Sanitarium is part of a literary sub-genre of point and click adventures that aspires to be something a little more than slapstick with puzzles. Don’t get me wrong - I like Monkey Island as much as the next guy, and I’m sure Sanitarium’s developers did, too. There’s nothing wrong with comedy adventures, but with such a narrow route through this kind of game and so little room for improvisation, why not tell a story with grander designs?
Sanitarium follows in the footsteps of Roger Zelazny’s Chronomaster and Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. While it doesn’t have a specific author’s name above its title it wears its influences on its sleeve. This is a world of twisted pustulant horror, of Lovecraft, King, Matheson and Bradbury. There might as well be a sign on the box before you: You are now entering the Twilight Zone.
One hundred minutes is enough time to take in one of Sanitarium’s tales of dread, for this is an anthology game that serves up vignettes of terror to flesh out the over-arcing backbone of its main plot. You play Max, a man who’s uncovered a terrible secret but who might also be losing his mind. After skidding off the edge of a cliff in the opening cut scene you wake wreathed in bandages, imprisoned in a burning asylum. It’s possible you’re an inmate here, and it’s possible you tried to escape, but in Sanitarium the truth is never that simple, and you’ll soon find yourself wondering if anything you encounter is real - including yourself.
Rarely has a game tackled such themes so successfully. Amnesia and the nature of reality are hoary clichés in video games, but Sanitarium blends them deftly into a cocktail of horror and intrigue. The asylum interior you wake up in is a gothic torture chamber full of stained glass, smoke and gibbering patients. The power generator’s on fire and a klaxon sounds, riling the inmates into further paroxysms of madness. It might look familiar - atmospherically it shares a lot with Batman’s Arkham Asylum - and it is place both outlandish and intimidating. Yet presiding over the whole affair is a stone effigy of an angel, out of place and bathed in an eery tranquility. It’s mere presence is enough to make you question the nature of this place, and make you want to find out more about it. As much as it chills the very marrow in your bones - and it does - Sanitarium also brings out the private detective in you. You’ll dig through files and pore over newspaper clippings, attempting to make sense of the world around you and your place within it.
As you approach the statue candles at it’s base flare to life. There are file hidden inside the guard station that refers to an ancient Incan key found on the hospital’s construction site. There’s clearly more at work here.
You might think you’d be prepared for whatever comes next. You’d be wrong.
The angel comes to life, envelopes you in her wings, and transports you into the gibberings of a mental patient. You found one of your fellow inmates rocking in his cell, muttering about his mother and how she punished him for stealing a piece of pumpkin pie. Now you wake inside his twisted delusion.
And I want to make this absolutely clear: this is no Psychonauts revery. I loved Psychonauts. I loved its imagination, and how the occasional dark wave lapped at its day-glow cheeriness. But if Sanitarium has such an ocean then the town the angel takes you to is drowned beneath it. Oh, it looks idyllic, and there are children playing on the swings, and skipping and drawing on the pavement in chalk. But the skipping girl has two wooden legs, the girl with the chalk has half a face, and there are roots and branches protruding from every crack in every building, snapping slats and window glass and floorboards and dragging the entire town down into the soil.
I wasn’t expecting this from a game. Video games tend to feature a standard brand of Hollywood horror. They borrow a little from the Alien movies, a little from Romero’s Living Dead films, and a little more from Japanese imports like The Ring and The Eye. They tend not to stray outside their comfort zone, and so their horror is built upon gore and shocks.
Sanitarium is a game built upon dread, not cheap spook-house frights. The asylum angel takes you to a town filled with mutated children, and it resonates in the most unpleasant of ways. You feel bad for the children, and yet you’re afraid of them. When you ask what happened to their parents they giggle and tell you Mother took them away. When you press them further they turn away, voices trembling, and tell you they can’t tell you - that they mustn’t, or else Mother will put them in the pumpkin patch.
The pumpkin patch becomes a place of mythic dread. You have to solve puzzles before you can reach it and when you do you find a little girl guarding the gates. Her eyes have been torn out and she has the body of a worm; she’s scared of Mother because Mother did this to her; more than that, she’s scared for you.
At the bottom of the village there’s a ring of children dancing around a large pumpkin, and as they dance they sing a song that drives you from them screaming, your hands covering your ears.
But the graveyard’s the worst place. The graveyard, where children shouldn’t be, where children shouldn’t play. Where you find Lumpy, a human wedge whose voice is garbled, whose head and face are sunk into his shoulders. He waddles about and is curiously upbeat, but his cheeriness adds to the revulsion. He’s less like a character designed for a video game and more like something ripped from Tod Browning’s Freaks. I expected him to point and chant “One of us!” at me, but what happened next was much worse.
You see, the children challenged me to a game of hide and seek. I accepted, and they split up and ran across the map in search of hiding places. One by one I tracked them down, but once I’d found them all and claimed my prize they told me I hadn’t found all of them, because I hadn’t found their ‘secret weapon’.
I talked to the other children in town about this ‘weapon’ and what it might be, and with mounting horror I realised the only child I hadn’t found and tagged was a little girl called Carol. I hadn’t found her because her father had beaten her to death a year previously, and because now she resided in the cemetery, beneath the hallowed dirt. In order to win this game of hide and seek I’d have to dig her up.
This isn’t a cartoony game. It isn’t caricatured. It’s grimy and it’s nasty, and by God, I didn’t want to excavate a little girl’s corpse. But that’s Sanitarium for you. Every step of the way you’ll question your sanity, not because you’re combining rubber chickens with pulleys, or trying to burst an inflatable rubber duck in some obtuse puzzle, but because it makes you do things like this. It makes you dig up dead children.
I did it, of course. And once I’d done so Lumpy, that little human nightmare, propped her up in the back of his Radio Flyer cart and wheeled her around town. She might have been dead, but she was still his friend. He still wanted to play with her.
Over the course of that first story I found Carol’s diary charting her father’s abuse, and uncovered what happened to all the adults, and why the children were all deformed. I also solved a clutch of traditional adventure game puzzles, and while most of them were fairly straightforward I did on occasion have to go pixel-hunting. There was also an ill-advised action sequence when I finally braved the pumpkin patch - but none of this subtracted from the game’s atmosphere.
The truth is, I haven’t seen anything so inherently creepy in a game in years. Sanitarium comes from a bye-gone age of experimentation, where the rules as to what you could and could not include in a horror game were not yet set - but it might as well come from another dimension. The stories that influenced Sanitarium weren’t created to jolt popcorn from teenagers’ hands, but to give people of all ages sleepless nights. The artwork, voice acting and animation might be crude compared to modern games like Dead Space, but Lumpy’s sunken head and rambling gait as he stumbled around, dragging the foetid corpse of his friend behind him will remain with me longer than any of those identikit monster-closet scares. This is Shadows over Innesmouth. This is In the Mouth of Madness. This is The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril and The Homecoming, and a thousand other stories of true horror that have been passed over in favour of phallic monsters and cheap scares.
And this is only the first story in Sanitarium’s macabre anthology. As the chapter ended I found myself back in the asylum courtyard, standing beside a patient wearing furry bear slippers, wondering if what I’d seen was only a delusion and if I was truly going mad.
One hundred minutes down and I’m certain Sanitarium will throw up further nightmares to unsettle my sleep. Frankly, I can’t wait.