Sanitarium and the ObamaCare Debate

11 11 2009

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OK. That headline is really just Google fodder looking for Obamacare search traffic, although reading the announcement about the release of Sanitarium at GOG.com did make me think about our current health care debate in a weird way. If you’ve never heard of Sanitarium, that’s a damn shame. It’s one of the most underrated and tragically ignored games of the 1990’s. It was put together by the Dreamforge Intertainment and published by ASC Games, the outfit that was working on an action game version of White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse that showed a lot of promise and still stands up as one of their finest titles. (Spoiler warnings ahead!)

The basic storyline is as cliched as they come. You’re a man who awakens as a patient in a horrible sanitarium, your face covered by bandages and you have no idea who you are or how you got there. The staff tells you you’ve survived a car crash suffered during an escape attempt and that your memory will return once you recover your sanity. What follows though, is a truly surreal journey into insanity as you as the player keep shifting in and out of bizarre worlds and the very shape of reality changes while you struggle to recover your memory. As you play, you as the player will find yourself in a 1950’s small town being absorbed by an alien invasion, an Aztec village being threatened by a hostile god, a strange house being haunted by ghosts and a hive of intelligent bees on an alien planet. Even your identity keeps shifting as you change at intervals from a scarred man to a ten year-old girl to a four-armed alien warrior to a living statue.

What makes Sanitarium amazing and still timely though is what all of these different worlds have in common. As you play, a thread between these different worlds begins to emerge, all of them relating to your shrouded past and to why you’re in that Sanitarium. There’s also some interesting commentary on the nature of pharmaceutical companies in a for-profit health care system and the realization that the true horror you face isn’t supernatural at all — it’s the very human emotion of greed and what some people will do to protect a profit margin. It posits a drug company that will murder a researcher who develops a cure for a deadly plague because it threatens to cut into the profits generated by the stopgap drug that merely allows you to live with the disease.

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Here’s the thing, though, the commentary in Sanitarium misses out on a very important point in the for-profit world of medicine — or the for-profit world of anything. Yes, there are unscrupulous people who will do anything to protect an individual company, but I’ve discussed health care with too many people who seem to believe that it’s the profit motive itself that’s the problem, rather than the illegal or criminal actions of an individual to protect a particular set of profits. Put simply, profits are the engine of progress. Even if we could magically create a socialized medical system that actually worked, it would bring medical research to a grinding halt. When doctors and researchers make the same money as McDonald’s fry cooks, you get the same quality of doctors as McDonald’s gets workers. Remove the chance to profit, remove enlightened self-interest from the equation and you put the kibosh on the chance for cures to AIDS, cancer or anything else that currently plagues us. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.

To be fair, not even Sanitarium makes the argument that Big Pharma and insurance companies are in a giant conspiracy to suppress the cures for diseases in the pursuit of profit. That game is mostly a thriller about an evil pharmaceutical executive — an individual who commits multiple criminal acts. They leave that to big budget Hollywood movies, Michael Moore and a delightful conspiracy theorist of my acquaintance who will wax rhapsodic on how we never landed on the Moon. I leave their arguments in the Sanitarium where they belong. But even making that argument betrays not only a blatant hostility toward capitalism, but a profound misunderstanding of how capitalism works, how research works and eliminates even the possibility of finding common ground in the health care debate.

Even if a company does manage to Silkwood a particular invention, there are too many other companies out there working along the same lines who will eventually make the breakthrough. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, he merely made the light bulb so good it became commercially practical. If some candle company had had Edison murdered, the light bulb would have been discovered by one of dozens of other researchers working along the same lines.

None of this, by the way, should stop you from checking out Sanitarium if you can. It’s a genius game that never got the credit it was due. At





GoG Thursday: The Red Baron Pack

8 10 2009

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Once upon a time, back when we still thought the ’90s were going to be awesome (which they really are only in comparison to the ’00s) there was a company called Dynamix which was the best there was at what they did. Unfortunately what they did was create computer simulations, a genre that has the distinction of making the adventure game genre looking healthy and robust which is why they’re no longer around. There was a time though, when simulation, especially flight sims, were a commercially viable genre and flight sim fans eagerly looked forward to a wealth of product on store shelves that simulated everything from helicopter flight to battles between nuclear submarines. It was into this genre that Dynamix launched Red Baron, the subject of today’s GoG Thursday (which is actually a bit late due to circumstances beyond my control.)

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Here’s the thing about Red Baron — unlike most flight simulators before or since, it would successfully straddle the line between a scarily realistic flight sim with all the physics and turn ratios and airspeed drag and the sheer white-knuckle excitement of an arcade shooter. The game had excellent simulation characteristics for the era and faithfully modeled over 20 different planes of the era. If you weren’t a flight-sim junkie though, you could turn on and off different characteristics that were giving you trouble, making the planes as easy to fly as you needed.

The real joy of the game was in the campaign mode. Playing the Red Baron campaign mode it becomes obvious that it had a significant influence on LucasArts’ X-wing and Tie Fighter games. The game’s campaign would allow you to fly on either side of the Great War and would track your performance, giving you promotions and allowing you greater latitude in selecting where you wished to be posted and what planes you would fly. When you consider that most of the campaign and “the world” you fought in was presented mostly through static text screens, the game did a remarkably good job of immersing you into the rarified and psychotically dangerous world of the World War I flying ace.

