Writing about a game like Sanitarium is always an interesting prospect. It’s an old game, having come out 20 years ago. It’s a genre (adventure) that has fallen out of vogue considerably in that time. And it treats its subject matter (disability and deformity) in extremely problematic ways. Honestly, it’s possible that it’s a game best left to history, hopefully forgotten in due time. I think that’s a shame, though. Because underneath all of its issues lies a horror game that at least tries to create some good in the world.
From the opening scenes of the game, it becomes clear that we’re dealing with some fucked up depictions. In game, you play as Max, an amnesiac who wakes up in a Victorian-era mental health facility after a car accident. By solving puzzles, you progress through the game and unlock bits of Max’s history, as well as the events that led to his accident. This trip takes you through a series of fantastical vignettes, such as a circus trapped on a island after a flood, the world of a science-fiction comic book, and even into Max’s psyche. All of this is well and good, and it wouldn’t be an issue at all, if the game didn’t treat its disabled characters like otherworldly shit.
When you first wake up in the hospital, you’re greeted by a patient banging his head into a wall, leaving a bloody mess. Max makes a casual joke about how the patient’s mind is clearly gone. He later sees another patient who is just standing there, doing nothing, and he remarks on how “normal” he appears. In the next vignette, Max finds a small village filled with children that have all experienced some form of physical deformity. For the truly deformed, Max reacts in horror. For the less deformed, Max comments that the child could almost pass for “normal.” There’s a marginalization at work here, and those who do not fit within Max’s definition of normal are pushed beyond the boundaries.
The horror genre is no stranger to problematic depictions of disabilities. From the start of the genre, the narratives have had disturbing relationships with both mental and physical issues. Michael Myers, from Halloween, is mentally ill. So is Angela Baker, from Sleepaway Camp, who also features the additional “shocking” trait of being trans. Jason Voorhees, from Friday the 13th, is both mentally and physically disabled, as is Leatherface, from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In most horror stories, disabilities are synonymous with evil, and the grotesque is not only something to revile, but an indication of instability and danger. While Sanitarium does avoid equating disabilities with indications of evil, it does use disabled imagery for the purpose of horror, and this is reinforced constantly by Max’s internal and external dialogue.
Where I struggle, though, is that despite all of this, I really enjoyed playing Sanitarium. The puzzles are fun, and the overarching narrative is actually well-written and well-produced, if a bit over-acted. If it weren’t for its problematic portrayals, I would have no problem recommending this game whole-heartedly. But, I can’t just ignore the portrayals. They are in your face, and they’re never addressed. All you get is Max’s perspective on things, and the game never implies that his perspective is incorrect or troubling. The question then becomes: how best can I engage with problematic media I find enjoyable? Unfortunately, I don’t believe that answer is an easy one.
It’s something fans of other media have had to deal with multiple times. In addition to the horror movies mentioned above, film students and teachers have long had to contend with older movies, like Birth of a Nation, that are important to the film canon, but are horribly racist in their portrayals of characters of color. In graduate school, I had to contend multiple times with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an American literature classic that attempts to address racism in a positive way — and even succeeds in some ways — but uses false and disgusting language and stereotypes to do so. For fans of music, Morrissey is responsible for some of the greatest rock music of the last 30 years, but has also displayed some pretty terrifying support for far-right, fascist groups in recent years. In each of these instances, fans who are paying attention have to at least consider these issues as they engage in these works, and unfortunately, separating the art from the artist is not always easy. In some cases, the art itself is the problem. In instances when it is the artist, you often have to address whether or not you want to financially support a person or company displaying such troubling behavior.
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. And often diving into discussions around this topic results in more questions than answers. Often someone will bring up some other situation around a different text or person, one you weren’t aware of, and the whole cycle starts all over again. It would be easier if we could just ignore all of this stuff and just enjoy the art we want to enjoy, but that’s ultimately irresponsible. These portrayals do have effects on the real world. For example, the demonization of mental health has led to some people refusing to get treatment, out of fear of what their friends and family might think of them. Mental health is seen as weakness, and no one wants to be seen as weak, so they avoid treatment, and untreated mental illness can lead to violence against themselves or others.
As far as how to engage these titles in the midst of all of this, I think there are different levels of engagement. First, for some people, engaging these texts is just not an option, and that’s okay. Everyone approaches this topic from a different place, and people have to have a certain degree of self-awareness to understand their own triggers and have the freedom to say, “this is just too much for me.” Additionally, there are people whose personal convictions are ones of true allyship, and they won’t engage these texts out of solidarity, and people should have the freedom to do that as well.
For those of us who do choose to engage, though, I think it’s important that we never stop talking about this stuff. Because if we don’t, nothing will change. We have to bring these problems to light, and we have to push for change from those who create the art. We have to celebrate the artists who actively and intentionally create art that addresses these issues. We have to call for changes within society itself, because art is a reflection of the society in which it is created.
And if you hate that; if your normal is to complain about us “ruining” your experience by talking about this stuff, then I am sad for you. I’m sad for your perspective that refuses to include other people’s perspectives in how you go about your day. I am sad for your desire to maintain a shitty status quo. I am sad for your antipathy toward any action that creates a better world for someone else. I am just sad for your lack of empathy.
But, that doesn’t matter, unfortunately. If you lack that much self-awareness, you certainly won’t care about what I think. And that’s okay. I’m not going to lose sleep over that. I’m not going to expend energy to even worry about that. In fact, I’m going to take the energy I could use to worry about you and devote that energy to speaking even louder.
You thought I was annoying before? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Because my volume only goes up from here.