GOG Box: Sanitarium and the Horrific Power of Ugly
Sanitarium is one of those games that I would never have discovered were it not for Good Old Games and its willingness to toss up forgotten weirdness from long ago. Part point-and-click adventure game, part action/adventure, and all shades of messed up, Sanitarium is about a man who wakes up from a car crash to discover that he’s locked inside an insane asylum, surrounded by lunatics and bereft of memories. The dark and twisted story follows this bandaged man, Max Laughton, as he struggles to work out who he is, why he’s been institutionalized, and what is going on.
Sanitarium is an incredibly intriguing little game, full of the kind of oddball characters and curious scenarios that form a crucial staple in the adventure genre. However, unlike games such as Monkey Island or Beneath A Steel Sky, the weirdness in Sanitarium is played for gasps as much as laughs. There is plenty of humor, to be sure, and a cast of enjoyably demented personalities, but a disturbing atmosphere permeates the entire experience, something morbid that lingers in the air and even plays off the more silly elements to create a feeling that remains supremely unsettling. Above all, Sanitarium is effective in its strangeness due to how ugly everything is. I’m not just talking warts and glass eyes, either — I’m talking gut-wrenching, lip-curling, tooth-gritting hideousness.
There is not a single attractive person in the world of Sanitarium. Perhaps the most “normal” looking character is Max himself, and that’s not saying a lot considering his face is almost completely wrapped in bandages, with a pair of strikingly manic eyes left staring out behind them. Over the course of his adventure, Max travels to a collection of strange worlds and encounters a variety of people — most of which go beyond looking simply “weird” and manage to be quite visually upsetting. The first world, in fact, is populated by children — children! — who are starting to take on the physical attributes of plantlife. The results — and accompanying character portraits — are among the most haunting things I’ve ever seen in a game. These kids don’t just look like monsters — their flesh is veiny and mottled, with disgusting textures and nasty deformities. They still have a very human element to their appearance, but are utterly horrendous to look at. These children represent an art I feel is becoming increasingly lost in a lot of videogames, as well as other media — the art of ugliness.
Nowadays, if you want a monster, you need it to look sleek, polished, sharp and brutal. “Scary” these days amounts merely to making something that looks like it could kick your ass. The trouble is, most things that look like they could kick our asses also look incredibly cool, so you have a whole bunch of movies and games in which the monsters are admittedly awesome, but not truly horrific. Look at the monsters in something like Diablo III — all beautifully designed, to be sure, but with a heavy emphasis on beautiful. The creatures are all fangs and spikes, but they look too badass, too cool, to truly represent the Hellish inhumanity that they are supposed to be the ambassadors of. The fiends in Alan Wake were typified by swirling shadows and strange movements meant to make them look memorable and stylish, which they certainly were, but not truly dark and intimidating like they could have been. Even the most recent Silent Hill did away with the alien and subtly symbolic fiends of past games, settling on near-zombie creatures that looked like clawed women and evil prisoners. The ugly was nowhere to be seen, and the monsters within lost a lot of their eldritch terror thanks to that.
People don’t like ugly. They want everything to be cool. They want a villain with the slicked back hair, the fashionable beard, the fine clothes, and the suave personality. They want monsters that look like giant asskicking sharks, because giant asskicking sharks are badical to the max. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. I enjoy all those things myself. However, there’s not much to be frightened of with Hollywood’s brand of debonair killers and glossy monstrosities.
Some videogames keep the ugly antagonist alive, of course. I love the Chimera from Resistance for this very reason. They’re not just bad-guy monsters. They’re downright horrible to look at. They’re like the up-close pictures of insects you get on Google Image Search, only with unsettling simian attributes providing an unappetizing contrast. The Chimera don’t look cool to me, in the same way that the Elites of Halo or Helghast of Killzone do. They look inscrutably alien, something that cannot and should not be reasoned with. It makes them easier to hate, given our human instinct to dislike things that we don’t like the look of. It makes them all the more effective as antagonists.
Sanitarium tapped into a level of unattractive that I don’t think any other videogame has topped. The artists working on that game knew ugly. They knew how to tap into what makes a person go squick, what makes the flesh crawl and the blood curdle. They turned children, most of which weren’t even all that malevolent toward the player, into dreadful visions of traumatic proportions. Sanitarium wasn’t too hung up on looking cool, on having monsters that looked like action figures or were bulging with asskicking muscles. It was determined to breed nightmares, and delved into the things we as people find truly repellent in order to do so.
That’s why the random NPCs of Sanitarium keep me awake at night while I’d be hard pressed to remember, say, anything that happened in the F.E.A.R games. One tried to look ugly, and one did not.