One of the minor tragedies of gaming history was the collective dismissal of the Nintendo Gamecube. Derided with nicknames like The Lunchbox or Kiddiecube, the masses wrote off Nintendo’s little console as a failure before it even launched. It was a “toy” rather than a machine worthy of “mature” gamers’ time, a comment rooted in ignorance that rang completely hollow to me. Whatever its faults, the Gamecube was perfectly capable of delivering quality entertainment for adults (as well as kids).
Case in point: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, an outstanding survival horror title that landed with a resounding thud despite being published by Nintendo of America.
Previews no doubt made experienced gamers groan a little bit. The Resident Evil formula was wearing thin (the remake and Resident Evil 4 had yet to be released), so another game where the enemies are slow-moving zombies no doubt turned away more than a few potential customers. The odd title didn’t help; “requiem” is one of those words that my brain refuses to remember, forcing me to grab a dictionary every time I encounter it.
Rather than debate the reasons for its commercial failure, let us celebrate Eternal Darkness for the triumph it was: a video game that delivered a disturbing horror experience to the player through quality writing and acting rather than cheap scare tactics, plus a killer gimmick that has yet to catch on with other games.
First, let’s acknowledge that the game’s story draws heavily on the works of H. P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos. This is not a detriment or a shortcut. I had never read Lovecraft at the time so this game served as a wonderful introduction to his work. The creators took his ideas of ancient, terrible creatures presiding over the Earth like demented gods and crafted an original story the likes of which few games (at the time or since) could offer.
As a matter of fact, their take on Lovecraft’s work was so compelling it drove me to go out and read his original short stories. That was the first time (but not the last, thankfully) that a video game ever inspired me to read a book. His writing style proved to be difficult to absorb at times; not only are these stories nearly a hundred years old now, but because of the recurring “ancient” and “unearthly” themes Lovecraft deliberately used archaic spelling and bizarre phrases. Having said that, I can wholeheartedly recommend investing in an H.P. Lovecraft compendium as it will creep you out for days if not weeks.
The game begins with Alexandra Roivas arriving at her grandfather’s estate in Rhode Island shortly after his gruesome murder. Alone in his house, she discovers a secret room containing a book bound in flesh and bone telling the story of the appropriately-named Ancients, evil beings with tremendous power who fight amongst themselves to a perpetual stalemate. Three of them exist on another plane, keeping each other in constant check, while the fourth actually lives on Earth. Its role in the conflict is not revealed until very late in the game, but the first time you see “Mantorok” on screen it is a chilling moment.
The first chapter tells of a Roman centurion named Pious Augustus who discovers three mysterious objects containing the “essence” of the other-worldly Ancients in a desert tomb. You control Pious and the “essence” you choose decides which Ancient will serve as the primary antagonist during the game. Coming into contact with the object ends his human life but grants him immortality as an undead Lich acting as a servant to that Ancient as he becomes its agent on Earth. As each chapter unfolds and centuries pass, his actions become clear. He is working to bring about the proper conditions to summon his master into our dimension, bringing about a reign of (you guessed it) “eternal darkness.”
Each chapter features a different protagonist but through contact with the book, each character comes to possess an ever-increasing set of skills and magic powers. Alex gains these abilities as well, so as the story progresses she can make use of them to further explore her family’s estate. It’s not quite on the level of a Metroid or a Castlevania game, but having a persistent “hub” and a lead protagonist keeps everything in perspective.
Likewise, the persistent, humanoid antagonist of Pious allows the Ancients to remain abstract and (mostly) hidden from view until the end of the game, all the while keeping their evil intentions in the forefront of the player’s mind. Having a recurring foe is a classic horror trope that fits well in the medium of video games, as a single monstrous face will always carry more resonance than a legion of zombies. Pious in Eternal Darkness is like Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 or Albert Wesker in that series as a whole.
