This Isn’t Happening! – Six Games With Unsettling Sanity Effects
Eternal Darkness perfected sanity effects by making the player wonder if their own mind was broken. That said, there were many other horror titles that tried out different effects to capture the feel of a mental state shattered by fear. Some altered gameplay to capture an unreliable brain. Other games distorted the player’s reality. Even more put you in greater danger as you saw the otherworldly.
There were many ways to capture that feeling of your sanity and life slipping away when you witnessed the unspeakable. Here’s six of them that explore the mental and physical costs of dealing with the supernatural.
CONTENT WARNING: Mental Health, Self-Harm, Suicide
Sweet Home may be my favorite horror RPG, but this one is a very close second. Vengeful spirits, alternate histories, and a turn-based combat system made it hard to put down.
While dealing with its gruesome creatures, you were on a timer of sorts. Each character has Sanity Points (SP) on top of their regular health and magic. These tick down during combat, draining as the party members experience the macabre. If these drain away to nothing, your character will go Berserk and start behaving erratically. They’ll start hitting your own characters or casting spells at random. The music also turns discordant and disturbing.
Each player has a different amount of SP depending on their experience with the supernatural, so you’ll want to keep an eye on them all. Wouldn’t want your strongest characters turning on you during a long boss fight, right?
This effect made long fights more tense as you needed to keep your mental health in the back of your head. Having someone go Berserk at a bad time would have terrible results. Also, that chaotic music cuts right through me. It feels so utterly uncomfortable and wrong that I almost fear the music more than the sanity effect. I’ll do anything to keep from hearing that tune, so I’m always on edge in a fight in Shadow Hearts (and its stunning sequel that you should go play right now, Shadow Hearts: Covenant).
Hanging out in a haunted house has some nasty sanity effects. Even if your buddies are there with you, it’s just not great for your mental state.
Sanity steadily drains as you play through Phasmophobia, doing so for a ton of reasons. You lose sanity for being in the dark. Certain ghosts have abilities that drain it. Seeing spooky things and playing with Ouija Boards aren’t good for your mental state. You’re always steadily on the decline in the game, and the further you drop, the more frightening things occur.
As your mind breaks, you’ll see more ghostly events, hear more weird noises, and have encounters with our phantom hunters. You’ll also see the ghost attacking you or your friends more often if your sanity is in the toilet. Which, I guess, is one way to figure out what kind of ghost is haunting the place. You’ll definitely get a good look at them as they hunt you down.
Clock Tower 3
Alyssa is supposed to go into hiding until her fifteenth birthday. As this is a horror game, she doesn’t do that. This results in her being sent back in time to the scenes of some awful murders, the guilty killers dogging her throughout the time period. Being chased by adults wielding sledgehammers, acid sprayers, and giant scissors isn’t great for her mental state.
This is reflected in Alyssa’s Panic Meter, which steadily fills as she makes contact with the killers or sees disturbing things. Like watching an old blind woman get dumped in a drum filled with acid. This game really doesn’t mess around. If she sees enough bad stuff to fill it, her mind shatters and she goes into a panic.
While panicked, Alyssa will stumble and trip while running, the screen will distort and flash, and she won’t be able to use some items. She also can’t hide, which is a big problem in a stealth horror game. This panic will wear off if you can avoid the killer while in this state. Trouble is, if they make contact with you even once while panicked, you’ll die. Best to keep a clear head and avoid this sanity effect. Although that’s easier said than done around the kind of person who kills kids with a sledgehammer.
Friday the 13th (Commodore 64 Version)
I love the NES release of Friday the 13th for the wild things it tried to bring to horror at the time, but the Commodore version was no slouch, either. Although it’s a bit strange.
In this version, there are ten campers wandering around a map, and you need to keep them safe from Jason. Jason has disguised himself among the campers, though, so you need to find him. This involves thumping campers over the head with your weapon. If they simply complain, it’s not Jason. If it IS Jason, you’ll see his disguise flicker away for a second. Now, you need to beat him down before he gets away. Or kills you.
Dying from being stabbed isn’t the only way to meet your end, as you can die from sanity loss in this game as well. This is expressed through the Fear Meter. While you’re looking for Jason, he’ll be sneaking around killing campers all over the massive map. If you stumble across these bodies, you’ll witness a surprisingly graphic vision of death, then take Fear Damage. Take enough of this and you die of shock. Some games play around with their sanity effects, but this early game kills you outright if your mind gets too shaken by terror.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
While it can be a bit rough to play, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has an incredible atmosphere in the beginning. You can feel like you really don’t belong while wandering through The Old Town. Something is definitely off about the folks there. You can feel their eyes on you as you go about your business.
You know for sure they don’t like you when they chase you in the night. Any horror fan needs to experience this chase sequence at least once in their life. Trust me.
Seeing as you’re investigating otherworldly horrors and the like, your sanity often takes damage in this game. Seeing dead bodies, witnessing bizarre events, or reading about the supernatural all do damage to your mind. Even being around enemies for long will cut into it. There is no sanity meter, but your vision will blur as the damage becomes too great.
You need to get away from what’s upsetting you in a hurry. Otherwise, you’ll turn your gun on yourself if you have the ammunition. It’s a jarring, deeply upsetting effect that I don’t recommend witnessing yourself if this stuff upsets you as much as it upsets me. This game has some neat moments, but its sanity effect is honestly pretty rough to experience.
Dead Space 3
Isaac spends most of his time cutting off limbs and stomping necromorphs out. Doesn’t leave much time for worrying about his mental state. Carver, another character in the game that you can control during co-op, is another story. He’s not doing quite so well.
When you and a friend play Dead Space 3’s co-op mode, one of you will be controlling Isaac and the other will play as Carver. Carver is starting to see things, though. It seems innocent enough at points. A few toy soldiers here and there. There’s odd items and decorations everywhere. The player controlling Carver is the only one who sees this, though, so if you’re talking to your co-op buddy about all of the bizarre things you’re looking at, they may start to question you. You might question the Isaac player for NOT seeing them.
These items soon give way to whole visions and differing gameplay sequences, but it’s when these moments are tiny that they will have each player doubting the other’s sanity. That’s what I experienced as I laughed at the toys in my environment while playing as Carver, convincing my poor co-op friend that I wasn’t doing quite all right. We didn’t realize the game was showing us different things, resulting in an intriguing sanity effect that played out between us in the real world.