Sunday, February 23, 2014

I'm Going On An Adventure! - Sanitarium

After finishing both Phantasmagoria games I commented how I wanted to do The 7th Guest next. Well I started it, played for a few hours, saved (or so I thought) and went back to it later. When I realized my save wasn't there either by my own mistake or something on my computer I decided to hold off for a little while. Instead I jumped into yet another horror themed adventure game (What can I say? They've got a charm others don't.) And so this time around I have completely lost my mind and must be sent to a Sanitarium.
Sanitarium was released in 1998 on PC. Much like half the games on my PC I got it off of and I'm so glad I did. However despite my excitement I just teased the game did receive plenty of mixed reviews when released. I won't go into detail why because some of my praises and complaints are similar to the critic's. Beyond that the game didn't have much of a legacy. Obviously it was popular enough to warrant a digital re-release like I mentioned earlier. Still the only major legacy left behind was a kickstarter campaign. One of the programmers for Sanitarium was trying to pick up funding for a new game, Shades of Sanity, which was considered to be a spiritual successor. I haven't looked much into this new game. The game's official website does have plenty of info, though.

Sanitarium's setup is as typical and as simple as a psychological horror story can get. Your character, Max, suffers from amnesia after getting into a car crash. He wakes up in an asylum with his head wrapped in bandages. And from there you go on your journey to get your memory back and to find out how you wound up there. Like I said, pretty typical.
Despite how typical the story is I actually really like these kinds of stories. Not amnesia stories. Stories where the lead character is either going insane or where the line between what is and isn't real is blurred. This means it can go in many directions, many of which can be really out there, but can also incorporate real world elements to express how fucked up the character's real world is. In this case the game does not take very long to get there. You only need to complete a couple of quick tasks in the asylum right away. Then you approach an angel statue who wraps her wings around you and you instantly wake up in a completely different place. A seemingly abandoned small town where only the children are left. More on that in a minute. First I want to talk about the gameplay and presentation.
Since this was the 90s there was only a couple of likely paths a point and click game would go. I don't believe the full 3D polygon adventure games (like Syberia or the last Gabriel Knight game did) had made full swing yet so it was either going to be like Myst (1st person pre-rendered everything), Phantasmagoria (lots of FMV with digitized characters), or somewhat more traditional with a graphical upgrade. It went with the last option as the game is presented with a bird's eye view of the environment using pre-rendered 3D sprites as graphics instead of polygons. Think Dokoney Kong Country but from above and with a more realistic approach since it isn't about a monkey with amnesia who is trying to get his bananas back. Or just look at the below image.

And so my first complaint comes. No it's not the visual style (not entirely), it's the controls. Like a typical point and click adventure you use the mouse for everything. For the most part it works out just fine. I do feel there was some more work that could have been done to make it more intuitive. The part that's well done is the stuff you click on. it has a very good detection when you hover over "clickable" spots/items with well enough cursor changes. However when it comes to moving you can't simply point and click where you want to go. Something many other adventure games do plenty and do well. In this case you have to hold down the right clicker and hover the mouse over the general direction you want to go. Good... in theory. However one of the major downfalls of this graphic style is that it can be very hard to tell where you can and can't go. Sure everything looks amazing (for the time) but unlike with polygons it makes those invisible walls even more invisible. Especially when you feel your character should be able to walk around or through an area that would make sense, but alas cannot. Something that became very present early in the game and forced me to walk more tedious paths when I shouldn't have had to.
Otherwise the controls are pretty simple and low demand. Outside of actually navigating your character you just click on whatever/whoever you want to interact with. And it works just fine. If you want to access your inventory you click on your character. Again very simple and very straightforward. Nothing too complex going on here. However the last thing I have to say about the controls is the speed of your character. He walks at a very casual pace which is fine in smaller areas. But if you've ever played adventure games before you know there is a lot of running around trying to figure out what the hell to do next. With your character moving sooooo slooooow it makes it an unecessarily long process. Especially late in the game when you have to use this slow speed and clunky control to navigate through time sensitive obstacles.

