Sanity Meters

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Sanity Meters

Lovecraft doesn't translate too well into videogames.

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You make good points about the games i have played (Fahrenheit and Too Human) overall I found this a good read

I have to agree. If a character is feeling something that the developers want the player to feel, adding something as over the top as a meter is a big mistake. If it's done right, the player should be feeling that emotion anyway.
I have to bring up Bioshock 2 as an example of a morality choice done right, (ie. without being punished or rewarded, with no meter in sight.)
SPOILERS XXX Near the end of the game when the bombs start to go off, (and even a little bit before that), you walk into various rooms with people rocking back and forth on the ground, holdings their heads and shaking. That posed a big question to me when I played. The people who I was observing hadn't provoked me in any way. But they could just as easily stab me in the back the second I turned around. Making the decision to let them live was a very difficult one, which was why I loved it. XXX END SPOILER

Eternal Darkness is the prime example of how the mechanic should be used, though, I have to admit, the biggest flaw it's that it gets old easily.

I didn't know about Eternal Darkness. That's a pretty neat idea, if only as cheesy as Mr."YOU SEEM TO LIKE MARIO SUNSHINE" in Metal Gear over there

I like the Eternal Darkness approach the most of the bunch but I think sanity meters should be invisible. Don't tell us how sane we are, that way when crazy shit happens I'll be like "Holy shit what the fuck" rather than "oh my sanity is low".

Also I think if your sanity gets too low the game should start conjuring things like fake enemies that disappear when you attack them or something like that. Get you to be unsure as to whether or not you want to use your ammo on the monster as it might be fake.

I didn't know about Eternal Darkness. That's a pretty neat idea, if only as cheesy as Mr."YOU SEEM TO LIKE MARIO SUNSHINE" in Metal Gear over there

Oi, it's called, "Metal Gear Solid." And that was a stroke of genius mind you!

I think Eternal Darkness uses the sanity meter in the best way possible. Actually making the player think they're insane the first time they see an effect is awesome.

I still agree that the player's reaction should be the only real "sanity meter", but incorporating Psycho Mantis-like effects can really draw a player in.

Gotta agree with everything you said about Lovecraft these days. Yeah, I still love his work, but it doesn't really scare me, or make me tense up. I can only imagine how scared shitless I would have been if I could have read it back in the days before humanity started to succeed in ruining the mystery of the universe.

Sanity bars kind of irk me. Part of me thinks its a good way to make a horror game more difficult, therefore making it scarier. But at the same time, as you said, a good horror game should actually have me feeling what the player character feels.

Good article though. Any time you write about a survival horror game, I love it, as its my favorite genre.

That American McGee's Alice comment was one of the funniest things I've seen all day.

Oh, and, yeah, when you think about it, the meter in Indigo Prophecy was a tad stupid. But, you know, great game and all.

Still, I think there might be use to sanity meters, provided they don't use them to plug cheap effects like the one in Amnesia.

Ah, good old ED. But you're right of course. Despite being piss scared of worrying when and if the game decided to dick with me the first time through, after a time it was just a fun exercise to see all the different effects I could find. SHOCKING HORROR!

ah, eternal darkness, the game I replayed atleast 4 times to get all the runes and to get the "real" ending, and oh how many times I ended up walking around a room with blood on the walls, limbs falling off and sudden body burst and then the infamous deleting save files 'cause they are corrupt...I like Eternal Darkness, good game :D


I didn't know about Eternal Darkness. That's a pretty neat idea, if only as cheesy as Mr."YOU SEEM TO LIKE MARIO SUNSHINE" in Metal Gear over there

Oi, it's called, "Metal Gear Solid." And that was a stroke of genius mind you!

Oi, it's called "Metal Gear Solid Snake." And that was a stroke of MADNESS mind you!

I have to agree that Amnesia's sanity meter wasn't particularly well implemented.

However, it did serve a purpose. It discouraged the player from getting a good look at the monsters. And if you did try to get an eyeful your vision would go blurry anyway. It also added a little bit of complexity to the whole hide-in-the-shadows thing.

Yeah, Eternal Darkness had a problem with how easy it was to obtain health and sanity. After about two missions I just didn't bother with my sanity. It was more fun to watch my character's head fall off and recite poetry at me.

