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Clock Tower 3
The Clock Tower series started off on the SNES with the best of intentions - a survival horror game that de-emphasized combat, not unlike Amnesia and Penumbra, where your only option is to hide. Clock Tower 3 continues this to a certain extent. Its sanity meter goes down when the monster finds you, and when it reaches zero you panic, which makes you vulnerable to a final attack. Fair enough. But then things get a bit weird. Your miniskirt-wearing schoolgirl heroine transforms into a battle valkyrie and fires magically-conjured arrows at the monster to defeat it once and for all, undermining the horror theme somewhat. Did I mention this is a Japanese game?
Also, incidentally, CT3 contains some of the most spastic character animations I've ever seen in a game. In some cutscenes people throw absolute fits while conversing with each other. It's like they stuck all the motion capture balls on an octopus in an electric chair.
American McGee's Alice
Get the fuck out of here, American McGee's Alice. Everyone knows you just took a health meter and stuck a sanity label over it, you big fat cheat.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth
The only direct adaptation of Lovecraft's work on this list, DcotE starts promisingly with a memorable and panic-inducing chase sequence through the streets of Innsmouth but then descends into mostly gunplay and wonky stealth. The sanity meter was not unlike Amnesia's in that it largely just made the screen go blurry and wibbly-wobbly, to the extent that some moments felt like I'd gotten my head stuck in a Vaseline-smeared fishbowl. I've heard that if your sanity gets low your character spontaneously shoots himself in the face, although I played it all the way through and that never happened to me. For which I'm grateful, because I couldn't imagine a more irritating mechanic. Imagine if you'd saved just beforehand.
And finally we come to perhaps the most overt use of sanity meters in a game, in this decent Gamecube action-adventure developed by Silicon Knights before they got sucked down into the sickening morass of Too Human. The sanity meter was probably also the most mechanical of the lot: You had a big on-screen bar that went down when monsters looked at you funny and went up again when you hacked cathartically at their corpse. If it got too low the game would start playing quite devious tricks on you - pretending to delete your save games, faking a bluescreen of death, or making a volume counter appear and start ticking down so you thought you were sitting on the remote control. Sadly, sanity was so easy to restore, especially once you had the magic spells, that the only reason a player would stay insane would be to see all the funny effects. And that's not horror anymore. Consider the difference between being chased down by a lion and coming to a zoo to look at one eating its own shit.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.