TBT – Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem – The Timely Limits of Lasting Horror
In 2002, Nintendo bafflingly allowed Silicon Knights to develop one of the most unconventional releases for their latest console, and it rightfully turned heads. 15 years later, it stands as a testament to the emotional response stimulating from the possessed familiar; a game which systematically haunts the console it was intended to use. Like a parasite, a virus on a computer, feeding on the user’s fear of seizing away form of control.
So forego critiquing Eternal Darkness’s inaccurate assessment of sanity, and focus for a moment on its prescribed horror ambitions. They are certainly heightened, and the commendable approach to playing with player expectations (totally fucking with them, rather) is no less than innovative.
But returning to the title now leaves far less of an impression for a variety of reasons, all of which stem from gaming’s ultimate foe: Time. Gameplay is situated and prescribed for a period and place, suitable to the generation for which it was implemented; and the functionality of Eternal Darkness has aged like a cheap candy bar.
Combat is a mess: occasionally unresponsive and as “scary” as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But what’s most disappointing is the simplified “sanity system,” a method of transcribing characters’ fears directly into the player through the conduits of the controller and the screen. Deleted save files, rebooted systems, muted television sets: all work as befitting deceptions to elicit fear and anxiety, paralleling the narrative conceits regarding Lovecraftian horrors of the mind.
There’s no doubt to the brilliance of this core concept; however in execution, the mechanics leave much to be desired. For however appropriately the game succeeds in developing its central arguments through design alone, and how well it plays off of the rather engaging storyline to boot; the separation between player and character is exacerbated by the aged principles at play, and as a horror game the title fails to succeed in defining its genre. Which is not necessarily a negative aspect.
In one engaging sequence, during an encounter in which my character was surrounded by enemies, the volume on my TV was turned down without any input from myself. I was disoriented (that is, the real me) and lost cognitive control of my actions as my eyes darted back and forth between the on-screen baddies and glowing green Volume bar at the bottom right corner.
These deceptive instances of haunted activity fundamentally succeed only during combat scenarios like this. They cause anxiety and increased tension, since grappling with the inputs causes players to question whether they’re truly in control of the situation. But on their own they are, again, mere deceptions, which grow stale and prove entirely ineffective without any further context to instill that sense of disorder and apprehension.
Most of these various sanity-affected moments come off as silly or laughable; instances the player will surely want to experience. They are the crux of Eternal Darkness’s innovation: the details which allow it a unique and memorable identity. When my character, for the umpteenth time, enters a room and slowly begins losing each of his body parts, it’s a laughable situation, not a ‘scary’ one.
Yet, as opposed to how its legacy may prove, it’s arguable that ‘scary’ isn’t truly the point. The Sanity meter drops considerably whenever in contact with enemies, and health drains only slightly, giving the impression that the game wants you to experience this. That the main articles of entertainment value stem from this Fun gimmick.
At no point am I convinced that the game has actually deleted all of my save files; or that a glitch has caused the room to turn upside down and trap me inside. Eternal Darkness is a virtual haunted house experience, determined to offer up light-hearted spooks at the expense of legitimate scares, all in the name of making psychological horror something Fun to experience. And boy it is Fun seeing the myriad creative incidents the developers must have had a blast conjuring.
This is both the game’s greatest triumph and its most significant downfall. A current title might take these efforts and involve them in a more befitting scenario, to reflect upon the modern horrors involving social anxieties, as well as a lack of control over the ever-evolving technological feats that have grown to dominate individuals (2017 alone provided a bevy of examples which demonize internet capabilities; ie. the infinite, anonymous space many think of as homes for their conscious).
But Sanity’s Requiem tempers this creative freedom to provide a lesser experience, one which often feels unfulfilled without its central gimmick properly providing definition. 15 years ago, a green, emboldened MUTE may have siphoned a paranoid confusion in response, especially if the player was unaware of the central conceit driving the game’s notoriety. But when the only notable mechanic involves deceiving the player, and the game itself is popularized because of that twist in logic, then the surprise elicits no satisfying punch when it does hit.
Eternal Darkness then also serves as a testament to the importance of substance in conjunction with creative design decisions. Fortunately, the game deserves appreciation and acknowledgment for effectively bridging narrative endeavors with the response from player input. However, much of the gameplay (combat, specifically) feels hollow, a replica of its many influences providing the basis for a single instance of creativity.