My favourite sanity effect in Eternal darkness was after beating an episode being told "the story continues in the sequel!". Modern game designers apparently didn't notice it was a sanity effect and started copying away...

Lovecraft was a cheap pulp author back in his day, maybe his works just were never scary.

Sanity meters never worked in the original Call of Cthulhu pen & paper game either. It's basically a way to force a horrific cost out of player characters whose default reaction would be to sleep through the utter boredom that informs the first 90% of your typical Lovecraft module. And in Arkham Horror, the sanity meter is essentially a second health meter (neither of which can go to zero), only it's also your mana pool for spells.

I love story based games and have never gotten behind forth wall breaking HUD devices like the sanity or good/evil meter.
I think for narrative sanity to work in a game is to not have the player know when the character has gone insane (my logic is that crazy people don't know their crazy). Narrative sanity should work with changes in the characters behavior, ranging from subtle actions/irrational responses to normal situations/and the more extreme in having full blown visual and auditory hallucination and not just like the ones seen in Eternal darkness, A game could employ phantom enemy's that only effect the character and cannot be kill or even fought.

I think the main problem with them is that in the lovecraft books people didnt go insane just because it was scary it was because the beasties operated on a different set of physics or similar that a human brain just couldnt cope with obviously this would be difficult to bring into a visual medium


I didn't know about Eternal Darkness. That's a pretty neat idea, if only as cheesy as Mr."YOU SEEM TO LIKE MARIO SUNSHINE" in Metal Gear over there

Oi, it's called, "Metal Gear Solid." And that was a stroke of genius mind you!

I am in agreement. The experience totally threw me. i placed my controller on the floor and he moved it... HE FUCKING MOVED IT USING THE POWER OF HIS MIND :O

I don't even know why people liked Eternal Darkness. It had bad combat, bad controls, bad cameras, and a boring story.

The game that pulls off sanity the best, in my opinion, does it by incorporating it into the story rather than a game-long meter. This game is Batman: Arkham Asylum. What makes it work is, the Scarecrow sequences serve to enhance and add to the game, rather than trying to be the central focus. It gives a good break from the style of gameplay the game's already established, and it doesn't last so long that you get sick of it. Additionally, it doesn't resort to anything obvious or meta.


For example, in Eternal Darkness, you start seeing volume controls, which would be fine and dandy if you're too stupid to realize "That's not what my volume looks like", Batman avoids this by all being game specific. It's also less immediately obvious, when you turn around and go through a door you just went in, and realize it didn't take you back to the previous room. At first you think you just got turned around, and it takes a couple of passes to realize you're not going anywhere and something is completely wrong.

P.S. Thanks

I enjoyed Alice even though it was a healthbar. Demented LSD story x2 ftw.

The Fahrenheit meter was a bit broken by the fact that after all the dreadful things that happen, you can have Lucas end it all by trying to use a broken vending machine.

I kind've like sanity meters. It's more interesting to have to worry about the character's actual morale rather than just taking a bullet to the head. True, such a meter should never be used in the place of actual scares, but it also isn't entirely inappropriate that the in-game person whose actual flesh and bone is on the line feels something entirely different from the person behind the controller who's greatest risk is the possibility of having to hit the "quick load" button.

I do think they should try to do more interesting things with such meters, as in Eternal Darkness- there's room for a lot more than just blurry effects and wonky controls in the face of diminishing sanity. Auditory and visual hallucinations can make for interesting effects; perhaps even having the player go through an entirely different version of the level they're in if they're losing their marbles, or face the possibility (hinted of in games like Silent Hill) that the things they're seeing as "monsters" may not really be what they appear at all.

In some ways I think Indigo Prophecy/Farenheit just about did it right- the character's morale was an ongoing concern, but not generally something the player had to spend every spare moment thinking about. I rather prefer that to the morality system in Mass Effect 2, where the Paragon/Renegade choices increasingly become another "stat" one has to monitor in order to have the best options available, rather than a boon to role-playing the character as one envisions him or her.

For decent Lovecraftian reading in the modern era, I recommend "The Laundry" series by Charles Stross. Though they are also pretty funny as well.

