Sanitarium (1998)

I don’t like horror all that much. Or rather, I don’t like most of today’s movies that get labelled with that genre. Slasher films, splatter films, monster films, zombie films, and last and definitely least, torture porn… they all tend to take delight in the transgressive and the disgusting. That doesn’t mean all these films are bad or badly made (though many are), taking the easy way out (with jump scares and other shock effects), unconcerned with character development, and not concerned with a larger social/political agenda. But I just don’t have a taste for anything even resembling body horror. That goes for movies post-Code, it goes for television, and literature, and video games.

My dislike and general avoidance of those kinds of horror genre media products does not extend to more subtle, psychological horror (as long as it stays away from gore). Two of my favourite films I’ve reviewed for this blog (The Offence and Hangover Square) are arguably horror films in that they explore in detail some very dark recesses in the human mind. They’re not scary per se, but they are deeply unsettling.

So it was with some trepidation that I bought and then started playing Sanitarium. Billed as a horror adventure and looking from the screenshots more like an action RPG, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s a good thing I came around, because the game is much more like the second paragraph above than the first one.

At the start of the game, the player is led to believe that the protagonist (who is shortly named Max) is an inmate in a mental hospital, his head bandaged after an alleged break-out attempt involving a nurse and a car accident. He wakes up with no specific memory of who he is and why he was originally institutionalised; the bandages, naturally, represent his uncertain identity. The facility has been abandoned by its staff, leaving the other patients as Max’s only vectors for clues. They are not very helpful. In fact, the only halfway coherent speaker is a talking statue, who rambles on about children in danger, and eventually whisks Max away to the next chapter.

The game is structured into these chapters, typically alternating between showing Max in the mental institution and either placing him directly or having him experience other characters in increasingly surreal environments. It’s one of the joys of the game trying to make sense of it all. Are the “weird” chapters delusional episodes, like the doctors tell him? Or are they maybe more real than the asylum, despite their fantasy and science-fiction trappings? Is the protagonist crazy or a destiny-chosen hero or maybe a little bit of both? Is the storyline more akin to Jacob’s Ladder or What Dreams May Come or Inception or Total Recall or Donnie Darko?

The game’s puzzles – mostly dialogue- and inventory-based, but including more and more Myst-style logic puzzles as the game goes on – are not necessarily difficult, but sometimes tedious. Several puzzles require listening to and/or watching a particular sequence of events and repeating it in order; one puzzle in particular dispenses with the first part of that sentence and has the player guess at the correct order with only a sound effect telling the player when he or she has clicked the wrong object as a clue. There are also a couple of mazes, never a welcome component of an adventure as far as I’m concerned; one of the mazes has the annoying habit of suddenly blocking the character’s path, leading to lots of backtracking, and the other requires memorisation and precise maneuvering and is hampered by the not particularly precise controls.

But this is not a game one plays for the puzzles; they’re not challenging enough for that. For the most part, the puzzles are well-integrated into the storyline – the act of solving them even serves a thematic purpose –, and the story is where the game shines. Max’s story is revealed both via cryptic flashbacks and via the symbolism of the environments and people he encounters on his way. There may at first appear to be no rhyme or reason as to why the player sometimes switches characters to control a little girl or an even more fantastical being on his adventures, but it all serves the story, and it all makes sense in the end.

The story is complemented by a truly gripping atmosphere that draws the player in. The game’s low resolution and low-fi graphics (compared to modern high-budget games, not the adventures I’ve reviewed so far), if they have any impact at all, probably help more than they hurt (especially so in one level featuring disfigured children, which might have otherwise triggered my body horror aversion). The isometric visual design is highly unusual for a point-and-click adventure, but it works in the game’s favour by making its environments more intricate and unpredictable. I don’t think the locations – which range from creepy to just plain weird – could have been depicted as well and with as much atmosphere via a more typical progression of flat 2D screens. The controls also help: instead of clicking where you want the protagonist to go, you have to click near the character and drag him across the environment. This sort of intermediate form of control over the player character – neither direct via the keyboard nor indirect by telling him what to do – has symbolic significance and matches the sort-of-but-not-quite control Max has over his various adventures. It also forces the player to pay more attention to the ground; and the ground, and what grows or has been built on it, is important.

The controls/pathfinding could be tweaked, in some cases the game is a little too on the nose with its wider themes, the voice-acting is spotty (the main character’s actor must have been a friend of the producers because he can’t have gotten the job via audition), and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) the game could actually have been a little creepier in places, but those are minor quibbles. There are a few action scenes, but they’re not hard to beat (in the most difficult one, the monster retains any damage you’ve dealt it in prior run-throughs), and the tedious puzzles mentioned above rarely go on significantly too long, either. So I give Sanitarium high marks for how unusual it is and how consistently it channels that unusualness into a serious, engaging, ten-hour game experience. It’s not without humour, but that clearly takes a backseat to a story about death, disease, and madness.

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