Sanity Meters

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The key to horror, IMHO, is never fully showing what is there--just pieces of an incomplete puzzle.

Your FPS horror-game will need to have minions and cultists to eat shotgun shells and generate some mild sense of threat and impediment to foward motion, and then evil lieutenant "bosses" to bring in the occasional difficulty-spike, but there needs to be a sense of something beyond that, some great and terrible mastermind lurking in the shadows, some greater evil going on all around you, that you can sense is there, somewhere, but never quite have the whole picture.

It's true enough what you said, it's a staple of horror games the easy-to-kill jumpy monsters, together with the sense of dread of something larger than the barrel of a shotgun can handle. But, with Lovecraft in mind, the whole basis of his horror, was the fact that's utterly impossible to understand what was being reported, being necessary to circumvent the traditional ways of description. The imagery behind R'lyeh is a prime example of it:

"Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it
when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he
dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces - surfaces too great to
belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and
hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told
me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was
abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from

Now, though this can be put into writing, and the readers' mind can try and picture something outside his/her own understanding it'd be impossible to translate into graphics things that are in itself beyond the scope of normal physics. You can create a good horror game, with cultists and tentacl-y monsters and a delightfully dreadful atmosphere, but I'm not sure how easy it is to create the same feeling that the Lovecraftian stories have.

Jedi Sasquatch:

Sir John the Net Knight:
Yahtzee took a shot at "Alice"... Oh good lord, is nothing sacred to this guy?

(Short answer: No...)

Long answer: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Best answer.

Indigo Prophecy, yeah the good name, was very movie like, it's the only game, i feel, that has done interactive cinema correctly

so th game seriously did blue screens and volume tick downs or was that some more of ZP humor?

Yahtzee also missed "I don't have a mouth and I must scream", which had a psyche meter that pretty much serves the same function. Raising it high enough and you get the good ending for that character, with the character getting cathartic vindication for his/her issues. Fall low enough and your character is eternally tormented for their character flaws by sadistic computer god.

Sir John the Net Knight:
Yahtzee took a shot at "Alice"... Oh good lord, is nothing sacred to this guy?

(Short answer: No...)

Slightly longer answer: Portal.

As a game design implement, I don't see any problem with a sanity meter (preferably one that is transparent to the player) or any other emotion construct that restricts or enables the character in a way the player is not (exempli gratia, the frustration meter with which player Tanks contend in L4D Versus).

Regarding the original Sanity stat in Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG, I think they modeled it poorly off classical hit-points, where one has a quantity of Sanity (100% = sane) which gets reduced by revelations, creepy environments, hardship and so on. A better model (one closer to modern psychiatric models) would have been to start sane characters at zero and then have Insanity accumulate, limiting the player's actions (by prohibiting or requiring specific behaviors) until these restrictions render the character inoperable.

Regarding the suicide ultimatum of Sanity in Dark Corners of the Earth, I only encountered it in the statue room, in which sanity is being magically drained, and I found it a frustrating element of the game while I was simply trying to solve the puzzle. There were other points in the game I remember learning how to operate with woozy-vision just because it was plain not letting up. Meh. My complaint was not that it was inconvenient, but because the poor Jack Walters was so mentally fragile. Walters did not fare well through his studies of the arcane.

Insanity by revelation does occasionally appear in real world, usually to philosophers and mathematicians thanks to thinking too hard. Bertrand Russell, for example, was broken by his efforts contributing to Principia Mathematica. But then again, I broke my own head writing AI in the '90s. Still, while I can find the magnitude of the universe daunting (this blue speck on which we live is even smaller in comparison to our universe, than a bacterium, or even an atom is, compared to the Earth. We're really tiny.) Yet, not only do most humans cling to belief systems of self importance, of natural agency, and divine anthropomorphism, but do so even in the face of observations to the contrary. I would hypothesize it is due to our strong social instincts that we make such evidence defying presumptions: we protect our own sanity via insanity, by denying the truths that might make us insane.


