So you want to play a point-and-click adventure where the best puzzle is the plot? Welcome to Sanitarium (DreamForge Entertainment, 1998).
I’m not the biggest fan of point-and-click. I was brought up with text adventures and their graphical counterparts always seemed lacking somehow, too much more, not enough less. I played The Longest Journey and Dreamfall which left me feeling underwhelmed and disengaged, a chocolate cookie without enough bite. I shed no John Walker tears. I sometimes put this down to my time poverty, the pressing need to do shit and move on, unable to hit the pause button on life and let an experience breathe.
Sanitarium was one of those impulse retro purchases, like X-Com, where word-of-mouth plus near-zero cost equals sale. It boasts a plot. It mentions psychological horror. Something about riddles. Words written on it were generally positive but I avoided proper reviews to keep the experience shrink-wrap fresh. No spoilers here, people of the internet.
So, the game.
Sanitarium‘s key attraction and the reason I was thoroughly entertained, is the story and environment – which are linked at the hip. The game is remarkably restrained, refusing to explain every single plot point, quite the coup for the show-not-tell school of storytelling. I was reminded of Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, where the smallest hints of the overarching story were smuggled into background scenery. Sanitarium does that. It pays to pay attention; if you look for them, there are clues and connections everywhere, although you might not realise it until later in the game.
It was such a joy to journey through the smorgasbord of story, trying to solve the plot before it chose to reveal itself, even though that moment never came. Indeed, as an even greater testament to its writing, it never completely unfolded itself to the player. It simply kept handing out more and more obvious clues in the form of flashbacks. Show not tell.
If you don’t try to read between the lines, you might find it a delusional mish-mash of unconnected scenarios – which reveals its origins as a vast brainstorming session amongst the developers (for more details, see the interesting Gamasutra post-mortem, but only if you’ve played through). But there is a cohesive whole here, worth the price of admission.
The game is morbid, gruesome and tragic in turns. Perhaps the standout section is the unsettling village of deformed children early in the game. Sanitarium revels in spinning bizarre scenarios, set up as if they were eminently normal yet giving you no prior knowledge of the situation. You ask the children where all the adults are and what is… happening to their bodies: they look upon you with disgust, the puzzle piece that does not belong. It is you who are the deformed, reviled one.
You cannot die and you cannot get into an impossible situation. Any change you effect in the game is equivalent to progress and as it is not possible to make mistakes in this game, you will not need to load a previous save to undo your actions.
There are flaws with Sanitarium, of course. It suffers on occasion from puzzles based outside logic or common experience, forcing you to employ the click-trial-and-click-error approach to problem solving – if you can pick something up, then 99% of the time it is a usable something. Some items important for progress blend too easily into the background, and one act requires you to pick up “a stone” despite stones lying around everywhere. Manoeuvring the protoganist can be a bit tricky and slow. Talking to characters can often be repetitive, telling you much the same thing as the someone else. Speed reading saw me through. I skipped through much of the dialogue, thus listened to little of the voice acting, which was acceptable although some of it irritated.
This is not one about the graphics, this is one about understated writing and a collection of Twilight Zone-esque tales. It’s not the puzzles in the game – it’s the puzzle that is the plot.
Go play. It is currently available on Good Old Games.
Post-game buzz: Clever, memorable, worth the ride.