ASC Games, in its third-person perspective adventure game tellingly called Sanitarium, has tapped into something conceptually more disturbing than three-headed monsters and hordes of big-gunned thugs. It's called insanity - the home of isolation and mental bondage that only your wits, not your weapons, can break you out of. And according to developer DreamForge's artist/designer Mike Nicholson, the game's look is a little bit Seven, Something Wicked this Way Comes, and City of Lost Children, while the mood is more inspired by Jacob's Ladder and The Twilight Zone.
You are the central character. You don't know who you are or why you're in the institution, but you do know, apparently, you don't belong. As the story goes, you vaguely remember, through a series of audio clips, what appears to have been a car accident, and since your head is swaddled in bandages, you can ascertain that something devastating happened to you, and you must figure out what. So begins the adventure.
As you wander away from your squalid cot, you encounter your new roommates, each with a bit more baggage than the collegiate variety. For example, one character is repeatedly bashing his cranium into a brick wall on the top floor, while another is stuck in a loop of tedium, preparing to jump from a balcony. You guide your character through the game, picking up items, exploring the 3D environment and communicating (when possible) with the some-odd 80 nonplayable characters.
You won't get information out of everybody, though. The man bludgeoning himself against the wall, for instance, just ignores you and, notably, your snide, if not naive comment, about his state of mind ("Diagnosis: Crazy"). When you find items, you store them, ironically, in a mental inventory that alerts you later on with a fluttering icon when you might need to use one of them.
GameSpot asked ASC's director of corporate communications Jayson Bernstein to what degree the central character interacts with these nonplayables and whether AI plays a role. "Even though the characters that the player comes in contact with are varied, the sanity question is one that is extremely internal. Instead of relying on the game to help you, the player must draw his own conclusions as to what is real and what is not. The player should pay special attention to everyone in the beginning chapter. Maybe they are not as crazy as you might think," Bernstein said.
Puzzles are a major component of gameplay sprinkled throughout the nine episodes or stages of Sanitarium, from broken paths that must be crossed to an Aztec key that has little use at first, but no doubt plays an important role later. On the interesting yet somewhat novice side of these activities is a TV/VCR unit you must power up, putting the audio and video ins into the correct red/yellow/white sockets to watch what's on the tape. Also, GameSpot asked ASC if the character encounters any battles or fights. Bernstein answered, "Well it is a computer game. Every once in a while ears must be boxed!"
Graphically, Sanitarium looks pretty good so far. Through a three-quarter isometric view, backgrounds are photorealistic 3D renders that are non-tile-based; meaning you don't see annoying seams or breaks in the visuals. Also, full-screen cinematics and hollow, eerie point-sourced sound effects (including a haunting anxiety-inducing alarm that you must disable) enhance the feeling of space, environmental depth, and location in proximity to the sounds.
Nicholson told GameSpot about the styling and lighting of Sanitarium: "For the game screens, we wanted to reflect the mood of whatever chapter of the story you were on. So for chapter two, we went for a 'nice' mood to make it almost Leave it Beaver-ish. Sometimes more horrific than dark and gloomy, we were also trying to show differences in time of day. We didn't wanted to fall into the black and white cliché because it's done too much. And we also didn't want to go the total sepia route as well. So we found a happy medium. For some of the flashback cinemas, we wanted to add effects to them to make them worn and home movie like. It ends up looking great."
Fans of explorative adventure titles that offer in-depth story lines, at least 30 to 40 hours of gameplay, and strong character development will want to keep an eye on this one, if they're in their right mind. Sanitarium is expected in April.