As was the case with many adventure games of the 90s, the small team at DreamForge making the point-and-click horror adventure Sanitarium had virtually no idea what they were doing.
Most of them were fresh out of art school, and the studio management was only a little older. When the game debuted in 1998, the story-driven horror market was already filled with Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, Phantasmagoria, and The 7th Guest. Sanatorium (opens in a new tab) was a little different. It was still in the familiar, tried-and-true genre of adventure that DreamForge had worked in before (Veil of Darkness had been the first other major horror hit), but with a psychological peg.
Sanitarium was one of the first point-and-click adventures I’d 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 sci-fi to old Zippy. Pinhead comics.
The journey begins with a shocking opening cutscene of a man in a terrifying car accident (it was originally synced to Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” in hopes the team could get the rights of the song, which unfortunately did not happen). Max wakes up in the sanatorium – a distinctive labyrinthine round tower that drew me in the second I started playing – with his head wrapped in bandages. He has no idea who he is and, after yet another accident, finds himself tumbling down a rabbit hole of “episodes” or fantasy realms where he must struggle to make sense of his identity, his trauma. and find a way to escape.
The problem is that Max isn’t quite sure what’s real and what isn’t.
After the game’s release, a new member of DreamForge staff reached out to writer/artist/designer Mike Nicholson to tell him how much they liked the circular room design and its relationship to psychological theory. “Even though 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 it and said the square play space looked too old fashioned/traditional for isometric adventure games. To appease him, I redesigned the area to be more a big circle.”
According to Nicholson, Sanitarium was really a group of young developers with little to no experience determined to make a fun game that they wanted to play themselves. At the time, there weren’t really standard game-testing 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 advertising agency in Pittsburgh. While looking for a job in the classifieds, his then-girlfriend spotted an ad from a local computer game developer. “They were looking for a fantastic artist to do video game art. No experience necessary,” he says. “I went to the interview with my sketchbook and a lot of enthusiasm. Fortunately, it was enough at the time for me to set foot in the door. I felt like I had found a winning lottery ticket, and in many ways I still feel like I did.”
Meeting after hours, the young Sanitarium team discussed common interests to determine the type of game they wanted to create. They loved the “episodic and wildly creative aspects of classic Twilight Zone” and “scary movies like Jacob’s Ladder”. Eventually, they landed on the idea of a hub-based narrative so they could really branch out with themes and locations.
And they branched off – my favorite chapter of the game was The Hive, a distant alien landscape full of fleshy organic cartilage and insectoid cybernetics (where there are bugs, of course, there’s also the obligatory Starship Troopers quote) . There’s an almost clayey quality to the characters here, with one of the most beautiful puzzles adventure game has never 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 fit into the area, and I liked the idea of shining light through the insect’s wings to reveal patterns,” he says.
Dreamforge was at the time in the town of Jeanette, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, home to a famous glass factory whose abandoned ruins became a driving inspiration behind certain scenes in the game. The fictional decaying town full of mutant children is named Genet, which sounds almost biblical. In Nicholson’s words, Jeannette was a “depressed little town” with the huge, crumbling specter of the Jeannette Glass Factory threatening her – a mood that also affected the team’s travels.
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On one of his dark journeys home, Nicholson eventually came up with the cutaway dollhouse diorama concept for the game’s Mansion chapter – a chapter that caught one of the developers, someone Nicholson considered like some sort of stoic guy, teary-eyed and choked up.
“Inspiration can strike at any time, I guess, and for reasons I honestly can’t remember, it was that late-night car ride that did,” he says. “The next day I took the idea to the team, and they loved it with almost no change to the idea. In my experience in game development, this situation doesn’t happen very often. and that’s probably why I still remember that day.”
Sanitarium does not consistently reach these heights; it’s not exactly a bastion of realism when it comes to ancient Aztec culture and some of the finer points of sanity. The 1998 gaming industry was still relatively fresh and experimenting with evolving visual technology, evolving practices, and storytelling methods. All of this makes Sanitarium a genuinely engaging time capsule of the very distinct group of interests and influences that have entered it.
“Our research was, to put it bluntly, quite superficial,” admits Nicholson with a laugh. He also recalls the difficulty of finding an open editor for what was essentially a “faceless” protagonist. “At one point, the feedback we received was that players couldn’t identify with the main character Max because his head was wrapped in bandages and they suggested removing them. Given the story and from the huge 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 had real management training himself. “I made so many terrible mistakes that it’s really a miracle that the game crossed the finish line,” he says. “I was blessed with otherworldly and arguably undeserved patience from my team and studio management, and for that I will be forever grateful.”
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On the creative side, he would have liked to go further.
“My sense of design was almost entirely based on my life experiences up to that point, and at 28 when we started, it sure wasn’t that much,” he says. “If Sanitarium were to be designed today, I’d like to think that narratively it would have a broader scope and more depth in characterization.” Nicholson then focused on UI/UX work – he spent 14 years at Blizzard working on Diablo 3 UI and art for other games. He always 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 had the chance to pursue a sequel to Sanitarium, I’d like to think it would take a similar approach.” In the meantime, Sanitarium exists as an unprecedented example of late ’90s gaming 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 “televised” speech, with footage of a fascist rally flanking a giant, semi-translucent wasp torso, is the right thing.
In the town of Genet, each mutant child’s portrait was a labor of love.
And those writhing maggot beds. The meaty puzzle of the door lock strewn with clear slime pods.
Revisiting this strange and messy realm – almost a visual anthology with the way you move through different themes and styles – is a refreshing and putrid breath of air, and if you too have never felt like the Photorealism was the path to better game worlds, definitely worth remembering.