For that, Eternal Darkness feels closer in relationship to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor than Resident Evil: providing an interesting central conceit amidst familiar functions, one which other developers would do well to ape and reinvent within their own titles. In this case, missions accomplished, thanks in large part to indie developers everyday focusing on eliciting player response through a notable lack of control.
One of the most thought-provoking 2017 releases is Doki Doki Literature Club!, a deceptive dating sim invested in exploring storytelling as a means of personal connection to inorganic embodiments of humanity. Does one’s personality define their existence? And as such, do written characters live a Life of their own? It utilizes horror genre elements to capitalize on modern collective fears, namely involving computer-based functionality twisting in on itself, as though the user’s PC was being haunted by the game itself.
Eternal Darkness works similarly; however, it also strives to be a dissection of history’s impact on the present. The consequences of today can result in major societal shifts, evidenced by the various time periods serving as the settings of each Chapter. Alex, locked within the confines of the Roivas mansion, explores her family history by reading manuscripts left behind by her murdered grandfather (itself a fascinating twist on the Hub world concept), all in an attempt to solve the mysteries of his demise as well as his philosophical contemplations.
As new abilities are unlocked within the Chapters, they also attribute to Alex in order to for progress within the mansion, and thus delve deeper into the larger mystery at hand. This is the game’s greatest technical achievement, for it compels players forward through the varying levels with significant present context. The MacGuffin is her grandfather’s murder mystery, allowing the more impressive ruminations on historical significance to provide insight into Lovecraftian philosophy.
But the game never comes close to appropriately contextualizing the merits of its central gameplay gimmick. That is to say, Eternal Darkness wants to process human paranoia and fear through a logical examination using deception and player reaction; however, as opposed to Doki Doki Literature Club!, the very manner of lacking control over situations is never referenced, instead prompting that an individual’s alliance with the world on a mental level is based around an impressionable meter.
One is only as sane as they allow themselves to be, according to the game, which is more than just a flawed perception of Lovecraftian philosophy; but also a damning contradiction to its underlying message. Now, by briefly interjecting and taking control away from the player during the low-sanity scenarios, Eternal Darkness does indeed posit that perception is merely what a person believes to be real. This is why the design succeeds contextually. But the lack of focused genre initiative causes a disconnect in that very perception.
Take for instance one of the most chilling sequences in Silent Hill 2. Near the endgame, James finds himself navigating a labyrinthine hotel in a final search for his presumably-deceased wife. Upon entering one door, the player will find themselves exiting out of another in an entirely different portion of the building. Retreating back through it will once again teleport them to another area, prompting disorientation, or a lack of intention. This situation mirrors the protagonist’s intense neglect, his determined rejection of reality, as his subconscious actively turns him away from the villainous truth behind his wife’s death.
Sanity’s Requiem instead offers up situations in which the player’s perception is questioned, and then immediately redeemed, eliminating any sort of mental threat that might have expanded into deeper psychological exploration. Much like a haunted house, the player is inclined to walk room to room for someone to jump out and scare them. But all the while, they know there’s nothing to truly be afraid of whatsoever.
This is not good horror. Good horror (as a genre, as a tool) causes the audience to question their own existence within the true world outside of the fiction. To rise above mere cadences of fright and ponder a current status of existence. But to reiterate, it is arguable that Eternal Darkness does not intend on being a horror masterpiece such as its obvious influences would prescribe. One’s experience with the game may be in fact tainted by the inaccurate reputation, which it certainly does not hold up as.
A horror masterpiece this is not. But it is a largely successful experiment in narrative storytelling, paralleling the past with the present in-game to ruminate on historical significance as a conduit for evil. The game uses puzzle design as a means of crafting its story, a focused manner of including the player in the plot by giving them control over its sequential process. Though this concept often sacrifices challenge for necessarily simplistic objectives to solve, the significance of the tasks themselves carries enough weight to prove their implication.
To the game’s credit, Eternal Darkness is well worth playing even over a decade later. I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the finest games released for the Gamecube, as well as its entire console generation. Expectations should be tempered, however; players should not expect a demanding horror experience to fill them with dread, as its legacy may have one to believe.
It offers a compelling usage of trickery to provide succinct jolts of surprise, a ‘coolness’ factor which, in fact, does not stray all too far from the pleasures derived from a B-movie horror experience. Come for the spooks, stay for the laughs, appreciate the ambitious narrative design.