Lo-Fi Let’s Play: The Institute

I’ve been doing a series of Let’s Play videos exploring old adventures, text games and lost design forms from the 1980s Apple IIe and Commodore 64 era. In a time when young men shout over new action games, I will talk softly over strange old ones. Come along on a visitation of a different era that’s one part meditations on my childhood, one part adventure game criticism, and one part preservation effort. Bonus: Everyone says the quiet talk, lo-fi handmade feel and keyboard tapping triggers ASMR responses. Please enjoy!

Following on from last week’s Colonel’s Bequest — definitely the ‘best’ computer game this series has looked at — I decided to continue a ‘scary games’ theme for October. Searching for niche titles that don’t already have a major following, I looked into The Uninvited, A Personal Nightmare and even the original Alone in the Dark. The first two I couldn’t quite get to run reliably (advice on how to use a MiniMac for Uninvited, please!), and the latter was, I’m afraid, too tedious for me to want to record.

We’ll be playing The Institute this week — a terrible game in the mold of the “Other-ventures” we’ve seen from Jyym Pearson and Norm Sailer (here joined by Jyym’s wife Robyn), such as Curse of Crowley Manor, which is also scary, and which I like. The Institute takes place in an oppressive mental health facility before taking a hard right into a hallucinogenic nightmare. Like Pearson’s previous work, it’s uncommonly dark for a crude 1983 computer game.

It’s also overtly offensive in its imagery and illustrations of mental health problems, as so many ‘scary’ video games unfortunately are. The Institute is clumsy and not especially graphic — its fumbling around the issues seems comic to me through the lens of history, but nonetheless if you’re sensitive to that sort of imagery or may be triggered by it, please sit this one out and take care of yourself.

Also, there’s something weirdly Timothy Leary-vintage about The Institute that I think is… curious? Funny? Yeah, kind of funny. Like “The Institute” isn’t really a healthcare facility, it’s a reconditioning center for dissidents. You young mind voyager, The Man is trying to keep you down! Don’t let him iron out your wrinkles, man. I think. It reminds me of a short story I wrote in junior high school about how I had to rescue my crush from a psychiatric hospital because nobody understood him but me. Brrr.

I hoped going ahead with this LP could catalyze a chat about tropes: Games like The Institute are the reason for this month’s annual Asylum Jam, which challenges people to develop games and game concepts that avoid stereotypes of these settings.

What computer games did you find scary when you were a kid? Did they manage to freak you out without going full-on with the “crazy house” stereotypes?

The entire Lo-Fi Let’s Play series is available and regularly updated at my YouTube channel if you’d like to subscribe, but my friends at RPS are graciously syndicating them here from now on, with some additional written analysis and commentary.


  1. timzania says:

    Probably the easiest way to get Uninvited running on a modern Mac Mini would be to find the DOS version and run it in DOSBox.

    • Leigh Alexander says:

      That’s what I did initially, actually, but it was unpleasant — bad colors, freezing at certain points, etc.

    • Premium User Badge

      Hodge says:

      Yeah that’s probably the easiest, but unfortunately the DOS version looks terrible compared to all the others.

      Out of all the versions listed there I reckon the Amiga and/or Atari ST ones would command the sweet spot between ‘easy to set up’ and ‘doesn’t look and play like arse’. I could possibly lend a hand with setting up the Amiga one in FS-UAE if Leigh (or anyone else) wants to give it a shot.

    • Yglorba says:

      Uninvited also has a NES version which would be easy to emulate. I believe it’s pretty faithful to the original.

  2. Artiforg says:

    That’s a shame you couldn’t get Personal Nightmare to work. While it’s not a very good game it does have tons of atmosphere. It was a very creepy game. I never completed it, I always got killed in the parsonage. Horrorsoft went on to produce Waxwork and the Elvira games which also had terrific spooky atmosphere but they’re more like Dungeon Master games so not really relevant to lo-fi.

    I mentioned in the comments of last weeks lo-fi that Dracula by CRL was a game you should try out this month. Along with the Frankenstein and Wolfman ones that came later. (I never played the Jack the Ripper one – at least as far as I can remember).

    Wikipedia page for Dracula

  3. rustybroomhandle says:

    I am somewhat reminded of Asylum on the Commodore 64. Anyone remember that one?

  4. ErraticGamer says:

    Very odd looking and seemingly unfriendly game, but I’m similarly curious about the creator and what he was trying to accomplish.

    • Leigh Alexander says:

      Me too. A lot of the time that’s my motivation for choosing a video, regardless of how I feel about the material itself.

  5. Yglorba says:

    I remember being freaked out by the first few moments of Star Control II, mostly because they were so unexpected — the game’s manual brilliantly set you up for something completely different, so what you actually find when you arrive at Earth for the first time is a total shock.