Sanitarium
Review By: Joe

I've recently realized that, interestingly (or boringly if you're not a geek) that video games, at least the ones on systems that hook up to TVs, basically evolved in the total opposite way that film did. Film, when it was starting out, borrowed a good lot of its ideas from the theatre, which is a very writing-centric (and lame-oriented) medium which was very much birthed from the novel. Many early films (and some more recent ones that nobody watches) were adaptations of plays and were filmed as such, with lots of static shots and people not so much talking to each other as taking turns rattling off monologues. But, gradually, it was realized that this was a very different medium that allowed for very novel things and, thanks in no small part to a pro-KKK production (hey, that's history), films began to take advantage of their ability to present their own unique take on the narrative form. So action began replacing massive amounts of expository dialogue and scenes stopped being so stationary as filmmakers began to understand how helpful it could be to move the camera around and edit footage to make action and conversation more interesting and dynamic. As a result, by and by, action garnered more importance than dialogue and the medium evolved from the tense, compelling drama of such films as 12 Angry Men to the cacophonous, vapid splendor of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Video games, contrarily, started off as pure action. We might as well go with Pong as an example of one of the first video games ever and that was an entirely reflexes-based affair, the complexity of it never extending beyond "use this stick-like thing to block that ballish thing because if it goes off the edge of the screen that's bad." Pac-Man was an easily graspable, somewhat nerve-wracking eat-or-be-eaten scenario. (There were the little interstitials in-between some levels, but we can hardly say they added up to a deep storyline.) If we look at Atari, the games were pretty much just ugly little collections of pixels featuring a few elements you could manipulate, usually with the goal of killing things whilst avoiding getting killed by them yourself. Games on the Nintendo began to introduce more story, but the majority still handled whatever little narrative there was with tiny bits of dialogue (e.g. "THANK YOU MARIO! BUT OUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE!") or text crawls that only appeared at the beginning ("NOW IT IS THE BEGINNING OF A FANTASTIC STORY! LET US MAKE A JOURNEY TO THE CAVE OF MONSTERS! GOOD LUCK!") and ending ("CONGRATULATIONS! BOBBY, AND BABBY. YOU SAVED YOUR LOVERS, 'BETTY AND PATTY AT LAST! BUT YOUR ADVENTURE IS NOT OVER YET..").


That don't come cheap!

PC games developed a fair bit differently as a result of their limitations. Because crafting graphics and sound worth a damn originally proved to be quite the challenge, many games took the form of text adventures (like the appropriately titled Adventure) -- lots of text telling you an imaginary situation you were in and then requesting you to type what action you would like to perform within it. They were basically interactive novels -- advanced Choose-Your-Own-Adventures. However, it wasn't long before rudimentary graphics found their way into the PC gaming world and more action-oriented games quickly arrived with them. As a result, by and by, the medium evolved from the obtuse, difficult puzzling of games like Zork to the cacophonous, tepid splendor of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - The Video Game.

But the transition period of (some) PC gaming -- from graphically absent story-driven gameplay to graphically heavy action-reliant gameplay -- was, at least by my standards, probably the most intriguing. Action and interactivity were being acknowledged as important, but, at the same time, story was a paramount concern and was never left by the wayside. It was a time at which taking a shot at seeing quirky, bizarre, and experimental narratives through was encouraged, even celebrated. It was a challenge -- a challenge that many developers approached in a number of different manners -- to take an ambitious storyline and figure out the best way to marry it with the action and interactivity of the medium.

As a result, during the 80s and the 90s, many companies (sometimes even those that had previously only focused on action or strategy gameplay) tried their hands at graphic adventure games -- those interactive experiences that championed using items or conversing with characters to solve puzzles in pursuit of progressing or enriching a narrative rather than jumping on or shooting waves of enemies in order to achieve a high score or to unlock a harder version of the same game. The juggernauts of the graphic adventure were, of course, the Lucasarts Entertainment Company (originally Lucasfilm Games) and Sierra On-Line. However, so many publishers and developers tried to tackle the genre that doing any bit of online research into adventure games during the era in which they were most prolific uncovers an, in my opinion, overwhelming catalog of titles. Like any other medium, a good portion of these are total crap, plagued with such issues as poorly-conceived gameplay, ridiculously obscure puzzle solutions, or just plain unintriguing narratives. Still, many of them are stunningly unique experiences. As companies were always feeling out the best way to do adventure games, very few of them achieve anything near perfection (and, honestly, some are quite heavily flawed), but, issues notwithstanding, many of these games were trying something entirely new and some of them have presented concepts and experiences that one can find little comparison to in video games of the current generation. So, let's talk about Sanitarium, yeah?


