I'm slightly ashamed to admit to how much I enjoy games featuring mental asylums (and similar locations). I suppose it goes with the territory when you appreciate dark themes, uncertain layers of reality, and an ominous atmosphere.
Pervasive ideas about mentally ill meaning creepy, dangerous, subhuman and so on... those aren't so cool. I know I'm treading through problematic territory on this one. I suppose I find creepiness here which has more to do with how patients are treated than the patients themselves.
Barbaric treatments for mental conditions are some of my top nightmarish-fears, with the additional frightening element that 'barbaric' doesn't always mean 'in the past'. Not having asylums anymore doesn't mean everything's rosy. So, I disturb myself by playing around in virtual asylums, then worry about the treatment of (and respect for) people with mental illnesses in the real word.
One of my favourite asylum-like locations is from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (spoilers ahead). For the unfamiliar, VtM includes a whole clan of insane vampires: The Malkavians. It's that well-worn idea of insanity as a two-edged gift, balancing madness with unique insight. Bloodlines eventually sends you to the mansion of Dr. Grout, the head Malkavian who has mysteriously disappeared.
Even in Grout's absence the influence of a powerful, disturbing vampire on the mansion is tangible. He was also kind enough to leave audio logs lying around, just to add to the atmosphere. It actually makes some sense for a change, as a scientist recording his thoughts and observations. Grout's insanity doesn't make him incomprehensible, he's articulate and focused (if twisted).
Another unfortunate casualty to tide of time: insane asylums. I lament their loss not only as brokerage houses for the breadth and depth of human psychosis, but also I shall mourn the disappearance of that peculiar environment present only in an insane asylum. That palpable atmosphere of blistered brains and churning bowels, the odiferous melange of freely flowing bodily humours, that gently rolling cacophony of distant sobs and screams, the muttered cursing of perceived enemies and the blissful gurgling of the lobotomized like a new-born babe discovering the sky. I shall still find test subjects as surely as I find bloody sustenance in the night, but this climate, I fear, will never be replicated.
Dr. Grout is a psychologist from an earlier time, twisted by vampirism and the Malkavian condition. He hasn't taken too kindly to the developments made in his field. Dismissive of the new-fangled ideas of Freud, he is bitter about phrenology's fall from grace and continues his more physical approach to psychology in private.
The mansion is populated by Grout's experiments, presumably former patients who have undergone crude brain surgery. The women sob quietly in corners, but quickly pull a knife if you fall for their deception. The men are more openly violent. I wonder if Grout performed different experiments on men and women, due to some old-fashioned sensibility. But maybe I'm being too generous to the game designers.
Grout sits in that awkward place between doctor and patient as he tries to make sense of his own condition. More recently, hidden segments of The Chronicle of Arkham in Batman: Arkham Asylum were used in a similar way to Grout's audio tapes. Both look back into history to describe barbaric treatment of mental patients. Both feature a doctor who has themselves turned to madness and violence.
Amadeus Arkham is more openly malicious, dealing exclusively with the criminally insane and treating them like animals. He's fueled by revenge. Grout, for all his love of screaming and crying patients, seems oddly detached. Chillingly unemotional. And yet, he's still motivated by love for his wife.
These are tragic stories for everyone involved, without any real concept of 'good'. Just beings in various states of inflicting and receiving suffering. My Bloodlines vampire is still a vampire, motivated most by self-preservation. Batman's a hero, but treads close to the line between hero and villain.
I'll avoid a longer discussion of the inmates of Arkham Asylum or I'll be here all night. What actually prompted this post was recently playing through the 1998 adventure game Sanitarium. It seemed like something I had to play sooner or later, combining my virtual asylum hopping with my point-and-click adventure habit. Good Old Games calls Sanitarium "one of the most immersive and chilling psychological horror games ever created" and describes the story as "incredibly good and enthralling". Many people seem to have good memories of it.
Playing older games means putting up with a few things, in this case particularly the awkward path-finding and shoddy voice acting. The main character's over-acted lines tend to make me laugh rather than give me the creeps: "Oh God, it's horrible".
I take these elements in stride. What I wasn't quite expecting was just how batshit erratic Sanitarium is. It opens with its best trick, sending you from the run-down asylum to a delusion-induced world full of creepy, deformed children. There are hidden bodies in the boarded up school-house, and everyone's afraid of the pumpkin patch. Thus far we have the kind of atmosphere I was expecting. But it's all downhill from there.
That supposedly "good and enthralling" story jumps between insects trying to take over the planet, battles between Aztec gods, an abandoned fairground and various other locations. Admittedly fairgrounds have spooky potential (nothing is scarier than clowns), but it's garish next to everything else, highlighting the inconsistency even more.
Leaving aside any problematic ideas here about what it means to be insane, the major issue is playing with different concepts of reality while making it very clear which parts are real and which are delusion. Throwing in the likes of aliens, comic book characters, and a goddamn giant squid boy will do that. When elements of reality creep in it tends to be obvious. I was hoping to be proven wrong: a twist at the end at least to make reality murky, perhaps, but it never happened.
Without that meaningful confusion what's left is a mess with no coherent vision. It's like a bunch of short adventure games strung together with a crude plot attempting to tack everything together. This isn't even B-grade material, which might not have surprised me except for some people's raving praise. I've played worse adventure games, mind, but there's really nothing special here. Sanitarium made me question my love of asylum games.
After my disappointment with Sanitarium I could at least find a more consistent asylum in Lylian Episode One: Paranoid Friendship. It's a side-scrolling platformer, featuring a girl beating things up with the untied arms of her straight jacket. It's not my best genre, and if it were I'd be complaining about uninspired combat, but it gets the atmosphere right. I gather episode two will be more puzzle-based, which would suit it much better.
Lylian fights her way through Hacklaster Hospital armed with her heavily starched sleeves and an over-active imagination. Exploring different versions of the world never feels wrong (or only in the way it should feel wrong). The creepy asylum and reality-shifting is quirky without degenerating into stupid. Lylian herself is disturbed enough to justify her odd reality.
In Lylian reality is suitably unknown. Lylian and the protagonist of Sanitarium both provide an imperfect viewpoint, but in Sanitarium's case our own sanity lets us see past his limitations. With Lylian we're stuck with her warped view of the world, and although we can assume a lot of what we're seeing isn't real it's impossible to determine what might have some basis in reality.
There might be conspiracies going on here, or just a whole lot of delusions. Episode one was too short to say too much more, but I will be looking out for future Lylian installments.