Sanity of Morris review
The paranormal, government cover-ups, alien presence… Many of us probably know someone who has, for lack of a better term, gone down the rabbit hole of unexplained mysteries and phenomena. They’re enough to make your head spin if you think about them too hard, trying to piece together narratives from scant bits of second-hand information, assembled via vague constructs of hearsay and assumptions. Sanity of Morris is the story of a young man grappling with one such mystery. It’s by no means a challenging game, but it’s an enjoyable and well-told adventure that keeps you guessing. Those who spend their nights wondering if the truth is out there will have a lot of fun with this conspiracy-oriented thriller, though a few technical issues and curious design choices leave this extraterrestrial romp feeling more ordinary than awe-inspiring.
Sanity of Morris opens with a young man named Johnathan driving his car down a highway at night. Johnathan is responding to a distraught message left by his estranged father, Hank. As he drives, he recounts how Hank left him and his mother to settle in the remote town of Greenlake, where Johnathan is now driving to meet him many years later. Along with feeling abandoned by his father, Johnathan also feels like a disappointment to him for not following in his footsteps. Hank is a scientist, and he moved to Greenlake for his research. Johnathan wanted to become a police officer, but was unable to realize that dream thanks to anxiety issues.
The protagonist’s reflection is cut short when an unmarked van pushes his car off the road. He crashes into a ditch, narrowly escaping the flaming wreckage. Soon after, the van’s occupants exit their vehicle and begin scouring the ditch to ensure Johnathan died in the crash. Panicked by the attempt on his life, Johnathan runs into the woods for cover, realizing that his father’s cryptic plea for help may in fact be rooted in something very real, and very dangerous.
Johnathan tells his story out loud, reflecting on bits of information related to the story and his family history. His monologue is nearly constant, often serving as a guide indicating where to go next or pondering what needs to be done in order to move on. Early on, after Johnathan successfully sneaks his way to Hank’s house, he notes things like his unfurnished childhood bedroom and begins to question the narrative told to him by his mother. Finding out what happened to Hank is always the main goal, but because of the blood connection and the required rooting through Hank’s personal belongings for clues, Johnathan begins to uncover another side of his family’s tragic story in the process.
Sanity of Morris is played from a first-person, free-roaming perspective. Though we quickly become familiar with what Johnathan sounds like, we never get a good look at him in-game. On PC, WASD moves you around, holding Shift to sprint, and the mouse is used to handle and/or pick up highlighted objects in the environment. Johnathan can also crouch, which is essential for sneaking past enemies, and draw a flashlight to help see in the dark, pressing E to focus or widen its beam. Occasionally the game utilizes Quick Time Events (QTEs) in which you are prompted to run away from a foe, operate a lever, or conduct other scripted time-sensitive actions. These sequences are most prevalent in the first chapter while sneaking through the Greenlake wilderness, though they do occasionally show up in the second and third chapters as well. They work well in their brief implementation, though it’s odd that they aren’t used more evenly throughout the story.
Though the QTE segments give the game a sense of action, Sanity of Morris could primarily be described as a point-and-click stealth adventure. Early on you’ll have to sneak past several of the mysterious mercenaries hunting you down, keeping line of sight, light and sound in mind. In the second chapter, the focus on stealth becomes more frequent, though the enemies you are tasked with evading respond only to line of sight. The third chapter mixes in both enemy types, though it primarily focuses once again on the mercenaries.
Though you will have to plan your route carefully, sneaking around isn’t exactly Thief calibre. You can often hide behind a pole, desk, waste basket, or anything that covers 50-60% of Johnathan’s body from a crouched or standing position. Your opponents adhere to strict patrol patterns, often consisting of staring at a wall for ten seconds, turning and speed-walking to another wall to stand and stare at for another ten seconds. It’s not hard to get around them, though that’s not to say you won’t have to pay attention to their patterns. I did have some trouble in the third chapter during a sequence in an office space with cubicles where the guard was able to see (and kill) me through walls, but even this was manageable after a few attempts. For those who typically shy away from stealth games due to their difficulty, rest assured that Sanity of Morris is an adventure game first and a stealth game second. If anything, these segments simply break up the exploration and puzzle solving while adding a nice layer of suspense.
The bulk of the gameplay is spent exploring, looking for clues, keys, passwords, and documents. Johnathan is seemingly always just a few steps behind Hank, though exactly what Hank discovered and why it caused him to go on the run and call his estranged son for help is unclear at first. Items you can interact with are highlighted with a red outline as you close in, though sometimes you will need your flashlight on in order for the game to trigger a prompt to pick them up. Johnathan will automatically pocket keys and other items he deems important, or note clues such as passwords in his notebook.
Johnathan’s notebook has two main functions. The first is keeping a timeline of events, divided between his father’s work, the conspiracy afoot, and the institute Hank worked for. When you pick up a file folder, film reel, or tape, it will be filed under the appropriate category and timeline for you to review. These clues are almost always narrative-driven, though occasionally there will be puzzle clues hidden within. For example, Hank’s initial voicemail to his son is a set of vague instructions telling Johnathan to relax when he gets to the house, put on some music, and then later they’ll go fishing at the lake, giving you an idea of which objects and rooms to investigate. The number of documents you discover is tallied at the end of the game, and in a neat twist, you are able to view them from the perspective of a new character, judging whether the documents are the collection of a lunatic or whether there is in fact a conspiracy at Greenlake.