The original title was Eyeface. (Note: The original title was not Eyeface.)

The beauty of these insane Internet times we live in, wow, is that games that were created with the earwax, sweat, and inhaler solution of a veritable calvacade of geeks and that at one time cost four and a half allowances are now floating around in cyberspace, the companies that produced them now defunct and the cost lowered to an eighth of a paycheck (or free, if you must...). It'd almost be sad if it wasn't so convenient and economical! Case in point, one website I heartily endorse (and I'm not even getting royalties or anything!) is Good Old Games (GOG.com). This is where I grabbed, and you too can also do a grabbing of, Sanitarium for, currently, the ripe old price of 10 American depression dollars.

Sanitarium follows the story of a gent who is listening to rock music on his car radio far too loudly and is punished for indulging in the devil's tuneage with brake failure. His car runs off the side of the road and, next thing he knows, he's woken up in a nightmarish insane asylum, his face is totally bandaged (save his eyes -- you don't bandage eyes, silly), and he can't remember his name or much else. So, obviously, it's up to you to solve the mysteries of who this fellow is and why and how he's ended up in this shitdicament. Now I recognize that, from this little introduction, the game might not sound that unique. The idea of memory loss is a tried-and-true gameplay opener. After all, it's a decent way to remove at least a smidgen of the awkward fourth wall shattering introduction of gameplay mechanics ("Ah, yes, it's all coming back to me! I have to hit 'A' once then hit it again in mid-air to butt bounce!"). However, Sanitarium sticks with this narrative tactic throughout the majority of the game, handling it carefully and introducing clever elements so that the storyline generally remains intriguing and doesn't feel too gimmicky.

First off, we've got the story's main gimmick (I know I just said it doesn't feel too gimmicky, but it's a gimmick, plain and simple), which is that our protagonist isn't just forgetful, but also quite troubled. What this means is that the game is broken up into different worlds based on the many nutty brain fancies of our leading man. The first level, after the initial stint in the asylum, is a decaying town inhabited solely by children. Later on, you get to visit a freaky circus, some kind of ancient Mayan (or Incan -- I dunno, those two things kind of run together for me) society, and some wacky sci-fi world featuring giant bugs and cyclopsi. The best aspect of these worlds and, really, one of the best aspects of Sanitarium on the whole, is the way all this madness is introduced.


Crazy house? Funny house!

If there's one thing this game understands, it's the importance of not showing all its cards at once. This concept is especially relevant for video games; as it's up to the player to do the footwork (or mousework) needed to unearth all the story's mysteries and secrets, it's all the more rewarding when new information is revealed. It's really cool (it is, dammit) to actually be Sherlock, exercising your own intuition, rather than just being a witness to him doing clever crap (hence why there are Sherlock Holmes adventure games). As Sanitarium recognizes this, it's confident in leaking information to you slowly and subtlely. This might not seem too impressive, but I can't stress enough how poorly handled this often is in video games. For example, I recall reading multiple reviews of Beyond Good & Evil (which, don't get me wrong, is still a fantastic game), which mentioned that the story had a great scope and was just chock full of twists. Playing it, however, I discovered there was really only one twist about the nature of the antagonists in the game. It came maybe about halfway through and then, from that point on, there was nothing shocking or surprising introduced (unless you count the revelation that some of the bad stuff happening was happening ON THE MOON as a twist, but I choose to label that as less "a twist" and more "retarded"). Another example is Dead Space, which I haven't played but a friend of mine did and explained to me that it has a story which hinges its climax on a twist. However, it was so blatantly foreshadowed throughout that, by the time he reached the twist, the only reason he felt at all surprised was that something he'd realized long before was being presented as though it was supposed to be shocking. It also had the effect of making the protagonist come off as particularly dense and oblivious.

