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Have You Played... Sanitarium?

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Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

As I remember it, Sanitarium was quite difficult to get hold of once upon a time. I played the demo that I found on a coverdisc but didn’t see a copy of the full game until around a year after release. The psychological horror adventure has been available on GoG.com for a while now and has just been released on Steam, so if you’ve heard the name but never played the game, there’s no excuse not to find out what all the fuss was about. It’s an unusual piece of gaming history with a cultish reputation that perhaps exaggerates its quality, but it’s still worth peeling the bandages back to look at these old scars.

It seems strange to say now, but Sanitarium was the first non-comedy point and click adventure I ever played. That in itself was exciting. There were other, earlier adventure games with mystery, drama or scares at their core, but I missed out on them so the gore and ghoulishness of Sanitarium felt revolutionary. The atmosphere was thick with dread – I’ll never forget the poor patient in the opening section who repeatedly banged his head against a bloody mark on the wall – and the whole game felt somehow illicit in the best possible way. Like the VHS tape of The Exorcist I bought from a bootleg store.

The game hasn’t dated particularly well but it retains that forbidden quality, like a video nasty that you happen to catch at 4am during a sleepless night. It’s as tacky as it is spooky, but with the right frame of mind even the tackiness can be enjoyable. There are some brilliant moments hidden in the various worlds and flawed though it may be, there’s plenty of imagination crammed into the B-movie nightmares, and at least one emotional shock to the system.

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Adam Smith

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