ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

A Prayer for Psygnosis —

For about a year in 1994 I had the pleasure of working for a video game company called Psygnosis, based in Liverpool but with offices all around, including Cambridge, MA. I was called in for a temp job, and the temp job was doing tech support for Psygnosis. I worked with a fellow named Chris Caprio and for a guy named Jim Drewry. My job was to be one of two people who would take phone calls from the tech support number for Psygnosis USA and help people with their problems. I remember the first time Chris sat with me by the phone and let me answer the call. If I ran into problems, he’d be there to help. The woman was quiet but not yelling or screaming, and I knew it’d be a breeze.

“Why are there satanic symbols in Lemmings?” she asked.

I went on hold and went “Ha ha, she wants to know about the satanic symbols in Lemmings. She’s kidding right?”

Chris said “Well, no, there are in fact satanic symbols in Lemmings. Offer to exchange it for Creepers.”

And so it began! I was employed there for about a year, before Sony (who at that point had already purchased Psygnosis) came in and closed the office, laying a lot of people off, spreading a few to California and England, and bringing a chapter to a close way sooner than I’d hoped. The development guy at Psygnosis USA, Mark Tsai, offered me a job as art director at his new video game start up, Focus Studios, and I took it. That too lasted about a year and I got out of the video game business entirely at that point.

But here’s the thing. Working at Psygnosis, from the inside, was the capstone of a relationship with Psygnosis Games, and with video games on the whole, throughout my young life. Like a lot of kids my age, I played video games. A lot. A scary lot. Like, farther and further and over the top than probably was healthy for anyone. I was blessed with the advantage of being there right at the beginning, when concepts were truly new, and games like Centipede and Pac-Man and Crazy Climber were the first of their kind, before they were nailed into genres and classifications and all that sort of post-partum garbage that happens to an industry as it matures. In my mind, I can still remember those first times walking into the arcade, with the newest offering of video games, and going “What the hell is Zaxxon? And why is the up and down reversed on the joystick?”

When the Amiga showed up and we were all huddling around our friends’ screens to see this amazing thing (Hi, Jiro!) What blew me away personally was that first time witnessing Shadow of the Beast II. The music, the sound, that opening theme with the scrolling background with multiple levels…. this made me crumble inside that I had seen it all in video games. Here was this incredible graphics and sound explosion coming out of a home computer! And there was that weird name, Psygnosis, right at the front, with that strange owl and unusual letters. The work, by the way, of none other than Roger Dean, he of the Yes Album covers and many other great art.

Psygnosis got and continued to get my attention. As luck would have it, I somehow magically avoided their lemons and saw only the best of the best from their people: The Killing Game Show, Infestation, Lemmings… people would complain later that the gameplay took a back seat to the beauty and the look, but you know what? I was a teenager, I didn’t care. There was just something about those otherworldly logos and box artwork and feel… you just were somewhere else with these people.

So by the time I’d found out the company that needed me for a temp job with friggin’ Psygnosis, oh man, you could imagine how I felt. And on the whole, I had an absolutely fantastic time! There were little fights here and there and there were the usual conflicts, but we were truly a team, a company aimed towards a goal and bent on getting these games out to people. I was there when the first Playstation (we got a blue one) showed up, and we were watching all the protoype Wipeout and Destruction Derby and Lemmings 3D games. I was an insider, at least feeling like I was.

I learned the video game industry (on the management and inter-company level) took a look at the ruthlessness and backstabbing of the Record and Movie industries and said “We can optimize that process.” But down on the level we were at, we just had a great time. Also, I’m sure the experience of working with/for Psygnosis over in England was entirely different from those of us in the Colonies; there’s even a support group out there for ex-employees and I’ve heard some pretty wild stories.

One of my colleagues was a young artist, really depressed at the end, named Daniel Robbins, who first got himself hired when he saw a Psygnosis employee playing frisbee wearing an Owl shirt. He went over and introduced himself, and joined up. By the end of our time together, he was so depressed… I assumed when he moved away to the southwest he’d just end his own life and that’d be the end of it and I’d miss him. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Sony, being the rat bastards they are, wanted to kill the Psygnosis Mystique as fast as they could, and wanted to rename them to Sony Psygnosis and then later Sony Computer Entertainment of Europe (SCEE). And get rid of the damn owl. This was eventually accomplished, but years and years after I was gone, thank goodness.

It’s always poor hyperbole to call a year or two of your life “the best time of your life” but I can definitely vouch that an awful lot else that has happened to me couldn’t come close. It was like the finishing school for my years spent in video games; I came away not so much embittered and cynical but able to put it into a part of my life, not overriding everything else. I saw a lot that made me feel sad at how those who Didn’t Understand could tarnish beautiful work, but on the other hand I saw how all it could take was a few people with intense energy to accomplish anything. It was worth it.

I liked my time there so much I couldn’t stand to see the Psygnosis name disappear forever. So I registered and started putting up all I could about the company. It’s woefully inadequate and incomplete, but I had to do something. It’s a low priority, of course, but over time I’ve tried to stock it up with artifacts, information and anything else I could find.

I really do miss that damn owl.

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