Getting back to the story. The first place you wind up after your bizarre encounter with the angel statue, as I was saying earlier, is a small seemingly abandoned town. I was also saying earlier that the only people left were the children. Here's what I didn't tell you, they're all deformed like they got hit with nuclear radiation mixed with domestic abuse. One boy had two mouths, a girl with burnt looking skin, a girl with a tail and gouged out eyes, a boy named lumpy whose name speaks for itself, and the list goes on. It's a very disturbing start to what looks like will be a (good old fashioned) fucked up story. What you soon discover is that all the adults "went away" with the exception of a mysterious person they call mother. You don't see mother at first but do encounter her later. You soon find articles and newpaper clippings talking about a meteor that is going to hit as well as some bizarre bits with the towns pastor. Religion is something that is actually brought up a few times in this game but never really... emphasized? I think that's the word I'm thinking? Cause it's not overbearing like other stories. But a few hints here and there that the game's writer may have an odd view on religion.
The fucked up meter goes from an already high spot to an even higher point when two things happen. One, you meet mother who is a giant plant-like creature that took over the town with her weeds, killing all the adults. And when you play hide and seek with the kids. Yes, hide and seek. While figuring out a plan to kill mother you are forced to play a game of hide and seek with a key to the general store as your reward. What makes this fucked up is the kids have a secret weapon. How you will not find them all because of this. Well... you find a shovel, dig up the right grave, and there is their secret weapon. They thought you wouldn't win because one of the kids who was "playing" was hiding in her grave. Yeah, that's the kind of story we're in for here.
After killing mother by electrocution you are able to leave the town hand in hand with the little girl with a tail and no eyes you sorta befriended through what looks like a warp tunnel. It cuts away and next thing you know you're back in the asylum. This is the sort of back and forth the game will be doing throughout. One hand you appear to be in reality, then you're somewhere completely different sometimes as a different person, then back to... normal (?)... once again. It doesn't take long to figure out what the writers are trying to do here. They're digging deep into the mind of your character to unravel the story via metaphor and memories instead of a straight plot. Again something I am definitely up for. And for the most part I enjoyed the story of the game. The only downside is that the game didn't really maintain it's fucked up nature it established early on. Yes there is a portion where you're at a carnival and most of the workers are either assholes or disfigured in some way, but it didn't have that same feels. And the context of the story can get pretty fucked up at times, just not quite what it presented itself with right away.

I know I'm really focusing on the content of the game over how well it pulls together but you really can't blame me for it. Right from the start the game lets you know it is going to be a dark journey. Something it definitely is. The big thing is that you'll notice the nature of what makes it dark changes throughout. On one hand it is downright disturbing, other times it is disgusting, and then at one point it's very sad. Just... sad. Thankfully it doesn't jump from one to another too quickly and without warning too often, otherwise that would be jarring. And overall the elements in the story aren't fucked up for the sake of it. They're really there for a reason. It ties together in the end. It ties together very sloppy but it ties together none the less. It's not like Phantasmagoria 2 where I felt most of the explicit content was there for the sake of being there. Sanitarium has a clear story with intentionally not so clear hidden messages.
I just wish the game could have had some consistency in how it wanted to tell the story. At first it was very obvious or at least clever how the scenario connected with the real life of your character. Like with the kids in the lost town. Later in the story it is revealed your character, Max, is a doctor who was working on a new breakthrough drug that will save lives. Also you find out your little sister died very young which shows clear inspiration for his adult work in medicine. The deformed kids were representational of potentially lost patients and mother was the disease (if you remember that far back in the review). Then later there is a section where you play as your little sister which takes the story to a different point. But then next thing you know you're playing as this comic book character who is a mix of the cyclops, Goro from Mortal Kombat, and Thomas from Narnia.

And I thought... okay? I mean I guess it could be a representation of how Max couldn't be the hero he idolized in his comics as a kid. But the way it played out just didn't feel quite right or on the same, unique track as everything that led up to it. Then again toward the end of the game you also play as an Aztec god which had an ever looser connection (I felt) to the story so there's that, too.

Really I did enjoy the game a lot. While simple navigation was a pain from time to time, and the graphics style made it hard to see key items or even locations the game never felt like too much of a pain. I was always interested in what each character had to say so I never skipped anything they said. That and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss any clues but by the halfway point I think I was able to tell when a character would and wouldn't be giving me a clue.
Not an amazing adventure game. Definitely good, though. There was plenty more fine tuning that could have been done. I'm sure at the time the game's visual style alone would have been enough to help people get into it upon first release. But now that we're able to look past that the flaws can be seen much easier, and they come up more than you think. Even little things like bad placement of text in the character word bubbles. Also how the consistency from conversation to conversation would come off odd. Asking a question to something you already knew the answer to (the character I mean, not you the player) and so forth. But if you like adventure games, have played through some of the more popular titles and are looking for something else in the horror genre... give it a shot. You've always got an infrequent chance of getting it on a great sale via GOG. Can't hurt. Still hard to fully recommend.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Second Disc: Celebrity Deaths

In light of the very shocking news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death (a death that really got to me. I'm for sure a fan.) it got me thinking about celebrity deaths and how the public tends to react. Usually when there is a celebrity death there is going to be an entire fanbase that will mourn. But I guess I do have some issues with how it is handled from time to time. Keep in mind this is mostly (if not entirely) going to be about the entertainment industry, and even then mostly film. It's simply what I know best and while I know how hard it was for people to hear about Nelson Mandela's death, I just don't have the political knowledge to comment on it properly. What I know are movies and so I will stick to that. But going then deeper into entertainment, I also realize how hard it was to hear of Pete Seeger's death, again I don't know his work well enough to properly comment.