There is no inventory accessible, as acquired items are used automatically in the appropriate context. If you are unsure of what to do or can’t remember what you have already collected, the notebook keeps a record and lists what you need to do in order to move on. This system makes the game very easy to play, depriving players of some of the hands-on satisfaction of solving puzzles. Finding the four-digit code to a door, for example, will simply allow you to unlock the door rather than allowing you to input the code manually. You will have to find the requisite clue to the order of the numbers, but it would have been nice to give players more ownership of the solution by interpreting the clues and punching the code in yourself. Like the stealth system, Sanity of Morris’s puzzle elements are streamlined for ease of play rather than posing a serious challenge.
You are able to pick up some non-essential items, freely rotating them for viewing. Occasionally such objects will flicker and transform into something grotesque like an eyeball, spider, or severed hand before Johnathan regains his bearings. Thus the “sanity” part of the game’s title. Other objects and characters will appear at random in the environment too, such as a Ring-esque little girl, and can be quite startling. This gimmick is used quite a bit in the first chapter and begins to wear out its welcome, though they certainly succeeded in getting a few jumps out of me.
Johnathan’s anxiety will increase if he stays out of the light for too long (signified by a narrowing and blurring of his field of view), triggering hallucinations. These illusions marry the supernatural with the extraterrestrial in a logical way, though the connection between them isn’t immediately evident. When exploring alone with your flashlight out, hallucinations are rarely a problem, but when trying to slip between cover and avoid enemies, you may have to find a secluded corner to give Johnathan a few seconds’ reprieve in the light before continuing on, lest he fall victim to his panic attack and trigger a game-over, sending you back to the last checkpoint. Saving is handled automatically, and checkpoints are generously spaced. Though I died numerous times during my playthrough, the protagonist’s panic attacks were never a substantial threat. Still, the darkness mechanic keeps a nice bit of pressure on you, and forces you to keep moving.
Each of the three chapters has its own focus, be it stealth, item collection, or navigation. In the first you are given a sizable wilderness area to roam, though because Johnathan is being hunted, exploring is pointless as you will be apprehended without warning if you cross certain boundaries. The bulk of the opening chapter takes place inside Hank’s house, and while it is entertaining, it’s a shame the surrounding woods and installations weren’t better utilized, allowing you more freedom to venture out. In the second chapter, Johnathan goes beneath Greenlake to explore a network of caverns, where he discovers the strange phenomena reported by his father first-hand. The puzzles in this section often involve environmental manipulation using, oddly enough, the flashlight.
I played on both maximum and medium graphics settings. Maxed out, the game hiccupped a little bit on my system during the QTE segments, though it played fine otherwise. On medium settings it was considerably more stable in its frame rate, though the loss in texture and shadow quality was noticeable. The game doesn’t need a high-end machine by any means, but if you can play it on the maximum settings, I would recommend it for the obvious boost in lighting and atmospheric effects.
That said, Sanity of Morris has a number of ugly blemishes no matter the settings. Enemies clip through walls, and awkward animations and models are commonplace, most notably in the human characters. Several times throughout the story, apparitions of Hank will appear before you. His ghostly image looks pretty rough, unfortunately, with a mess of translucent textures forming an almost indistinguishable blob. When it’s just you and your flashlight, the game can look quite pretty. When other characters appear, the aesthetic loses some of its believability.
Thankfully, since Johnathan spends most of the game talking (and screaming), a solid performance by Rex Anderson ensures it never gets too irritating. Hank too is fully voiced in his recordings, and listening to his reflections and regrets, coupled with Johnathan’s typically frustrated responses to them, adds a convincing sense of tragedy to their strained relationship. There isn’t much in the way of music, though the sound effects are well implemented, being especially spooky when punctuating Johnathan’s hallucinations.
One curious design choice is that when you are discovered by an opponent, prompting the game-over screen (no fighting back), Johnathan will respawn with enemy placements shuffled. This allows you to try out different strategies depending on where they appear in their pre-set patrols. However, while sometimes this leads to a more advantageous starting point, it can also cause some unintentional no-win scenarios. For example, once I was dropped into a hallway with absolutely no cover with an adversary already running straight for me before I even noticed. Of course I died and had to start the section over, this time with the enemy in a more player-friendly spot. Since checkpoints are frequent, dying is never a huge deal, but this shuffling mechanic did put me in a few awkward scenarios.
While Johnathan’s hallucinations give credence to the game’s title, a more applicable name might have been “Shins of Morris,” as they are a far bigger issue than his visions. The protagonist can’t fall more than about a foot without dying due to ... shin splints, I guess. Want to drop from the third stair up instead of walking all the way down? Dead. It’s a strange choice, though it does increase the suspense in a way, as you have to keep your cool and shuffle away from enemies without being tempted to parkour to safety. Still, the number of times I died due to “watch your step” obstacles was a bit embarrassing. On a similar note, most of the furnishings and objects around Greenlake are, no matter what they look like, solid as concrete. Cardboard box with two sheets of paper in it? No stepping over that; you’ll have to go around. Getting caught crouched in front of something as trivial as that, trying in vain to slip around it before an enemy became privy to my location, proved both hilarious and infuriating, spurring me to throw my hands up in disbelief every time it happened.
Sanity of Morris took me three and a half hours to complete my first run through, with each of the three chapters taking about an hour to complete. I missed some documents, offering a bit of incentive to go back for a replay, and this is a game I can imagine enjoying again someday. It’s rough around the edges in just about everything it does, but its well-paced narrative, intriguing world and gameplay variety add up to a brief but satisfying horror experience. If you’ve ever found yourself up late listening to Coast to Coast AM shouting “I knew it!” at your radio, the blend of adventuring and sneaking your way through Sanity of Morris’s conglomeration of weird and wonderful conspiracy tropes will keep you entertained in spite of its glaring imperfections.