Insane Musings: Thoughts on Insanity in Video Games

I was recently watching some videos of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, & it got me thinking about how sanity has come to be measured in some games alongside health.  For obvious reasons, this is a trend exclusive to horror games, & has come to more use recently.  It’s an interesting & effective way to screw around with the player’s mind.  C an you imagine what Silent Hill 2 or Fatal Frame would’ve been like with sanity effects?

Although the games vary in the manner in which sanity is measured, there are some typical means in which the loss of sanity is expressed.  These include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Auditory hallucinations (hearing voices, etc.)
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Player characters muttering to themselves
  • Increasingly difficult controls

Amnesia is only the most recent game to use this system, & includes all of the items listed.  Sanity is measured alongside the player character, Daniel’s, health, & can be tracked in the inventory screen.  Sanity measures range from Crystal Clear to … (which I always read as “duh”).  Daniel can lose sanity in a number of ways; staying in the dark, witnessing unsettling events, & looking at monsters.  As his sanity degenerates, his vision starts to go blurry & there is a constant cracking sound — which I’ve been told is supposed to be Daniel grinding his teeth.  As it gets worse, he starts hearing things, like screams, & hallucinates.  Most famously is the painting of Baron Alexander which changes grotesquely when you’re insane.  At it’s very worst, Daniel collapses on the ground, whimpering, making him unable to move.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is another game which uses these effects.  As the player character, Jack, investigates deeper into the mysteries of Innsmuth, he faces things that no sane human can comprehend.  CoC’s sanity system works similar to Amnesia’s, if a bit simplified.  Observing disturbing events still makes Jack’s vision blurry, but he doesn’t hallucinate.  He does still talk to himself, however.  And if you drive him crazy enough, he’ll kill himself.

Some games have done things differently, usually because (I think) they’re not in first-person.  Having blurry vision in a third-person game doesn’t make sense.  Clock Tower 3 uses a “Panic Meter.”  Completely fill this meter, & you enter a panic mode, where you’re only able to stumble about, making it difficult to escape from enemies until the meter drains.

And of course, no talk of sanity would be complete without mentioning Eternal Darkness, the game which made sanity effects famous.  Although I’ve never played the game myself, having never owned a Gamecube, I’ve seen clips.  As characters encounter monsters, their sanity drains, leading to all sorts of strange effects.  Instead of blur-o-vision, the camera angle tilts, become more extreme as insanity increases.  Characters will randomly “die,” find themselves walking on the ceiling, or even shrinking.  But most impressively was when the game started messing with the actual player.  Just about everyone knows about it now, but I wonder what the very first player’s reaction was when they were told their controller was unplugged, or the screen went blank.

Sanity is an interesting feature, but the way it’s presented doesn’t make a lot of sense.  If you look at it from a real-world perspective, it’s your basic fight or flight response.  Fear triggers adrenaline.  Adrenaline doesn’t make your vision blurry.  That would be counterproductive to survival.  Instead, you get tunnel vision, dilated pupils, loss of hearing, a racing pulse, heavy breathing & a release of nutrients for muscle action.  Why has this never been used in games?

If Amnesia were to be true to biology, it would’ve gone something more like this:

You spot a monster.  You start to hear Daniel’s heart pounding in his ears, & he’s almost gasping.  Noises become lower & less distinct.  To show Daniel’s tunnel vision, the screen goes blurry around the edges but the center of the screen gets even sharper & brighter.  And if Daniel has to run from the monster, he can do so at a faster speed than where he not in fear mode.

Of course, prolonged exposure to frightening stimuli would still ultimately lead to the popular effects as the body becomes fatigued.  Get too scared & Daniel can still roll on the ground having a fit (foaming at the mouth, I imagine), but maybe he just can’t run at all because he’s too tired & the monster kills him.

I’m not too sure how the hallucinations would tie in.  Unless you want to argue that the character’s actually being driven crazy, stress usually doesn’t make people hallucinate.  But there are ways around it.  In a game like Amnesia, where you’re pretty much forced to play in the dark, it’s easy to trick players into thinking they’re seeing things that aren’t there — which is something that could happen in real life if you’re scared.

As the idea of sanity as a measurable commodity continues to evolve, I look forward to seeing what happens.  Maybe there’s a designer out there who thinks like me.

– GamerDame

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Insane Musings: Thoughts on Insanity in Video Games

  1. I’m not sure how interested you are in the Fallout franchise(s), but Fallout 3 had a great dabble into sanity based play with Vault 106. It was really interesting and with the exception of Vault 11 in Fallout New Vegas (which nearly made me vomit with terror) is in my opinion the most interesting vault in the games.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. For some reason I’ve never played any Fallout games, although I love Bethesda’s other games. But with all the praise & recommendations it gets, I’ll probably try it sooner or later.

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