No mention of the Fear Effect games?

Yahtzee also missed "I don't have a mouth and I must scream", which had a psyche meter that pretty much serves the same function. Raising it high enough and you get the good ending for that character, with the character getting cathartic vindication for his/her issues. Fall low enough and your character is eternally tormented for their character flaws by sadistic computer god.

It's actually "I have no mouth and I must scream"


He forgot Shadow Hearts? Come on! It's an entire trilogy and he didn't even mention one of them? Each of those games uses a little thing called 'Sanity Points', gee, I wonder what that could stand for... Even half of the reviews I read about the games back in my day described it as a 'Lovecraftian' gameplay device.

And he didn't even give it a footnote?
Next time, try to do some research before you pop out another article.

I disagree with Yathzee on a few points.

1. In The Shadow out of Time, I don't think Lovecraft expected the reader to be horrified by the great race of Yith, who are quite civilized other then their occasional habit of stealing the bodies of an entire race. By that point, the aliens were more "human". The fact they were no longer "old gods" but "sufficently advanced aliens" is proof of that right there. The Flying Poylps, OTOH, are much more like the traditional Lovecraft monstrosity(and quite scary when they appear in Dark Corners of the Earth).

2. The Sanity Meter in Indigo Prophecy/Farenheit was a mixed bag. I really liked how it reflected how a stressful situation would take its toll on the main character, paticularly the bits in the Police File Room and the Asylum. On the other hand, it felt really dumb how you could lose quite a bit of sanity just by not making the right button presses at an autopsy and thus not making the correct deductions when the cornor says some medical lingo(I'm sure he'd help you out, you're not a doctor and having a bad day anyway).

3. Ironically, Yahtzee mentions the annoyance of a recoverable sanity meter but not for the game It bothered me. Dark Corners of the Earth, where half of time all you have to do to fix your sanity is just stare at the floor or a blank wall for a few minutes, which feels like it kind of misses the point. That and sometimes all you need to do to lose sanity is look at something creepy or weird for long enough. Which in this game, is all the interesting stuff.

Wait a minute--Most of us have accepted that we're accidents in a godless existance? Doesn't the majority of the world believe in one religion or another?

Yahtzee, I love ya, man, but come on. Not all of us believe like you do, and guess what? THAT'S OKAY. We're all entitled to our opinions, and my reason and logic leads me to a different place then yours does, and that's fine

Not that I don't appreciate the atheist jokes--"The most famous fictional character since Jesus" Hehe.

What's funny about atheists is that they have FAITH that there IS no God. Y'know, since you can't really prove or disprove the existence of one (or more, whatever floats your boat)

But what about the sanity system in the tabletop RPG Dark Heresy? As you gain "insanity points" you gain afflictions, such as random hallucinations, delusions, or nervous ticks, until they all add up to the point that the player character becomes untreatably insane and can no longer function like anormal human being. We need something like that in a video game.

Surprised The Thing hasn't been mentioned. I didn't get to finish is, but having a sanity meter for each member of your team made it interesting when things started to go down and you didn't know if they were gonna crack when you needed them or if they'd turn on you or someone else who may or not be infected. I'd love to see this in a current gen game. Puts a twist on the team dynamic.

The Thing was hilarious with its sanity meter. I'm just saying. haha

Interestingly enough, just because we happen to be a freak act of evolutionary spunk, it doesn't necessarily mean that God doesn't exist. In fact, I think it proves his existence a bit more, since anything that sarcastic has to be real.

I actaully like Alice, and i thought as a game, it really does have the feel of someone who has lost their mind in its pretty/disturbing visuals and artworks

I had mentioned Lurking Horror from Infocom earlier in this thread.

As it turns out, someone did a Let's Play of Lurking Horror. The playlist is here:

I like the Sanity Meter in Eternal Darkness, but at least two things could have made it better:

1. The Sanity Meter should have been invisible, so you couldn't tell how much or how little sanity you had.

2. The Xel'lotath Recovery spell should have had unpredictable effects on your sanity, such as loss of sanity, making insanity effects real, etc. in addition to the normal recovery.

