STORY GAMES: "Sanitarium"
The fun part about this game is not that it is set inside a sanitarium where a man with amnesia has just awakened and is trying to put the pieces of his life back together in order to stop the "Machinations of the Evil and Unethical Dr. Morgan."

All that stuff is not only boring: it is old reconstituted vomit from the early days of comic books, and the tepid days of TV.

The fun part about this game is the WAY in which this man is delusional. The fun parts about this game are the scenarios you must pass through in order to help your "protagonist" gain "self-knowledge." They are silly, deranged, misguided, and sensuous. It's one thing to toss in all those horror tropes and psychosexual mush; it's another thing to create interesting mental snarls to overcome in order to make progress through mind and matter.

The game works best when the delightful crew of sick weirdos who designed it keep ratcheting up the intensity on the horrible things you must do to survive. Being numb to murder is part of the video game aesthetic since the days of invaders from space. But when you have to knock over a bookcase in order to crumple a brick wall in order to turn on the gas so that you can cremate a man with a glass eye in order to steal that glass eye so that you can read the man's last scratchings on a slab in the morgue where he was buried alive: that's when you are having a good time.

In this game you will play your own little sister Sarah who died when you couldn't find her doll fast enough, you will play a ten-foot-tall, four-armed comic book hero named "Grimwall" who HUNGERS FOR JUSTICE, and you will play the God Olmec, an incarnate deity summoned by the decimated population of a South American tribe to get revenge for their swarms of restless ghosts. These are all facets of a man's imagination, the avatars he uses to get by from day to day.

You will also burn up a barn-sized alien sponge that is turning a town's children into living vegetables and you will befriend a creature named "Timber, the Man Animal" in order to find a cave filled with giant squid that you must defeat by breathing fire at them (a trick you learned from an alcoholic carnie). Your "life" is never in peril here: you cannot be killed or injured. And yet, you never quite feel safe from the world's miseries and perils.

The game functions as a good metaphor for traumatic human experience. At first, each level seems too senseless and dangerous to cope with, and every time you try to impose reason you meet a dead end. But as you communicate with the inhabitants and learn the rules, the logic of each hell begins to make sense, and you begin to gain power and influence in the region.

But then you must pass on, searching after your ultimate destiny: transcendence, awakening, and sanity.

The choices that move you forward -- choices like love, mercy, forgiveness, courage, and hope -- impose a Thomistic, simple morality on the worlds you will traverse, which I found ultimately unlikable, saccharine, and difficult to believe. I would have enjoyed this game much more if each scenario in our protagonist's fevered mind had a different ethical code to decipher, resulting in the realization that man's lot is more mix-and-match than universal, and that the mutability of surroundings leads to a plastic heart and plastic gut.

Which leads us back to that age-old philosophical chestnut: must you act morally in a dream, if you know it is a dream? Is not morality always contingent on the strength of your epistemological plumb-bob?

"Sanitarium" does contain a highest level reality. You are a psychiatrist who has been working on a cure for an airborn version of pediatric AIDS, and you have made a deal with a corrupt pharmaceutical company for funding. The pharmaceutical company wants you to come up with a way to keep the illness in check through some kind of profitable pill that must be taken daily (or twice daily), but you feel like there must be a way to cure the disease altogether. One thing leads to another, you end up in a brutal car accident, and your mind snaps, making you a target to be disposed of.

The game is fraught with Freudian imagery and concepts, but not in a way that you can take seriously. Somebody was reading Freud and giggling. The grotesqueries in this game are parodies of psychology, befitting the shadow realm of a mental health professional. There is a bad Mother and a bad Father, and you have to deal with both of them in order to SAVE THE CHILDREN. Here is you taking care of Mother with a length of wire and an electric generator:

And here is Father, coming home from work:

Those malformed children in the pits are converted into biological energy by being burned alive in a giant bubbling cauldron of human goo, kept hot by hosts of sociopathic insects. It is troubling. But funny!

Ultimately, the game suffers by being too easy 90% of the time and nearly impossible the other 10% of the time -- impossible because your mouse casually drifts over the correct pixel and you disregard it, letting it slip from your field of awareness, damning you to blithering, gibbering ignorance. You will spend a lot of time backtracking while you hunt for shit you missed, which is tedious.

The game is pretty short otherwise, and not very difficult. All the items you will collect have only one purpose, and you can figure them out without much cogitation. The game boils down to "do the next damn thing, no matter how grim or gruesome."

I liked "Sanitarium." I had fun playing it. In places it was beautiful; in places it was emotional. But it wasn't quite art. It was a little bit too dead, a little bit too spare, and a little bit too manipulative. Like an unethical psychological experiment, shocking and painful without much of a point.

Posted by miracle on Fri, 03 Oct 2008 14:01:54 -0400 -- permanent link

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