Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sunday: R’lyeh Assault And The No-Stress Stress

The sanity meter is a pretty cool idea. Cool, but kind of contradictory. It’s one thing for a horror game to create an environment that evokes an emotional reaction from a player. It’s another to simply inform the player they are feeling an emotion. It could be compared to a writer adding some philosophy to their book, and then in the book adding a character that says “gorsh you’re really smart.” But although it’s hard to pull off, there are a number of games that do it well. R’lyeh Assault, our spotlight this week, incorporates a sanity meter to the game not as an effect, but as a central mechanic.

Conceptual Meta-Wank:

I suppose we should define what a sanity mechanic is. Basically, I would consider it to be an in-game manifestation of the character’s fear. This is separate from the player’s reactions. Lots of little things can naturally add to already stressful situations—haptic feedback, heartbeat sounds, etc—but a sanity meter specifically affects the in-game character themself. All too often, the sanity meter is poorly executed. Either too disruptive or too inconsequential, they can certainly add something to the game, but rarely does it add to the gameplay.

There are a dozen types we could examine, but here are the first three that come to mind. The screen distortion in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is so extreme that it almost becomes too ridiculous to be scary, since the camera feels like the event horizon of a drunken blackout. And although the sanity effects in Eternal Darkness are neat, where you experience hallucinations and even a breaking of the fourth wall, it’s more or less just the game playing a prank on you. And then the insight meter in Bloodborne, where more of the world is revealed as you gain more forbidden knowledge. I love it and it’s really awesome, but really doesn’t affect the game much at all. 

The three examples here are perfectly suited for their own game. But what R’lyeh Assault does that’s so much better is actually incorporating sanity as a central mechanic to the game. It’s not something to be avoided, nor is it an aesthetic difference. It’s a problem that needs to be dealt with, just like any other gameplay mechanic. And the manifestation of it in R’lyeh Assault—having to look away from the enemy—organically creates stress for the player, who must temporarily lose track of whatever enemy they have encountered. 

Non-Wanky Game Recap:

R’lyeh Assault created by indie developer Blood Machine. A submission for the Bad Lovecraft Games Jam, R’lyeh Assault is a fairly cartoonish Lovecraftian game, where you play a person presumably walking the madness inducing streets of R’lyeh. As is typical in the Lovecraft canon, human brains cannot handle seeing eldritch creatures. The longer one stares, the more cooked their brain becomes, and they are left a gibbering madman/woman/person, if they are lucky. So is true in R’lyeh Assault, where you must fight off horrors with the Necronomicon. But unfortunately, you can’t look where you’re shooting for very long.

Functionally, the sanity meter in R’lyeh Assault is a sort of health bar. Except, you lose health by looking at enemies. There is a mechanic where you may close your eyes, but more often than not it’s easier to just look away for a bit. This is a very unusual but certainly interesting twist on the FPS style. How often in other shooters are you only given a limited amount of time to actually aim and shoot?

What Works:

One thing that benefits R’lyeh Assault is that the game already looks totally nuts. The black and white aesthetic as well as the low render distance creates an environment where it is difficult to tell what is going on.. The impossible geometry of the Lovecraftian city R’lyeh is supposed to be maddening to witness, just like the creatures. Obviously this is impossible to create, but it’s certainly a good enough representation. You don’t even need a sanity meter going down for the player to be completely disoriented

But the main reason R’lyeh Assault’s sanity meter is so good is because it’s completely enmeshed with the gameplay. Amnesia: The Dark Descent has a cool sanity mechanic, but the main objective of the game is to avoid going nuts, sitting in an empty room and staring at a candle until you’ve gotten over your panic. Taking a two minute breather during a horror game is not exactly great gameplay flow. The insight counter in Bloodborne has some minor gameplay effects, like additional enemy abilities, but ultimately the gameplay is about the same. R’lyeh Assault is, to my knowledge, the only game to successfully use sanity as a real mechanic.

What Doesn’t:

As is typical of the game jam submissions I play, the main issue is that there isn’t much game here. But the main thing, which I can’t actually test for myself because the game is kind of short, is that the player might quickly become accustomed to the effects. R’lyeh Assault increases the sanity impact enemies have as you go on, eventually leading to a final boss in which you can’t really look at for more than a second or two. For a game five minutes long, this is no problem at all. But if there were to be a longer game that incorporated this mechanic, it would certainly become as simple a reaction to gameplay as a Time Crisis style reload.

How To Fix It:

I don’t really know. I suppose spacing it out with some lore items or non-combat sections. R’lyeh Assault is a standard FPS, so you just kind of run through and shoot everything. Personally, I think it’s perfect as is; a five minute game jam entry. This isn’t necessarily a game that should be expanded, but rather an example that other game devs should learn from in regards to constructing their own sanity mechanics.

Wanky Musings:

There’s really no way to determine what sanity mechanic will work for a game. Just like any gameplay mechanic, there are a thousand variations that could be done, many not even conceived of yet. But R’lyeh Assault broaches into new territory (as far as I know, maybe other game’s have done this?). Effectively incorporating a sanity mechanic into gameplay fluidly is novel, and that is certainly something worth appreciating. 

You can try R’lyeh Assault on itch.io by clicking here.

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