As was the case with many ’90s adventure games, the small team at DreamForge creating Sanitarium, a point-and-click horror adventure, had no idea what they were doing.
Most of them were recent art school graduates, and the studio leadership was only slightly older. When the game debuted in 1998, the narrative-driven horror market was already full of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Phantasmagoria, and The 7th Guest. Sanatorium (opens in a new tab) it was a little different. It was still within the well-known and proven adventure genre that DreamForge already had experience working on (veil of darkness had been the first big horror hit), but with a psychological twist.
Sanitarium was one of the first point-and-click adventure games I played that felt like a natural extension of ’80s and early ’90s pop culture: a real product of its time, paying homage to everything from classic sci-fi to old Zippy. pinhead comics
The ride begins with a jarring opening cinematic of a man in a terrifying car accident (it was originally synced to “” by Metallica).welcome home sanatorium)hoping the team could get the rights to the song, which sadly didn’t.) Max wakes up in the sanitarium, a distinctive, labyrinthine round tower that drew me in the second I started playing, head banging. bandaged in bandages She has no idea who she is, and after another accident, she finds herself falling down a rabbit hole of fantastical “episodes” or realms where she must struggle to make sense of her identity, her 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’s release, a new DreamForge staff member 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 take the compliment, unfortunately I had to explain that the only reason the opening area was circular was because when we started designing the space, it was rectangular,” says Nicholson. “Our boss saw this and said that the square playspace looks too old fashioned/traditional for isometric adventure games. To appease him, I redesigned the area to be a big circle.”
According to Nicholson, Sanitarium was really the case of a group of young developers with little to no experience determined to create a fun game that they themselves wanted to play. Back then, there were no standard playtesting practices, so they also relied on each other to fine-tune the game.
“My entry into game development was a case of being in the right place at the right time,” says Nicholson, who, in 1994, was working at a small ad agency in Pittsburgh. While looking for a job in the classifieds, his then-girlfriend saw an ad for a local computer game developer. “They were looking for a fantasy artist to do video game art. No experience needed,” she says. “I went to the interview with my sketchbook and a lot of enthusiasm. Fortunately, that was enough back then to get my foot in the door. I felt like I had found a winning lottery ticket, and in many ways I still feel like myself. I did it.”
Meeting after business hours, the fledgling Sanitarium team discussed their shared interests to figure out what kind of game they wanted to make. They loved the “wildly creative, episodic aspects of the classic Twilight Zone” and “spooky movies like Jacob’s Ladder.” Eventually, they came up with the idea of a hub-based narrative so they could really branch out with themes and locations.
And they did: my favorite chapter of the game was The Hive, a far-future alien landscape filled with fleshy organic gristle and cybernetic insectoids (where there are bugs, of course, there’s also the must-see Starship Troopers). There’s an almost Play-Doh quality to the characters here, with one of the the most beautiful puzzles the adventure games ever seen. It started out as one of Nicholson’s ink drawings before the art team translated it into 3D. “I wanted to design a puzzle that would fit the area, and I liked the idea of light passing through the insect’s wings to reveal patterns,” he says.
Dreamforge at the time was in the town of Jeanette, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, home to a well-known glass factory whose abandoned ruins became an inspiration behind some of the game’s scenes. The fictional run-down town full of mutant children is called Genet, which sounds almost biblical. In Nicholson’s words, Jeannette was a “depressed little town” with the huge ruined specter of the Jeannette Glass Factory looming over it, a mood that also affected the team’s work trip.
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On one of his dark trips home, Nicholson finally came up with the cross-sectional dollhouse diorama concept for the game’s Mansion chapter, a chapter that caught on with one of the developers, someone Nicholson considered a stoic guy. , with teary eyes and lump in the throat.
“I guess inspiration can strike at any time, and for reasons I honestly can’t remember, it was that late-night drive that did it,” he says. “The next day I pitched the idea to the team and they loved it with almost no change to the idea. It’s been my experience in game development that this situation doesn’t happen very often and that’s probably why I still remember it to this day.”
The sanitarium does not consistently reach those highs; It’s not exactly a bastion of realism when it comes to ancient Aztec culture and some of the finer points of mental health. The gaming industry of 1998 was still relatively new, experimenting with evolving visual technology, evolving practices, and storytelling methods. All of this makes Sanitarium a genuinely attractive time capsule of the very different set of interests and influences that went into it.
“Our investigation was, to put it bluntly, pretty superficial,” Nicholson admits with a smile. He also remembers the difficulty of finding a publisher that was open to having what was essentially a “faceless” lead. “At one point, the feedback we got was that players couldn’t relate to the main character Max because his head was wrapped in bandages and they suggested we remove them. Given the story and the big reveal at the end of the game with Max’s bandages coming off, you can imagine our response to that.”
When I ask Nicholson what he could have done differently, the first thing he says is that he would have received real management training. “I made so many terrible mistakes that it’s really a miracle that the game crossed the finish line,” he says. “I benefited from an otherworldly and possibly undeserved amount of patience from my team and studio leadership, and for that, I am forever grateful.”
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On the creative side of things, he would have liked to go deeper.
“My sense of design was almost entirely based on my life experiences up to that point, and at 28 when we started, it certainly wasn’t that much,” he says. “If Sanitarium was designed today, I’d like to narratively think it would have a broader scope and deeper characterization.” Nicholson focused on UI/UX work: he spent 14 years at Blizzard working on Diablo 3’s UI and art for other games. He still keeps up 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 had the chance to pursue a sequel to Sanitarium, I’d like to think it would take a similar approach.” Meanwhile, Sanitarium exists as an unparalleled 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 the antagonist Gromna is giving a “televised” speech, complete with footage of a fascist rally flanking a giant, semi-translucent wasp torso, is the good stuff.
In the town of Genet, the portrait of each mutant child was a labor of love.
And those squirming worm beds. The meaty puzzle of the door lock peppered with pods of clear mucus.
Revisiting this strange and messy realm, almost a visual anthology with the way you move through different themes and styles, is a refreshing breath of putrid air, and if you too haven’t felt that photorealism was the path to best game worlds, worth it. remembering.