As was the case with many ’90s adventure games, the small team at DreamForge that made point-and-click horror adventure Sanitarium mostly had no idea what they were doing.
Most of them had just graduated from art school and the management of the studio was only a little older. When the game debuted in 1998, the narrative horror market was already filled with Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Phantasmagoria, and The 7th Guest. Sanatorium (opens in new tab) was a little different. It was still within the familiar, time-tested adventure genre that DreamForge already had experience with (Veil of darkness would have been the first other big horror hit), but with a psychological link.
Sanitarium was one of the first point-and-click adventures I played that felt like a natural extension of ’80s and early ’90s pop culture – a true product of its time that paid homage to everything from classic science fiction to old Zippy. the Pinhead comics.
The journey begins with a shocking opening cinematic of a man in a terrifying car accident (originally dubbed to Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)in hopes that the team could get the rights to the song, which unfortunately didn’t happen). Max wakes up in the sanatorium – a signature, labyrinthine round tower that attracted me as soon as I started playing – with his head wrapped in He has no idea who he is, and after yet another accident, he falls down a rabbit hole of fantastic “episodes” or realms where he must struggle to understand his identity, his trauma, and figure out how to escape.
The problem is that Max isn’t quite sure what’s real and what’s not.
After the game shipped, a new DreamForge staffer approached writer/artist/designer Mike Nicholson to tell him how much they appreciated the circular room design and its relationship to psychological theory. “As much as I wanted to accept the compliment, unfortunately I had to explain that the only reason the opening area was circular was that when we first started designing the space, it was rectangular,” says Nicholson. “Our boss saw it and said the square play area looks too old fashioned/traditional for isometric adventure games. To satisfy him, I redesigned the area into a big circle.”
According to Nicholson, Sanitarium was really a case of a bunch of young developers with little to no experience determined to make a fun game they wanted to play themselves. Back then there weren’t really standard game testing practices, so they also relied on each other to fine tune the game.
“Getting into game development was about being in the right place at the right time,” says Nicholson, who worked at a small advertising agency in Pittsburgh in 1994. While looking for a job in advertising, his girlfriend at the time saw an ad from a local video game developer. “They were looking for a fantasy artist to create video game art. No experience is required,” he says. “I went to the interview with my sketchbook and a lot of enthusiasm. Luckily that was enough to get my foot in the door at the time. It felt like I had landed a winning lottery ticket, and in many ways I still feel the way I did. “
The young Sanitarium team met after hours and discussed shared interests to find out what kind of game they wanted to make. They loved the “episodic and wildly creative aspects of the classic Twilight Zone” and “creepy movies like Jacob’s Ladder.” Eventually, they came up with the idea of a hub-based story so they could really expand with the themes and locations.
And they did – my favorite chapter of the game was The Hive, a far-future alien landscape full of fleshy organic cartilage and bug-like cybernetics (where there are bugs, there’s the obligatory Starship Troopers quote, of course). The characters here have an almost claymation-like quality to them, with one of the best puzzles adventure gaming has ever seen. It started out as one of Nicholson’s ink drawings before the drawing team translated it into 3D. “I wanted to design a puzzle that fits the area, and I loved the idea of passing light through the insect wings to reveal patterns,” he says.
At the time, Dreamforge was located in the town of Jeanette, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, the home of a famous glass factory whose abandoned ruins became a driving inspiration behind some of the game’s scenes. The fictional run-down town full of mutated children is called Genet, which sounds almost biblical. In Nicholson’s words, Jeannette was a “depressing little town” with the huge ruined specter of the Jeannette Glass Factory looming above – a mood that also influenced the team’s commute.
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On one of his dark rides home, Nicholson finally came up with the concept of a cross-sectional dollhouse for the game’s Mansion chapter – a chapter that got one of the developers, someone Nicholson considered to be a stoic sort of guy, with tears in his eyes. eyes and choked.
“Inspiration can strike at any time, I guess, and for reasons I honestly can’t remember, it was that late night drive that did it,” he says. “The next day I brought the idea to the team, and they loved it without changing anything about the idea. It’s my experience with game development that this situation doesn’t happen very often and that’s probably why I still remind me of this. bye.”
Sanitarium doesn’t hit those highs consistently; it’s not exactly a bastion of realism when it comes to ancient Aztec culture and some of the finer points of sanity. The game industry of 1998 was still relatively fresh, experimenting with evolving visual technology, evolving practices and storytelling methods. All of this makes Sanitarium a truly captivating time capsule of the very different cluster of interests and influences packed into it.
“Our research was, to put it plainly, rather superficial,” Nicholson admits with a laugh. He also recalls how difficult it was to find a publisher who was open to what was essentially a “faceless” protagonist. “At one point the feedback we got was that players wouldn’t be able to identify with Max’s main character because his head was wrapped in bandages and they suggested we remove that. Given the story and the huge reveal at the end of the game where Max’s bandage comes off, you can imagine our reaction to that.”
When I ask Nicholson what he could have done differently, the first thing he says is that he would have received some real management training. “I’ve made so many terrible mistakes that it’s really a miracle that the game made it to the finish line,” he says. “I’ve benefited from an otherworldly and perhaps undeserved amount of patience from my team and studio leadership, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.”
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On the creative side, he would have liked to go deeper.
“My sense of design was based almost entirely on my life experiences up to that point, and at 28 years old when we started, admittedly it wasn’t that much,” he says. “If Sanitarium were designed today, I’d like to think narratively that it would have broader scope and more depth in characterization.” Nicholson then focused on UI/UX work – he spent 14 years at Blizzard on the Diablo 3 UI and art for other games. He still keeps up to date with adventure games.
“I enjoyed the narrative design and presentation of games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and What Remains of Edith Finch,” he says. “If we ever got the chance to pursue a sequel to Sanitarium, I’d like to think it would be a similar approach.” In the meantime, Sanitarium exists as an unrivaled example of late ’90s game art that wasn’t afraid to get weird and raise the aesthetic bar for the adventure genre as a whole.
The Hive scene where antagonist Gromna gives a “television” speech, complete with fascist rally footage flanking a giant, semi-translucent wasp torso, is the good stuff.
In the town of Genet, the portrait of each mutated child was a labor of love.
And those writhing maggot beds. The fleshy door lock puzzle studded with translucent slime capsules.
Revisiting this strange, cluttered realm – almost a visual anthology with the way you move through different themes and styles – is a breath of fresh, tainted air, and if you too have never felt that photorealism is the way to better game worlds, it is definitely worth remembering.