A rotating cast of characters also allows for more dramatic tension because of the potential for unhappy endings. A typical survival horror game has you guide your hero through a series of near-death situations and always making it out alive. Eventually the antagonists become less threatening as a result, because how many times can you win a battle and still feel tension? In Eternal Darkness, many of the characters in the story meet an unpleasant end, reinforcing the sinister nature of Pious the Lich and maintaining a sense of danger. However, the knowledge and experience of the deceased (or the insane) pass on to the next person through to the book.
The star feature of the game is the Sanity Meter, a status that exists in addition to your character’s Life and Magic. The size of the meter varies from character to character, a subtle way of indicating how different people living in different eras view the world around them. Each time your character encounters a monster, the meter depletes a little bit. As your character’s Sanity level drops, the game responds by smashing the fourth wall and changing the way you perceive the game.
At first the effects are subtle, tilting the camera perspective or adding whispering sounds in the background. Left unchecked, the Sanity effects will grow more intrusive. Your character might grow or shrink or sink into the floor. Flies start swarming and appear to be clinging to the inside your television screen. Eventually the effects deliberately confuse you as a player, such as a sudden Game Over screen or a mock Blue Screen of Death.
The best thing about these Sanity effects are that they are unique to the medium. A paperback can’t “pretend” to erase itself as you read it. Movies and television shows might occasionally have a character talk to the audience or coyly address the fictional nature of the proceedings, but such stunts only relieve tension. Eternal Darkness actively messes with you as a player (not just as a viewer or reader) and the effect is disorienting rather than humorous.
Given the critical (if not financial) success of Eternal Darkness, I’m surprised more producers did not embrace the Sanity meter or adapt its effects for their own games. One of my favorite things about Batman Arkham Asylum was the Scarecrow sequences that were full of mind-bending moments like drawers in the morgue opening and closing, doors that lead back to the same room again, and a phony game restart sequence. Why did it take seven years to see this kind of trickery in a mainstream title?
Even if we overlook the gimmicks, one thing that definitely makes Eternal Darkness stand out is the effort put forth by the actors. So many games feature absolutely lifeless acting, particularly in horror games like the Resident Evil series. Eternal Darkness relies on the cast to project a sense of terror and they deliver. Even when the performances stray over the top, it works because so many of the characters are having their sanity pushed to the breaking point.
A wonderful example of this is the Autopsy Files of Maximillian Roivas, Alexandra’s first ancestor to encounter the Ancients. When he kills an enemy he has the option to kneel over its corpse and inspect its remains. The game maintains a record of his findings for each creature and alignment type and adds it to the menu screen. The best part is these files are not mere text but they are fully narrated and it is tremendous entertainment. I kept my disc and game save around for years just to re-listen to the Autopsy Files, though now that the internet has YouTube the audio is available for everyone to enjoy (Part 1, Part 2).
If Eternal Darkness has a failing it is in the pacing. There is a lengthy sequence late in the game that has your character completing tasks in nine chambers in the ruins of Ehn’gha, a city full of the Ancient’s underlings and followers. During the final chapter you must return to the city and revisit all nine chambers, and while the tasks and enemies do vary the repetitiveness undermines what should be an exciting climax.
Perhaps a bigger issue is that the game encourages you to play all the way through three times so that Pious may represent all three Ancients. Doing so reveals a special ending and unlocks an “immortal mode” that lets you replay any chapter with infinite resources. However, the content of each playthrough varies only slightly, so by the third go-around there’s very little to be frightened about and not much incentive to revisit any portion of the game again. Still, I remember fully completing the game in this fashion and feeling quite satisfied by the experience. The scares faded but the quality of the overall game remained intact.
The best news about Eternal Darkness is that you probably already have the means to play it for yourself if you missed it the first time around. The Nintendo Wii plays all Gamecube games and as one of the best-selling consoles of all time, the potential audience for this game is larger now than it ever was before. With Halloween just around the corner you owe it to yourself to give Eternal Darkness another chance. The graphics may not have aged well but the acting and the forboding sense of terror should hold up. Just remember to keep your eye on your own Sanity Meter and try not to be too disappointed when the game teases a sequel that never came.