The Asylum: Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddly Toys

Dr. Kindermann:
In a soulless world... its inhabitants spineless...
Spoiled by a consumerist culture... and yet... lonely...
This gives birth to frustration... and makes one even lonelier...
The last friend remaining is of a cuddly toy.
These creatures can't defend themselves... they cannot run away...
insanity is their only way of escape.

So begins...

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There are games that simulate many kinds of professions. There are games for people who like pretending to be policemen, soldiers, farmers, surgeons, athletes, rock stars and car thieves but to the best of my knowledge there have never been any games that simulate the psychiatric profession.

Enter The Asylum: Psychiatric Clinic for Abused Cuddly Toys, a browser-played Flash advergame for the Dutch stuffed animal company Parapleusch.
Let me start out by saying that I have a natural bias towards this game because my mother is a social worker, and even though that's more different from psychiatry than most people think, it's still nice to finally see a game (a flash game no less) devoted to therapy, so you might want to take the praise with a grain of salt.

After choosing your language, and then being presented with one of the most hilariously over-the-top opening monologues in Flash game history, you're then presented with a group of sentient stuffed animals, each one suffering from some neurosis or other due to mistreatment at the hands of their owners. Your job is to psychoanalyze these adorable creatures to determine the cause of their problems.

Now, about the user interface. Casual games are notorious for finding all sorts of unique ways to limit the user interface in ways that force you to think outside the box. Sometimes this creates brilliance, other times it's an exercise in frustration. At the beginning of each session, you're presented with a list of available therapy exercises, from a "therapeutic interview" with a sock puppet, to dosing the beast with medication. At the bottom of the checklist is an option marked "professional assistance," which provides cryptic hints buried in psycho tech-talk (a gift from Dr. Kindermann to you) for those who get stuck.
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The gimmick of the user interface is that choosing from the available items on the list is actually the only action you take during the game. The goal of curing each patient can only be achieved by choosing various actions in the correct order. Now, from one point of view, this makes the game basically just a glorified dialogue tree, but keep reading, it gets better.
After you choose an action, you get a short animation showing you the action and its result. There is no dialogue in these scenes, even the therapeutic interviews with the sockpuppet are silent except for a few sound effects, all we see is how the animals react and we are left to figure out the rest on our own. During some of the therapies (dream analysis or administration of drugs) we then get treated to some trippy little dream sequences showcasing the creatures' minds, and giving partial clues as to the behavior triggers. In later stages, if you're doing it right, these dream sequences turn into flashbacks, detailing exactly what went wrong in the first place that led them to this state. The production values are very high, this is obviously a high-budget game with a large, complicated tree of possible actions. The aesthetics are successfully minimalist, by leaving the dialogue up to our imagination.

The mix of high production values and minimalist aesthetics is a curious one, but it manages to strike a delicate balance. The lack of dialogue seems limiting at first, but I guess it's appropriate given that these are plush toys, and it allows the experience to become a bit more thought-intensive, in that we are shown how the toys' expressions change, and asked to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, which is not nearly as hard as it sounds (although the Professional Assistance helps a lot).

As I said, the ultimate goal in each patient is to cure them, and this is done by performing therapeutic techniques (choosing items from the list). Of course, it's not quite as simple as it sounds. While there are many ultimately correct solutions to each animal, none of them ever uses ALL the available items on the list, and all the correct solutions involve using at least one of the techniques more than once. Fortunately the "professional assistance" usually gives hints, but they can be very cryptic hints, and oftentimes it's just down to making your best, albeit rather educated, guess.
(or you can just cheat outright and check the walkthrough at jayisgames, it's in the comments section somewhere)

A psychiatric procedural game is obviously different from other procedurals, as mental illness is to physical illness as chess is to checkers. And, true to the real profession, things frequently get worse before they get better. In at least one of the patients available for treatment, the progress bar at the top goes way, way down, even during the correct solution, before it goes up. This may confuse players, but the mind is a confusing place.

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I've blathered on for a while about the game's mechanics and aesthetics, so let's move onto the real unique selling point of this game: The emotion. These creatures, I found to my surprise, do NOT have cute little prepackaged problems designed to soothe and reassure the kiddies that everything will be all right. Call me a sucker for sob scenes, but this game is definitely not targeted at children. The traumatic histories you discover include some almost heartrending nightmares and cruel mistreatment, I was shocked at some of the dream sequences. This is a place that video games don't often go, and browser-based Flash games almost NEVER go.

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Some will probably find it corny or anvilicious, but to me it was really effective. So much so that I actually didn't feel regret about checking the hints section (the Professional Assistance) for this, since I just wanted to help these creatures, and I didn't want to lose because I actually started caring. I know the word "art" and the phrase "Flash game" are rarely found in the same sentence (and for good reason, as a quick browse through the dregs of Newgrounds will tell you), but this is a groundbreaking item.

But enough of my sentimental drivel. Back to the review.

While the extent of the actual gameplay is certainly limited in that there are only a select set of actions available at each "turn," I respect that given the amount of work that must go into every single one of them (especially considering this is a free game), and the tree of options is still magnificently detailed and intricate. I believe I mentioned that there's a cute little cutscene after every action, which not only depends on what you chose in this round, but also what you've already chosen recently in the past, and with the sheer number of possible paths available, that's a lot of scenes. There's no denying that a ton of work went into this game.

When the game was set up back in 2004, there were three patients, and in the four years since its creation they have added two more to the ensemble (a total of just five, sadly). The designs of the animals themselves are ingenious. One of the plush toys is a sheep with a zipper on its stomach, that when the zipper is opened and the animal pulled inside out, turns into a wolf, and another is a turtle that can be removed from its shell.

Okay, final breakdown:
What genre is this game, exactly? Um... truth be told, I haven't the faintest idea. So let's sum up the categories:
Graphics - For a free Flash game, not bad at all.
Sound - Not much to say. A few sound effects, no voices, no music. Not really sound-intensive.
Gameplay - Pretty good, nice limited-interface puzzle style.
Story - Well... just brilliant.
Control - No precise timing or action required, it's all about puzzles, and you can take your time. No framerate issues.
Difficulty - Either moderately tricky or really f@#%ing hard, depending on how you play it (but really easy if you cheat).
Rent or buy? Er... neither, actually, since it's free to play online. If you're looking for a visually pleasing, thought-based puzzle game that really explores what games can do as a storytelling medium, play The Asylum.

Nice review. Makes me want to play the game. Pictures should be a bit smaller though.

Yeah, I probably should. When I have more energy I'll shrink them down a little. I was worried about losing too much detail, but I probably don't need to worry about that.

Of course, I can't remember how to format posts so the text is on one side of the picture, so I should probably re-learn that too before I edit it. Best to get all that done at once so I don't have to keep a version log of the review, after all. ^_^;

EDIT: By the way, here's a little thing I learned when putting this one together: When typing a long post up in a word processing program to make it easier to proofread, remember to turn off smart quotes. When I pasted it into the window and turned on the preview, every quotation mark showed up as a ', so I wound up having to manually go through it and change every curved quotation mark to a standard one, that took me a while.

I don't use no fancy 'word processing programs'.

If you can figure out how to put text over on the right of a picture let me know. I couldn't figure that one out...

Larenxis:
I don't use no fancy 'word processing programs'.

Well, I don't use a fancy one, I use TextEdit, the no-frills one with only the basics... Microsoft Word... *shudder* only serves to reinforce my belief that Microsoft thinks their customers are absolute morons... but that's another rant.

I just like being able to see the whole thing at once before I put it in the text window here, it helps me check for mistakes more easily.

 

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