I think this illustrates perfectly why I love D&D, and hate pen and paper Call of Cthulu. The loss of control of your character due to a mechanic that determines he's seen something too creepy and lost it is, well, not very fun. Make the scenario creepy enough to actually induce the desired reaction: then it's a blast.

Fun article, loved the commentary on various games implementations of sanity at the end.

One thing tripped me up early in though. The phrase "most of us..." in reference to Atheists and Agnostics. Although I'm with you on the opinion the fact is that Atheists and Agnostics combined make up barely 15% of the worlds population with Christianity and Islam each outweighing them on their own and Religion in general having a whopping 85% majority of people believing in "something."

It's easy to take our own views, especially when they are derived from "obvious" and "logical" conclusions and paint the world with them. Simple mistake!


As a Lovecraft fan, I think that his work would make for a good game, if applied appropriately. But as Yahtzee points out, not every Lovecraft story or theme makes for a good plot or game mechanic, respectively.

Sanity is definitely one of those. If the player character is going to be going insane, it should be brought across through things like dialogue, sound and graphics (that is clearly-visible images and not just acting like someone's playing with the focus on the in-game camera) but not an in-game mechanic like a meter. Because honestly, where exactly has medical science found a way to measure sanity in a quantifiable way?

Now, on the idea of Lovecraft stories as game plots; again, Yahtzee's right in that some of Lovecraft's ideas of "horror" don't age as well as others, so the horror element is rather lost. Though I don't agree with him on the idea of everybody's accepted we were some kind of evolutionary accident in a godless vacuum of uncaring void. If I could be allowed to speak as a religious person for a moment, I think a lot of people have accepted the idea of life outside of our own planet but realize that doesn't necessarily mean that were entirely unimportant, nor does it disprove the existence of God, even if it turns out that from a physical or intellectual standpoint we're not the pinnacle of all life in existence.

Right, that out of the way, let's get back to Lovecraft as a game writer. A lot of the reason Yahtzee gives for Lovecraft not translating well into a game idea seems to hinge on the fact that not everything he wrote is that horrifying anymore. It's true that "Shadows out of Time" wouldn't make for a very scary story; the aliens are in fact very courteous (if you can forgive the whole hijacking-your-body-to-take-a-vacation-on-earth thing). Even "The Whisperer in Darkness" wouldn't be that unsettling, if the aliens in that one were, in fact, willing to keep your body on ice while taking you for an interstellar road trip. Although I have to say if one of the protagonists was in the right of it, it sounded like the aliens scoop out your brain and take you with them whether you like it or not, which could be rather unsettling.

But there are Lovecraft stories whose elements of horror last to this day. Take "The Rats In The Walls". I think we'd all feel a little queasy if we found out our ancestors were the wardens of some underground society that were cannibals eating the flesh of primitive cavemen. "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" or "The Dunwitch Horror" are other good examples, where delving into unhealthy and sinister mystic practices unleashed things that could threaten the world.

Now I can see an argument for how this might make good movie material, but not game material, and you'd be partly right. An existing Lovecraft story might not make a good game in itself, because when you read Lovecraft with modern sensibilities and mindsets, you realize the protagonists in his stories were often trying to delude themselves or were incredibly naive, narrow-minded and dense to blunder into the situations they did. The only way to get the player to follow in their footsteps is to box them into it.

But Lovecraft created a setting for his stories that has a lot of potential: the early 20th century, when industry and science are growing but there's still people and things around us that defy scientific explanation or explanation through accepted preconceptions. It's a setting where a police investigation can lead to a crazed cult whose ringleader is attempting to find a way to unnaturally prolong his life, where a scientific expedition can discover a lost, ancient city ruled by creatures that weren't human. Even after all these years, the world Lovecraft created with his stories remains fertile ground for inspiration.

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