Thunderbolt logo

Insanity’s Interference

While many games test the bodies of their protagonist, usually via scattered applications of bullets, only a few really worry about the mind. Crazy makes for an interesting spin on the usual plot, with questionable sanity being featured in everything from Final Fantasy 7 to Spec Ops: The Line to the meagerest of offerings in Kayne and Lynch. All of these games have one major factor in common: the sanity, or insanity, of their lead character does not affect how you play the game. When Cloud realized he wasn’t the Soldier he thought he was, when Captain Walker faced the horrors of war, when Lynch hallucinated civilians as cops, the gameplay remained unaffected. Cloud still managed his materia, Captain Walker still took cover before returning fire and both Kayne and Lynch traveled a lonely road down Mediocrity Lane.

However, sometimes insanity stretches beyond the notion of being just a plot motivator. There is the occasional instance that insanity becomes a measurable, objective indicator of your character’s well being. Within Fear Effect it supplements the health bar. In Eternal Darkness Silicone Knights brought about random sequences of horror, while Amnesia: Dark Descent separated health and sanity into two distinct meters. If there’s anything I’ve learned from playing these games, it’s that I don’t want to have to deal with managing the sanity of the character I’m playing as.


Fear Effect, before its sequel delighted in the adventures of its pair of big breasted damsels, presented a cinematic adventure back in a day when storytelling was technically limited. It borrowed the techniques of Resident Evil, combining highly animated backgrounds along with crisp, cel-shaded animation to push the medium forward. At the same time it also brought along the same movement system and coupled it with trivial puzzles and an awkward combat system. Those were the early days of cinematic action-adventure, long before Nathan Drake entered the scene.

It measured our hero’s health and sanity in the same bar. Bullets and tense situations (consider being chased by a helicopter a tense situation) brought down your health, successfully fighting off the enemy and moments of exhilaration restored your health. Whether health was low or high didn’t affect the actual playing of the game, however it did affect how health was restored. There were no medi-kits to find, no health sprays to uncover, no green herbs to mix with red herbs. Health, and sanity, was something that could not be guaranteed when traversing around the next corner.

Ultimately, measuring health and sanity as a combination, in this case, was unnecessary. Since the affects of sanity didn’t change anything it could have just been a health meter by itself. Controlling your fear meter is less about dealing with nerve, and more with avoiding gunfire from stressful situation to boss fight.


Eternal Darkness carried along the idea of a main health bar that also measured sanity, except this time there were profound affects for being insane. Anything could happen! Enter a room and discover it’s been flipped upside down. Walls bled. The volume was adjusted. All of your saved games were deleted. Only not really. Your save files were fine. The volume remained unaffected, at least on the television, regardless of how realistic it appeared.

The concept of managing insanity made more sense within this game then it did in Fear Effect. Fighting monsters and navigating traps slowly chipped away at your sanity. The Tome of Eternal Darkness granted the ability to heal yourself, itself limited by magic. Preventing insanity and maintaining your supply of magic was a simple matter of healing and fighting in balance.

When insanity did occur, it was intrusive, interrupting the actual gameplay with moments that prevented progress. The walls would bleed, and you moved on. When the room was flipped, you had to leave the room and re-enter. But let’s say you already happened to know that the game would pretend to delete your save files, and then you encounter the hallucination of the game pretending to delete your save files. It loses whatever meaning it had, turning into nothing more than a gimmick to startle the player into fear.


Independent release Amnesia: The Dark Descent separated the concepts of health and sanity into two measurements. Loss of health did not necessarily mean loss of sanity and vice versa. Things that can reduce your sanity include walking around in the dark, stressful situations (such as a mysterious gust of wind scattering loose pages through an opening door). Being attacked by the game’s monsters chipped away at your sanity, as well as their mere presence.

When I first played the game, I was expecting an immersive experience. The game told me such as it began. I didn’t get very far. It wasn’t due to challenge, as no enemy had made their way into the game, but rather due to its seemingly constant desire to wrench control away from me. As I walked down the corridor, a door flung open and the camera turned automatically to view. As I passed a lantern, the camera turned to spot it.

I can understand why any game would want to force me to look in a specific direction. I watched a friend of mine attempt to play Bioshock. While in the bathysphere, as Andrew Ryan discussed why he built Rapture, my friend gazed up at the ceiling. Left at the wall. Right at the other wall. When the big daddy showed up for the first time, I don’t think he caught a single glimpse of what was going on. Instead he was swinging his wrench at a lock that was meant to be broken after the big daddy was finished saving the little sister.

However, it works against the game’s immersion to take controls away from the player, and that’s what Amnesia’s take on insanity does. During my first experience playing the game, loss of sanity meant falling down for no apparent reason. It meant the screen getting dark and blurry. I didn’t get far because every single time the game decided it wanted to take controls away from me because of cinematic purposes, to highlight an item or because lead character Daniel was losing his mind, the immersion was broken.

Now, I don’t mind when my protagonist is insane. Crazy makes for an easy method of taking an ordinary character and building a backstory for them. I just don’t want to have to worry about managing their sanity.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2011.

Gentle persuasion

You should follow us on Twitter.