Sanitarium is big on the whole "leaping into different mental worlds" concept, but it's fairly crafty in how it does it. The insane asylum acts as a base of sorts. Every time you complete one crazy mental level, you do a shorter level within the world of the (admittedly also strange, but still most steeped in reality) asylum. Returning to this somewhat more normal (y'know, for an insane aslyum) environment and back to your character's default body keeps everything from going off the rails on a crazy train, to use common 80s metal venacular. I say there's a default body because not only do you jump to different world-things, you also end up playing as a couple of different characters: a little girl, a cyclops, and a Mayan god. Now, again, the introduction of these characters and their worlds is really well done as the game presents them to you gradually in an intelligent manner. The first time you enter one of the non-insane asylum worlds, your character's form doesn't change. He looks exactly the same with his blue mental patient gown and bandaged up head and all. Following this level, you return to the asylum before jumping into another wacky mind world so, in other words, it's not until the fourth "level" that you embody some other character. It's quite a brilliant way to ease the player into it and also keep things varied. You get to learn about the lead character specifically for three levels straight and even guide him through one of the non-asylum levels, but they don't throw the body-jumping stuff at you from the getgo. It's just one more thing that's a testament to Sanitarium's above average plotting and pacing.

Even though the subject matter of the game is quite fantastical, the story manages to remain mostly grounded by virtue of the fact that, although you appear to be in the body of a little girl or a mythical creature, gameplay is periodically interrupted by brief cutscenes that give glimpses of the lead guy's past throughout. In this way you're reminded that, although the story is leaping from locales like a creepy circus to an ancient Mayan city, you're still playing inside of just one person's head. The flashbacks also serve as one of the elements that give the game an overarching goal of piecing together the character's past and psyche. Again, the presentation of this information is done in a gradual, semi-infrequent manner. For example, you don't even learn that the guy you're controlling is named Max until the second chapter. And I again can't stress enough how classy it is that the info is withheld for a time or, in some cases, the screwed-up stuff going on in Max's head doesn't get a full, explicit explanation. To wit, there are recurring themes of children being abused and exploited. There's enough content to allow for one to conjecture about what Max's issues with kids are and where they might stem from, but I don't believe the game ever points to one comprehensive answer. Leaving things open to interpretation is sorta kinda how art works and is, sadly and quite simply, something of a rarity in games.

The way a game's atmosphere is handled is important because a good storyline can crumble if the mood isn't there to support it. Luckily, Sanitarium (mostly) excels at this too. The game's mature nature becomes clear from the very moment you begin playing; one of the first things you'll see is a mental patient bashing his head into a wall, leaving a blood splotch behind. Stolen from Jacob's Ladder, perhaps, but effective nonetheless and, little wuss that I was as a child, when I started up a demo of this game for the first time a number of years ago, I deemed this content far too objectionable and quit the game with great haste! Anyway, to continue, the first several levels manage to be dark and a bit unsettling thanks to some disturbing character art (some very inspired deformed children, if I do say so myself) and gory details (corpses pepper the water in the circus level). The music isn't particularly memorable, but generally fits the feel of the game and goes some way toward making it all that much more unnerving.

What's unfortunate is that, considering the mood is rather well done, the times it fails stand out all the more starkly. I mentioned the cyclops and Mayan god levels before and, while I do understand how they fit the game's premise and agree that they add some variation, I have to say these were my least favorite sections. It's just that they contrast with the rest of the game a great deal. I suppose you could argue that the dark, weirdy atmosphere would get old if it colored every single level, but I still question whether these areas couldn't have been presented just a bit better somehow. But these aren't the biggest offenses to the game's atmosphere. No, that would be the voice acting.

I read a developer's retrospective take on the game and he admitted that budget had to be cut somewhere and, with Sanitarium, it was cut from the voices. The way the dialogue is read is nearly across the board awkward, stilted, and lame. There's nothing creepy about overacting and flat delivery! Max's voice actor is just as bad as those of all the ancillary characters; he puts questionable emphasis on words sometimes ("Looks like some sort of general store.") and seems to get suddenly angry at moments that don't exactly warrant it ("Damn useless crap!"). The latter eccentricity could perhaps be attributed to the developers attempting to make us unsure if Max is someone we want to side with or really is just a nut, but I'm not sure they wanted him to come off quite as mad as he does when he does things like brags to a little deformed girl about how much better than her he is at tic-tac-toe. Now, it's worth mentioning that the game does throw quite a lot of dialogue at you and it more or less all sounds like shit, but every bit of it comes up in big chunks in a window at the bottom of the screen so I, and I would suggest you do the same, would always read it all quickly and then click past the crappy voicing.

