Have You Played… Sanitarium?

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.

22 Comments

  1. Haborym says:

    I played this, even own it still. Never did beat it though.

  2. Hidden Thousand says:

    Played it. And will probably do so again, because it was so long ago I managed to forget enough of the game (except for the ending, of course, you can never forget that which you need to forget the most).

  3. satan says:

    Leave me be.

  4. Sinnorfin says:

    You forgot to mention it has an awesome soundtrack.

  5. tomimt says:

    Sanitarium is one of those little disappointments for me. I wanted the play it for ages, after reading a review of it way back when it originally came out. When I finally got it from GOG, it turned out to be relatively uneven game, which got worse the further it went. It has an interesting premesis, but it just doesn’t hold up to the end.

  6. Kaeoschassis says:

    Keep meaning to pick this one up. Played the demo back in the day. I do so enjoy when a game can genuinely unsettle me…

  7. kopogtias says:

    Ah yeah, Sanitarium was my first non comedy PnC, too. And I loved it. I played it this Summer and it was great. I don’t think it aged that bad, it looks like the Infinity Engine games, which is kinda okay. Sure, the voice quality is terrible and the controls are sloppy but overall it’s very nice.

  8. zylonbane says:

    Dear Adam Smith, Please write an article for RPS on why so many people feel compelled to write GOG as “GoG”.

    Also, given that describing a game as dated means it looks old, I assume when you say Sanitarium “hasn’t dated particularly well”, that must mean it still looks great. Good to hear!

    • Kefren says:

      Replace dated with “aged” for the phrase Adam intended. It’s easy to mix them up when you’re banging away on the keyboard in the thrall of enthusiasm.

      I enjoyed Sanitarium. Is this similar? link to gog.com

      • tomimt says:

        Not really. Harvester is like a satiric take on a b-horror movie, that tries to be as offensive it can. It’s either a good game or bad, depengin on if you find it funny or not. The final half of it is utter rubbish though.

        • Kefren says:

          Ta. I might give it a go. Recently completed I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream. I enjoyed most of it, even though I’m not really an adventure game person.

          • Wowbagger says:

            Interested to know if you read the short story it’s based on before playing I have no mouth.. ?

          • Kefren says:

            Yes, I’d read it some time ago. It meant I had anticipation about how they were going to interpret it and make it playable. Which reminds me, I forgot to re-read it (it comes with the game on GOG), downloading now!

  9. XhomeB says:

    Sanitarium’s utterly brilliant, clever and disturbing for the first… 60-70% of its length, then it kind of loses its focus and the plot suddenly runs out of steam. Not that the game becomes BAD all of a sudden, no, it just… there’s a noticeable drop in quality.
    Still, it’s an extremely memorable and enjoyable game and a classic in my book (if only for *that-one-disturbing-utterly-depressing-tearjerker-section* approximately halfway through, which carries an enormous emotional impact), despite its flaws.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I have never played this game but I had pretty much the exact same experience as Adam where I played the demo and the only thing that sticks out is that guy banging his head on the wall. I was pretty young at the time (12 or 13) and hadn’t yet been exposed to anything disturbing (I was going to say gory but then I remembered Duke 3D).

  11. Baf says:

    The one thing I remember finding really striking about Sanitarium when it was released was the way it presented space. By which I mean: it didn’t have rooms. It had content that any other point-and-click adventure of the time would chop up into discrete locations, with a nice painted backdrop for each, but instead it put each chapter onto one massive backdrop that extended both left-right and up-down. It gave the impression that if you could just zoom the camera out, you would be able to see the whole world at once. Walk close to the boundaries of where you could go, and you could catch glimpses of secrets you couldn’t reach yet.

    Of course, there were lots of platformers and RPGs with expansive 2D worlds, but they were generally tile-based, and Sanitarium wasn’t, or at least not visibly.

  12. Hunchback says:

    When i first played it, i didn’t speak English all that well, so i didn’t really understand all that much of it, but it still marked me deeply. Today i consider Sanitarium to be, probably, the best point and click i’ve ever played. Not because it’s super pretty, it’s puzzles are awesomely clever or anything else, but simply because nostalgia. And the effect it had, when i played it..

    … that act 2 with the kids…

    *…never go the pumpkin patch… *

    • Unclepauly says:

      Yeah that Act 2 is insanely good. The atmosphere it gives off brings me back to all those 80’s horror flicks I loved as a kid, kinda like what Adam said about the VHS tape of The Exorcist. The next 4 or 5 acts are good as well but the Incan/Mayan level kinda threw me for a loop, I never got past that level. One day I will though.

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    Risingson says:

    “The game hasn’t dated particularly well”. NO. RPS is one of the sites that usually puts context on games to talk about them, and Sanitarium only has dated in the technical aspects which I though it was just something else for a game. This is as inane as telling that an 80s movie is outdated because of the hairstyles.

    I agree that it is not perfect, but it is one of the few games where the story is being told by symbols that you must decypher in the end. It is a very intelligent way to expose it, and it is a pleasure to see the final cutscene and listening to the puzzle pieces fitting in your brain.

  14. Wytefang says:

    There’s nothing “exaggerated” about this game’s overall quality. Get that straight first off. ;)

    Superb game with a creepy story and enjoyably effective adventure gaming aspects.

  15. Subject 706 says:

    Ah Sanitarium. I still have fond and sad memories of it. Flawed in places, and the later parts are a bit wonky, but great overall.

    The part about your sisters teddybear is one of the few times a game has actually had an emotional impact on me.

    Sanitarium and Azrael’s Tear contain some of my best gaming memories. RPS! Do a “Have you played” about Azrael’s Tear! One of the absolutely best adventure games of the 90’s!