I guess what I wanted to touch on first was the "I was always a fan" reaction to deaths. This is the type of death where you may not have heard about someone for some time until they died. Then you remember you REALLY liked one or two movies they were in, and then proceed to go on facebook and tell all your family and friends how bummed out you are because you were such a huge fan! The first one that comes to mind is Paul Walker. Now I haven't been a fan of his since I was of the right age group for the Fast and Furious movies. Never saw any of the new ones so I never kept up with him. But what I do understand is that he was also in a bunch of low-budget, not so great movies, and generally just getting by in the business. Then next thing you know the F&F movies are making a sweeping return, making more money than most modern franchises not based on a book. It's actually totally insane how popular those movies have gotten. But as a non-fan when I found out he died I first and foremost mourned for him as a human and his family. That and I found out he was one of the nicest guys in the world in the business so that was a bummer. But I never went out saying I was a fan, as I don't think people should just because something like this happened. In a way it's a bit of an insult to their death, telling lies to make you look better in the mourning of a celebrity. Did all those people posting on FB actually see any of his work outside of F&F? Did they ever see or even consider seeing stuff like (Just taking randomly from his imdb page) Joy Ride, Eight Below, or Takers? He was in all those movies among a bunch of other ones that many probably haven't seen or even heard of. Nope, just F&F. Personally I remember really liking Running Scared and have been wanting to see it again for a long time. I just hope I find it somewhat as good as I remember it or else I may feel guilty for changing my mind, especially with how hard he seemed to be working in the business.

Another that is a bit like this but also borderlines on another subject, that being the "insulting response" to their death, is Heath Ledger. I was in college when Heath Ledger died and I remember a ton of girls going nuts over his death. Now this may have been a misinterpretation but I seriously wondered how many of those girls actually knew and loved his works, and how many of them saw 10 Things I Hate About You and just thought he was cute. I probably don't need to go into it too much or else I'll start sounding like I did with Paul Walker. Also Heath didn't have a necessarily huge body of work and only so few were actually popular. So maybe the "big fans" really only had stuff like 10 Things and A Knights Tale to work with. It's different than with Paul Walker because his movies were at least somewhat advertised big whereas not all of Heath's were or he was a super small part in it. Well when he did die I was shocked mostly because he was such a young guy. Still one of the biggest responses pulled from the guys was related to Batman.
Now in a way this is understandable. Big fans of a certain franchise want to know how the sudden loss of a key character with change the end result. Well thankfully it was all done by the time he died but the conspiracies that came from it I found insulting. When his death was first reported it was all a bit of a mystery to how it happened. But the hardcore Batman fans (or at least some around me) seemed to speculate that it had something to do with him getting SO into character for the Joker that it wound up killing him, or had a hand in it. Now not only is that just absurd but it's also insulting. To think that your franchise is so precious and manipulative in character that it could result in someone's death is atrocious to even consider. Not even taking into consideration that he was already halfway through filming a completely different movie when the accidental overdose of Rx drugs killed him. Let me say that again... accidental. And a lot of people automatically made The Dark Knight his swan song. Did he put on a great performance? Of course, it was very innovative and unique in a genre that is known for being pretty stupid most of the time.
But next to no attention was given to his actual final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. A movie that had to completely hault production and take the story into a completely different direction to make it work due to his death. And I thought the results were great. Parnassus is a damn fine film that had a much better outcome to someone's death than much worse productions. At least it wasn't like the choppy editting and cutaways in Wagons East (John Candy died during production of that) or the even worse Game of Death where all the original footage of Bruce Lee working on that movie only resulted in about 35 minutes of an actual movie.