The down side of the game was that the enemy AI wasn’t particularly good, even for the standards of the time. The team made up for that by making each mission in the campaign a sort of puzzle to solve. It wasbn;t enough to just fly around shooting down planes at random. You had to develop spatial awareness and understand what was going all around you. Certain enemies had to be destroyed first, you as a pilot had to be at certain places at certain times and certain objectives had to be protected or destroyed (shooting down observation balloons was as harrowing as the Death Star run). It made the game frustrating sometimes because it could be tough to figure out exactly why you’d failed a mission. Since much of the enemy actions in missions was hardwired, it also made replayability a bit of an issue but oh those tense moments when you’re pulling just enough Gs to avoid a blackout and a German fighter is getting a bead on you… It was exhilarating.





GoG Thursday: The Longest Journey

2 10 2009

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Adventure games have always occupied a weird netherworld between movies and actual “games.” That’s because the level of interactivity and actual gameplay in most adventure titles is actually pretty minimal. They are, after all merely a collection of brain teasers and often-arbitrary and maddening puzzles that act as roadblocks between cut scenes. Despite that, the best adventure games offer incredibly compelling experience despite their inadequacies as actual “games.” Maybe it’s because as crude as they are, they come closest to the now-scoffed at idea of “interactive movies,” in which you actually get to live through a well-told tale. Maybe. I haven’t thought about that deeply actually but that does seem like a good idea for a future “Angry Bear” column.

This is about GoG Thursday and one of the finest examples of adventure games in our hobby’s brief history — Ragnar Tornquist’s the Longest Journey. If you’ve never played it, head over to Gog.com and pick it up. You won’t be sorry.

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The Longest Journey is the story of April Ryan, a young woman at a crossroads in her life who discovers she’s a “Shifter.” Shifters are a very rare breed of human that can shift between our technological Earth and it’s magical twin that exists in a parallel dimension. The two earths were split thousands of years ago to prevent humanity from using the powers of both magic and science to destroy themselves. To keep the two worlds apart, a series of Guardians were set up to keep the worlds separate and monitor the balance between them. Now, however the twelfth Guardian has gone missing and the 13th Guardian must be found before the balance between the worlds collapses and the magical and scientific Earths reunite — violently.

The journey that follows is an amazing trip into two separate worlds that ask some pretty profound questions about a lot of stuff. Is science just magic that works? Is there a destiny for all of us and can it be changed? Does free will have any meaning at all? It also does a lot with the theme of duality and unity. It deals with the clash of faith and reason, logic and instinct and order and chaos and why they’re opposite and whether they can be combined in a single healthy universe or person. Indeed, if there’s one thing I love about this game, it’s how often it chooses to take the unexpected path in its storytelling. The character of April Ryan is really on two quests — one to save the world, one to discover herself. She succeeds at the first but utterly fails at the second, something that has profound consequences in Dreamfall, the second game in the series.

In fact this is one of the few stories of this type I can remember that doesn’t end with some preachy homily about “coming together” and uniting the disparate halves of our souls. It points out that certain things are diametrically opposed for a reason and that attempts to unite them may be an example of human hubris. Perhaps it is better to leave magic and science in different universes. Being a grown-up sometimes means we have to make agonizing choices and decide what we’re going to leave behind. The Longest Journey doesn’t shy away from that nor from showing the consequences of those people who insist on having it all.

Highly recommended.





GoG Thursday: Realms of Arkania 1 & 2

25 09 2009

One of the few fringe benefits of going out on your own is you get to catch up on a lot of games that have been moldering away in your “to play” pile forever. Given that my gaming history stretches back to 1977 though, that means that my “to play” pile includes titles that first came out on floppy discs back in the Clinton era. That’s why I like Gog.com. They’re a startup company that takes old games and makes them workable on modern hardware and sells them pretty damned cheap. Ever tried getting a really old DOS game to run on Windows XP or Vista that you’ve downloaded? Yeah, me too and I have the tear-stained t-shirts and furrows in my desk to prove it. That’s why I’m starting “GoG Thursday.” I’m going to pick out something on GoG.com that I’ve either never played and blast through it or something I have and talk about why it’s still awesome. And no. I’m not getting paid for this, although that would be nice.

This week’s GoG Thursday is the just released “Realms of Arkania 1 & 2”, the first two installments of an RPG series that never got the attention it was really due in North America. the games are based off a stat-intensive RPG series still popular in Germany called Die Schwarze Auge or “The Dark Eye,” a kind of Teutonic answer to Dungeons & Dragons. The Dark Eye series is a fairly standard RPG universe that becomes special in the way harks back to Tolkien’s inspiration in Germanic folklore. Orcs and goblins for example, are furry savage beastmen that haunt the forest rather than the pseudo primitive tribesmen that they usually are in modern fantasy. It’s also a pretty low-magic universe where enchantment is rare and special rather than a substitute for technology.

The first two games in the series will come as a bit of a shock to anyone whose RPG experience only stretches back as far as Bethesda’s Oblivion. Realms of Arkania is old-school RPG time with loads of stats for everything under then sun — including a characters personality traits. They all mix and match in a variety of ways to determine the player’s success at everything. That means if you’re not into min/maxing a character or delving deep into stats and math, you’re going to find this a really difficult game. If you’re not afraid of a little work though, there’s nothing better than this series for the obsessively nerdy RPG player. Back in the day, I lost WAY too much of my youth digging through really well-designed dungeons and battling the monsters in these games. Of the two, the second game in the series — Star Trail — is better. You really don’t have to play them in order to appreciate them though. Whichever one you start with, you won’t be disappointed.

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