You wake up in a centuries-old asylum. Your face is in bandages and your memory is in tatters, only coming back to you in black and white cinematic flashes. As you walk around and talk to people, you solve puzzles and unearth the mystery of your identity, travelling to different places that may only exist in your mind.
Sanitarium (DreamForge, 1998) is a puzzle-based adventure game for the PC, and playing the game caused me to stumble across another mystery from my own past: why does taking hints when I’m stuck in a game ruin it for me?
The appeal of games like Sanitarium is not in their realism. Sanitarium‘s got what’s known as a semi-isometric, top-down view, which will be a familiar one for players of The Sims. When you make your character go into a room, the top dissolves with a ghostly sound and reveals what’s inside, reminiscent of a dollhouse. The miniature characters are slightly blurred and unreal, which suits the creepy tone. When you encounter mutated children, their varied characters come through in their voices (tremulous, nasty) rather that the glimpse you’re given of their twisted faces.
The way that environments are small — as opposed to the sprawling, free-form settings of a lot of 3-D shooters — is actually preferable in a puzzle game like this. When you have a half-dozen rooms rather than a hundred, you’ll more easily find the stick on the ground that you need to poke the pig so it runs and gets rid of the dog, which allows you to get through the garden to the gazebo…
That’s not a real solution to anything, by the way, but that’s the kind of sequential list of things you do to progress in Sanitarium. When you come across something, you know you’ll be using it later — again, not realistic, but the interlocking tasks are fun to set in motion. Like the Rube Goldbergian contraptions that start by pushing over a domino that turns on a fan that blows up a balloon, there’s a satisfaction in getting it right.
But there’s an equal frustration in getting it wrong. In chapter two of Sanitarium, I got stuck. I knew what I needed to do but I couldn’t find the thing I needed to do it with. So I spent a few hours pixel-picking — revisiting everywhere I could, scrolling my mouse over everything that looked like it might be takeable. I knew the environment pretty well because earlier, the kids in the game had played a game of hide-and-seek with me, so I had to find them — a great little interlude where you have to watch carefully for the motion of someone peeking out of their hiding spot.
But this game of hide-and-seek was less fun, and I started to worry that the game might be buggy. So I searched the internet, found that there were no relevant bugs — and also found some hints. And I should have known better, but I looked.
When I was 15 and stumped by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Infocom, 1984), we didn’t have the internet, so I bought the official InvisiClues hint book. I took but one hint but to this day I’ve never really felt like I finished that game myself. It’s a great game but my experience of it is somehow tainted by never really knowing if I could have completed it without help. Since that time, I’ve never taken hints. I’ve let games sit, come back to them months, or sometimes years, later, and give them another try — and more often than not, I figure it out eventually.
When I wrote my own text adventure, Punk Points, I didn’t include any hints, nor do I give any to people who ask. It’s not to be mean, it’s just because I’ve learned the correlation between challenge and satisfaction. When I write books, I’m more concerned about making things clearer — starting subtle, and moving towards obviousness if I need to — but with a game I’m OK with a smaller, more intense audience.
With Sanitarium, I had decided that as a reviewer I should take a hint — I didn’t want to recommend a game that was buggy or impossible, did I? — and I thought that I might have changed in the 15 years since I took my last hint. I don’t take games as seriously now as I did then, when I might have had a passionate opinion about whether hints were cheating and took unironic pride in completing a game.
But the thing that I was stuck on wasn’t a bug, or impossible, and instead was something I would have figured out in time. And now… I find that my enthusiasm for the game has dissipated. It feels like watching a movie with a twist ending that I know about beforehand. Good though it is, I doubt I’ll go back to play it.
You’d think I would have gotten the hint the first time.