But that doesn't quite give the response that something like an embarassing death gives a person and their career. At least the people I've mentioned before had a respectable going out. Whether or not their fans were "true" fans they had people worshiping them at the grave as they went out. And that's not to say people who had an embarrassing death aren't remembered fondly for their work. They found Elvis dead on the toilet after he gained a ton of weight and was doing drugs but people still adore his work. But the one that usually comes to mind for me when I think about an embarrassing death is David Carradine, aka Bill from Kill Bill. Maybe this death isn't as well known since as an actor he is mostly known to people of my era as simply Bill. He was in a lot of Kung Fu stuff like... Kung Fu the TV show. And was also in a lot of B-Ticket stuff which I think would give him a cult following. But when I found out he died after accidentally hanging himself while attempting auto-erotic asphyxiation (or in simple terms, jerking off while choking yourself) it kind of put a different light on him. And when I say that I mean it is one of those things that's hard to get out of your head knowing it happened. Like when the big O.J. trial happened it's hard to look at him any differently no matter what he did before or after it. It spoils the image of the person or characters they played. And this doesn't work only when they died embarrassingly. It also works when the death is especially tragic.

Sadly these are also image damaging even when it was something the actor, director, writer, whatever didn't do but what was done to them. Phil Hartman for example. One of my all time favorite SNL cast members. He died in the late 90s when his wife shot him in his sleep, who then afterwords shot herself. The crime was committed while she was stuffed full 
with alchohol, cocaine, and antidepressents in her system. And as funny as I found him it's hard to not think about it once you know. Kiki's Delivery Service is in my top 3 favorite Miyazaki movies. He did the voice of Kiki's cat in the American dub. And while that movie brings me a lot of joy as does the man himself it's hard not to think about the end of his life. 

And if you want to go more tragic you could always look at Heather O'Rourke, the cute little blonde girl in Poltergeist. This poor girl died at the age of 12 by cardiac arrest after intense complications that started with flu-like symptoms. I remember her being a pretty awesome actress in the Poltergeist movies so there was always the promise of a good career. Still she was taken down physically that was hard to see coming in some ways.

But if you want really tragic then look to Judith Barsi, the girl who played Ducky in The Land Before Time. Even younger (10 years old) her father became abusive as her career started taking off. In the end she was shot to death along with her mother by her father, who then took the gun to himself. Try watching The Land Before Time again and not think about that when Ducky comes on the screen. Or when you're watching All Dogs Go to Heaven cause she's in that, too as Anne-Marie. The orphan girl.

Of course it's hard to look at any celebrity the same when their death came sooner than anticipated. There's a whole laundry list of folks who could have been around longer but are gone for one reason or another (in no particular order): John Ritter, Brittany Murphy, Michael Clark Duncan, Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze, Graham Chapman, Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, River Pheonix, Richard Jeni, Jim Henson, Bernie Mac, Isaac Hayes, and the list goes on. Heck, even my beloved Stanley Kubrick could still be alive or alive a little longer than he was if it weren't for the heart attack that killed him. But I doubt he'd still be alive today. If he were he'd be 84.

Then there's the one that bugs me the most, which is when a celebrity is honored in death in a completely different way than they were in real life. Example. Shortly before Amy Winehouse died I saw tabloids all over the place that showed her in the worst possible state, with headlines that may as well have said, "Look at this fucking piece of white trash bullshit!" They were slamming her left and right with what seemed like no levity whatsoever. Then suddenly she died (unsurprisingly) from alcohol poisoning. Within days I saw those same tabloids show her on the cover in the best possible light they could show. And I felt it was one of the most contradictory things I'd ever seen from tabloid to tabloid. I mean, the difference was like night and day it was so extreme. And I know Amy Winehouse had her music fanbase that cared about her a great deal. And I'm not here to bash them for looking at her in a positive light. It just drives me nuts how this will happen just because a celebrity dies. If you didn't like them when they were alive chances are you won't like them when they're dead. Not to say they wish death on these celebrities and neither do I. That's sick. But when I think back to that drastic change in appearance on the magazine covers it makes me wonder. Makes me wonder how the magazines would show off, let's say Justin Bieber if he were to die tomorrow by whatever means. He's been slammed by most people in the world for the last few years for being an arrogant, spoiled little prick who has no respect for his fans or for much of anything other than himself. He's a little douchebag who has no doubt been a negative influence on his young female fans. But what would the cover of people magazine say if he were to die tomorrow? Would it say "An influence to young girls" or "A musical treasure who will be missed"? I don't know but it certainly wouldn't be saying all the things people have been saying about him for the last few years as he progressively gets worse and worse. Again there will be the hardcore fans who will say he was the new Elvis Presley or something like that but it doesn't mean everyone will be thinking that. It can be really off putting when the perception of someone is changed just because they died. If you were a fan of someone, act that way when they go. If you're not, then you don't have to change your mind. But at the very least have some humanity and don't act like the assholes who sing praises when someone they didn't personally like dies. That's just... dark.

...there may be some exceptions for the greater good of our people...