout is one of my favourite game series, but even I can recognise the inherent difficulty of the game, stemming, in the main, from wall collisions bringing your ship to a shuddering halt. The impact of the launch, the fact the game became the racing game to own, secured the series; and whilst issues levelled at Wipeout 2097 being too easy also hold, this is a discussion for another time.

As well as concentrating on gameplay experience, Psygnosis considered the story in a way that had never been possible before on consoles. The disc format allowed for dedicated and longer sequences of Full Motion Video, capturing the audience as never before; and if there was one thing Psygnosis knew, it was how to spin a good yarn.

Of particular note were games like the Colony Wars series. Especially the initial two games acting as the play and counter-play of one particular drawn out combat. Memorable scenes and voice overs adding to the 3D space simulation experience, multi-ship battles adding agency to the experience, because you understood just how desperately you were fighting for freedom, and branched story paths to add degrees of re-playability.

G-Police CoverartIndeed their piece-de-resistance was G-Police a game that not only had intense gameplay, as your jetcopter patrolled from dome to dome across Mars, but had such a complex and multi-layered plot about corruption that you couldn’t help but be absorbed. The fact that (spoiler warning) the programmers and developers had actually added your wing pilot being shot down into the game – an event which was meant to occur while you were miles away, dealing with another crisis, and I stumbled across because I was lost – showing the dedication of a team who wanted to get every element right.

At their height even Psygnosis’ more limited games, like Rollcage, spawned sequels and in the modern age, where open development is one of the keys, you definitely felt that they listened to the public response. Wip3out being a fine example.

With an increased demand for content and the need to push the PlayStation to its limits even this team faltered towards its end days. G-Police: Weapons of Justice was a shadow of the original game and Colony Wars: Red Sun bravely tried to take the series in a more Elite style direction; ultimately lacking because the processing power needed for this brave endeavour was simply more than the PlayStation could handle.

All dreams come to an end and, as Sony merged assets towards the launch of the PlayStation 2 (PS2), the name Psygnosis died, but its legacy went on. With the new company named SCE Studio Liverpool they continued certain franchises – almost killing Wipeout on the PS2 with Fusion and then salvaging the whole series on the PlayStation Portable – but also being behind a number of other successful, but realistically, less complex narrative based games.

With the final closure of Studio Liverpool in 2012, talking about the original Psygnosis is like the final soliloquy of the heady days of change. Fans wondering what will happen to the Wipeout franchise and left with the tantalising message… “We are alive!”

Many of Psygnosis games are available to buy, or pick up second hand in the bargain/bins of the world, and if you like retro gaming I still heartily recommend G-Police, both Colony War games, Rollcage and, of course, the first three Wipeout games as fine examples of a company at their best.