Basically it is about how the UK cicil service (and to some extent the CIA etc.) would handle Lovecraftian horrors... by counting paper clips and worrying about if getting your brain sucked out would violate OSHA standards.

(clipped from the Stross Wiki page)

The "Bob Howard - Laundry" series

* The Atrocity Archives (2004, ISBN 1-930846-25-8; also contains the extra story The Concrete Jungle)
* The Jennifer Morgue (2006, ISBN 1-930846-44-4; also contains the extra story Pimpf)
* Down on the Farm (2008) available online
* Overtime (2009) available online
* The Fuller Memorandum (2010, ISBN 1-84149-770-3)

Down on the Farm and Overtime are short stories (initially available through other means) you can get for free on the Amazon Kindle store or from the publisher's website if I rememebr right. (There is a free Kindle reader for PC and Mac). Others are available in a variety of formats including Kindle.


I have to say I enjoyed most of the games when they came out (some of them are a bit dated now) I'm not so sure if it is the Lovecraft itself, or just the games that came from that mindset. At the times I played them the mechanics didn't bother me so much, especially Eternal Darkness... where i admit to trying to be crazy and not crazy to see how the rooms progressively changed.

I've never been a giant fan of Lovecraft as a writer. He took up a lot of words trying to describe how indescribably awful things were.

I have to say the Lovecraftian movies are usually way worse than the games... way way worse

I think a good point to take from this is how the effects of a depleted sanity meter show themselves. For instance, the blurry screen/heavy panting is not nearly so effective as the effects that cross through the game world and really screw with what we think is going on, like in Eternal Darkness, or Arkham Asylum (the Batman one). It's like dream sequences in games that try to convince you they aren't dream sequences, and fail miserably, if only because the sky now has eyes. Trying to fuck with a player's head in-game is less effective, in my experience, than letting that fucking cross over into the world where the player believes they are safe and alone.

Yahtzee took a shot at "Alice"... Oh good lord, is nothing sacred to this guy?

(Short answer: No...)

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.

Tell me I'm not the only one here who enjoyed chose your own adventure books. Some of them did bother to develop interesting alternate storylines.
Eternal Darkness sounds quite clever but I'd have probably gone insane if I'd tried to play it through without knowing the gimick: The computer I'm using now has too many bugs as it is.

I like the Eternal Darkness approach the most of the bunch but I think sanity meters should be invisible. Don't tell us how sane we are, that way when crazy shit happens I'll be like "Holy shit what the fuck" rather than "oh my sanity is low".

I agree with the meters needing to be invisible. In fact, if you really wanted to pull off a sanity meter, not ever mentioning that you've implemented one at all would be nice. If the effect of going insane was subtle enough (think glimpses of monsters at the edge of vision, causing you to expect attacks when there's nothing there rather than the current trend of playing a prank of sorts on the player), and nobody realized there was a sanity meter, you could probably glean something interesting out of it. At the very least, you'd make sure that peoples playthroughs were somewhat customized to their playstyle due to the effects being influenced by it. As it is these days, the sanity meter tends to just be another health bar for us to keep an eye on.

Yeah, the Eternal Darkness sanity metter does that. I tend to do it myself, but some characters have so little sanity sometimes is really difficult to control it, despite the magic spells and the enchanted crosses.

While I agree with the thought that the sanity meter doesn't work to well in games, I think you really missed the point of some of Lovecraft's works. Particularly, Shadow out of Time, which has always been one of my favorites (second only to Colour out of Space). You weren't supposed to be horrified by the Great Race, just unsettled. The unsettling factor to them is that they are a highly advanced race, but are totally alien. Even today, there are very few people who get what Lovecraft was playing at with his alien races; we tend to think that any advanced civilization will share our moral standing, or we attach our notions of good and evil to them. The fact that the Great Race is so far ahead of us technologically, yet appear to have no qualms with completely disrupting - and destroying - the lives of individuals simply for the pursuit of knowledge is a break from that notion. The fact that they were so courteous makes it truly unsettling; it's not that they're evil, they're just incredibly alien.
Now, the polypous creatures that hunted the Great Race and eventually drove them to flee their host species, they were meant to be scary. And they were, particularly in the chase scene at the very end.

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.

I have been thinking about maybe reading through some lovecraft someday, is the any book in perticular which would be the best to start with, or?

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