Today is something I’ve actually been waiting to talk about for a little while, and that’s the sanity mechanic in video games. I mean Sanity in a major, game-defining way, so simple instances like Yogg-Saron from World of Warcraft won’t apply so much as, say, Daniel’s experiences in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Sanity is often handled poorly, either in aesthetics or in a gameplay sense, so to start off let’s look at what sanity bars do wrong before looking at a sanity mechanic that was done properly, way back on the Gamecube. Let’s see if you can guess the game I’m referring to before that time. Got a hunch on that game yet?

Sanity: The Broken Mind
The sad thing is, Sanity is often added in as a mechanic to either provide a story line mechanic or as a way of making the game more immersivewhile often wrecking that sense of immersion that the game was trying to achieve in the first place. The thing about it is, it’s basically the game dev saying “You should be scared now!” without attempting to make that fear personal. Sometimes they do manage that, like in Amnesia, the multi-hour heart attack game, but even then Sanity has it’s downsides. Unless you sit down and stare at a candle, your screen will distort, warping as your sanity drains. Why is that bad? Well, it isn’t really, except for a simple reason. Just one, tinie-tiny thing. It hurts the eyes. I complain about it, some friends have complained, and some haven’t, the kicker is, it hurts me on a physical level, outside the game. The longer it happens, the more tension and fear die as I realize that I’m not actually in any danger, I’m still just playing a game. A game that is hurting my eyes just because the character has a minor fetish for candles and/or lanterns.

"Shiney...."

Now, as much as I dislike that, I do like what happens when your sanity bottoms out. Daniel begins to hallucinate, often in suitably horrible ways, such as being covered in cockroaches (or in your case, the screen being swarmed). This is what I like about sanity, when it’s used to present the encroaching madness to both the player and the character. When you have a character solely experience dementia, it can be disquieting when the two views of the world, the player and the character, don’t sync up right. This was another thing I liked in Dead Space 2, the moments of Marker-induced madness were the same in cutscenes as they were in actual gameplay, so they never really felt out-of-place. Even though Issac was the one hallucinating, I could emphasize and feel unnerved at the same time. Dead Space is out for today though, because those moments are all pre-scripted, not because of a falling sanity bar.

Often, there is a very fine line between what a sanity meter is trying to accomplish, and what it is inadvertently doing. Dropping in sanity in Amnesia gave me a headache and was in general exceedingly annoying. Bottoming out in sanity meant shivering in disgust and unease as bugs roamed all over Daniel’s face. A lot of games have this issue of trying to show a decent into madness, without actually portraying the character as mad to keep the ‘lower levels’ of sanity pure and disturbing, when having small things like hallucinating bugs or what ever towards the beginning rather than the end would show a much more effective drop from a lucid, rational mind to a broken and reeling one.

Who’s sanity is it that’s falling?
Alright, got your guess yet? It’s really simple. My favorite game so far with a sanity mechanic, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. If you guess that before now, have a cookie! This game was one absolute mind screw once your sanity started to drop, often inflicting dementia and paranoia not just on the characters, but beyond the fourth wall to the player themselves. Seemingly random things like having the volume bar appear and slowly decrease as if you were sitting on the remote, fake hardware crashes, memory saves being eaten, hallucinations in-game, sounds following you as you walk. The game crossed territory from the characters going mad to driving the player off the wall at the same time. Uncertainty and fear were palpable within the game world. Did I delete my save on accident? What happened to the volume, my remote isn’t here… Oh god, whats following me…

Sanity mechanics are only as good as the player’s ability to emphasize with the characters on-screen, and just having an artificial “you are going insane” isn’t good enough. That’s what I really like about Eternal Darkness, it doesn’t stop with driving the characters mad, it tries to knock you off your rocker as well. Yes, for some people it’s just as bad as the Amnesia screen-warp that hurts the eyes, but for others it breaks a fundamental truth of the world, that video games have no effect on you. And if Eternal Darkness has you doubt your memories or genuinely fear making a decision, then it’s done it. The game has successfully lowered your sanity rating.

It’s the little things in life that get you. Yes, this system is even more egregious about breaking the fourth wall, but it’s not that the wall was broken, it’s that the wall was smashed open and let a host of nastiness follow in.  It creates an air of uncertainty and distrust, of an almost disturbing malevolence coming from the actual game itself. This is something almost no game has done since then, and I think we’re due for it. Let’s see a game that truly gets under our skin, that makes us question the very things we see. Who’s perception is the right one, the characters? Mine? Or maybe, just maybe, neither of us. The possibilities are endless.

There are a lot of ways to do sanity mechanics wrong, but there are also quite a few ways to do them right, to let player and character share in a growing dementia. Remember to keep the early warning signs subtle, but noticeable, and only be prepared to break the fourth wall when you are ready to begin screwing the player’s mind into the ground.