Sometimes, however, the atmospheric failures are the result of writing that wouldn't work even if competent actors read it out. While I do believe that the game's narrative is overall impressively executed and well-structured, on a line-to-line basis, it's nothing special and, at times, it's cringe-worthy. It's another issue of contrasts in mood. I'm sure these guys played Lucasarts adventure games with their wisecracking characters and they thought "Hey, our characters should say funny stuff to lighten the mood sometimes too!" but the attempts at humor are ill-advised and seem out of place. Recall the man bashing his head into the wall I referenced earlier? Well, if you examine him, Max remarks: "Diagnosis: crazy." Ho ho, Max! You just suffered severe head trauma and have woken up in a nightmarish nuthouse with horribly dark depictions of humanity at every turn, but you're still in the mood for deadpan comedy! Also, in the circus level you play as a little girl and if you have her look at the floating corpses surrounding the place? "Yuck." I'm not sure what I'd say if I were a little girl in such a situation, but I suspect I'd be a touch more traumatized.


Yuck!

Now, although I just listed a number of negatives, I need to make clear that any disappointment with these aspects of the game come from the fact that it normally manages a coherent, well-told, dark narrative, which is something few other titles come anywhere close to. But this is where I have to come clean. When it gets down to it, I gotta say that the only reason to check out Sanitarium is the storyline and atmosphere. You might've noticed I hadn't mentioned the gameplay up until this point and that's because, when it comes to actual playability, Sanitarium is effectively a bad game.

It's not anything ridiculous like the interface being flawed. It wasn't an early adventure title, so it's got a completely serviceable and easy enough to grasp point-and-click system. No, it fails where most adventure games do -- puzzles. According to the article I read about Sanitarium's development, the decision was at some point made to make the game less difficult so that it could be more about enjoying the storyline fluidly. As the game actually has a story worth a damn, I can see where they were coming from, but, in practice, it generally makes for uninteresting puzzles. The Mayan level, for example, is the worst as it's really just one giant fetch quest of doing favors for people and getting items from characters, then bringing them to other characters.

Beyond that, the game commits other cardinal sins by having selective logic. Like in the second level, when you're given a crowbar, you can only use it in a specific situation and are still forced to find keys to open doors. I've decided that (except for maybe Day of the Tentacle) adventure games should never give you a crowbar because as soon as they do your immediate question is "Why doesn't this work on everything?" Considering the gameplay of Sanitarium is often quite straightforward (to the point of being a bit mundane at times), these moments of crapfusion are all the more jarring. On top of this, there's enough pixel hunting for hotspots to click on that I can't say it's negligble. The latter two issues have an unholy marriage in one puzzle (which I will spoil for you now, but I honestly think it'll be better for all of us that way) where you need to find a single rock that is the only rock you can click on amidst a big collection of rocks and then you have to throw it at a church bell nearby. You are carrying any number of things that could, in theory, be chucked at the bell to make it sound and your only "hint" that it has to be the rock is that you pick it up near the church. So, what I'm saying here is that if adventure games have never been your thing, this game isn't going to change how you feel about them. In fact, it probably manages to trip into every pitfall that tends to inspire detractions against this genre.


This line of dialogue was unwisely cut from the final release.

The gameplay oddities of Sanitarium soldier onwards with the inclusion of action sequences. What!? Yes, action sequences. Remember how I said that Sanitarium is a title birthed from a transition period for PC adventure games? Well, these sequences are a clear example of that. They manage to feel extremely out of place, especially because there's only two or three of them. They're not difficult, they're short, and if you die you just reappear at the beginning of the sequence so I can't say they hugely damage the game. However, it's not like they're all that fun either. They also show up so infrequently that they're little more than an interesting attempt at infusing the gameplay with some variety that I imagine, on paper, was originally a lot more ambitious.

It comes down to this, friends. I like to play just plain good, solid games -- really, I do. I love me some Resident Evil 4 and Cave Story and all them Half-Lifes, but runaway gameplay successes are few and far between. Therefore, most of my gaming is spent experiencing titles that at least made the effort to try something interesting. Sanitarium might not seem hugely original at first glance -- like I said, the amnesia thing's been done many times over -- but if you're, like I am, the sort of person who wants to believe that video games can tackle complex narratives and deliver them in a smooth and engaging manner, I would reccommend giving this game a shot. Make no mistake -- it's not sparse on shortcomings. I'll say again that, without its atmosphere and narrative, this would just be a bad game. It alternates between being too easy and irritatingly unfair and it has random action parts for no reason. And, yes, sometimes it fails to live up to the mood and storyline as much as you'd hope for it to, but, for the most part, Sanitarium tells an intriguing story in a clever manner. And I can count the number of games I know that manage to pull that off on one hand.

Sanitarium isn't among my favorite games, but it is a game that I respect for what it does and what it tried to do. It's a far cry from a solid, immersive, narrative-driven gaming experience, but what it does right could be helpful in getting us there eventually.


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