Is this Real? The 4th Wall and Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
In the early 2000s, horror video games had predominantly settled into their big franchises. Silent Hill 2, a masterpiece of the genre, ensured that plenty more sequels would follow that particular icon. Resident Evil had just been re-released for the first time on Gamecube. Other, lesser franchises followed: Fear Effect, Fatal Frame, etc. Many of these games made great use of the latest technology and had unique gameplay elements. Many were very well-received. It seemed like horror had settled into a fine pattern of regular releases alongside other industry heavyweights of the time.
And yet...if I'm being totally honest, the vast majority of games of the early 2000s I find are lacking completely in soul.
I'm sure I'm not alone in my impressions. That the industry resorted to reinvigorations of long-dead franchises (such as Doom 3 in 2004, a decade after Doom 2) suggests they were relying more on nostalgia to drive sales than on any real innovation or creativity. Quite frankly, when I look at games like Silent Hill 3 or Fatal Frame or The Suffering, they all share one damning quality: they aren't very scary (if they're scary at all).
I'm not sure exactly what's to blame for this phenomenon, but it's something that occurred in movies of the same time period as well. The slide into clichéd, formulaic plots with over-the-top gore and jump scares is hard to trace, but it's evident with reactionary films like Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods that something had gone wrong. We weren't scared any more. We were laughing.
To be sure, there were exceptions to this rule. In film, we had fantastic work like 2002's The Ring. And in video games, coincidentally in the same year, we had Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem.
But First, the Gamecube
Ahh, the Gamecube. Nintendo's sixth-generation console had the misfortune of competing with the leviathan, Playstation 2, and Microsoft's entry into the market, the Xbox. Yet again, Sony easily dominated this era of the console wars, thanks yet again to huge third-party support, a massive games library, and rugged hardware that saw releases well into the seventh-generation era. The Xbox, meanwhile, dominated the North American market, due in no small part to BEING the North American console.
Poor Gamecube was left in third place, sales-wise. The exclusives for this game are a bit of a depressing read; more Mario, more Zelda, more Starfox...the old Nintendo group trotted out and dolled up for their latest attempt to appease the gaming public. This is in no way meant to slam the quality of these titles (e.g. Wind Waker, I mean that game is fantastic), but to illustrate a point: Nintendo, in this round, was not able to attract people outside of its already established audience. In fact, the Gamecube sold so poorly it underperformed its predecessor, the N64.
It's a terrible shame, because there were some hidden gems on the Gamecube well worth exploring. Games like Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem.
OK, Now for the Game
Eternal Darkness is one of those games that I feel modern audiences will either wholeheartedly enjoy or find massively overrated. Where you fall on that spectrum will largely depend on the type of games you enjoy. Which is really my polite way of saying that if you're the type of dudebro who plays twitch-shooters and screams obscenities into his headset, this game is not for you. If you're a hipster faux-auteur who likes to push his opinions on others through passive-aggressive blog posts, you'll love it. Because you're me, and you like story and pacing and character.
The story to Eternal Darkness starts off very simply: you are Alexandra (Alex) Roivas, called to Rhode Island by the police who inform you of your grandfather's brutal and mysterious murder. Determined to find out what happened to him, you delve into his mansion's dark secrets. It sounds like a very stock plot, but then it quickly spirals into a centuries-spanning tale of horror, ancient evil, and eldritch magic.
This tale unfolds in the pages of the titular Tome of Eternal Darkness, whose pages tell of individuals who had the misfortune of encountering the evil forces that seek to control and/or destroy our realm of existence. As Alex reads the book, you take on the role of the person she reads about.
The journey of these Chapters takes place across a huge variety of time periods and locations. From present day (2000AD), you are transported back to ancient Rome (26BC), Colonial Times (1760AD), and Angkor Wat under the Khmer Empire (1150 AD), just to name a few eras. How these events are connected and what they portend is what drives Alex's investigations in the present.
The gameplay is presented in a third-person perspective, and has RPG, adventure, and action elements. Combat in the game is very unique and smooth. One of the best ideas this game had was the ability to target specific body parts on a targeted creature in close combat, something which I can't recall ever seeing anywhere else. Lopping off limbs and heads with your sword has the added effect of changing a creature's behaviour. Headless zombies, for instance flail about and will occasionally damage other monsters around them. And any game that allows to me to make a pun about literally disarming an opponent is a game worth playing.
There are also ranged weapons, and unlike, for instance, Devil May Cry, here firearms are a precious commodity that deal a fair amount of damage, and ammo is a limited resource. It is especially enjoyable to see the various gunpowder weapons throughout the eras, starting with one-shot flintlock pistols and evolving to fully automatic rifles.
OK, but is it Scary?
The thing that really sets Eternal Darkness apart from the usual fare of horror games is its unique take on the "sanity meter" mechanic (interestingly, Nintendo holds a patent for this system, though I have no idea how or why. I could swear I've seen sanity meters prior to this game - such as in Clock Tower - and I've definitely seen many subsequent titles. At any rate, I hope Nintendo hasn't been dickish enough to exercise this patent right to screw over the indie crowd).
In combat, your sanity is drained as you battle the monsters you encounter. If it drops to completely empty, your health is affected. And then everything goes straight to hell.
First, you start to hear things: voices, pounding on the walls, weird shrieks and moans. The camera goes all wobbly. The walls start to bleed, as though the mansion just saw The Shining and wants to be the best damned haunted house it can be.
All of that probably sounds like standard fare these days. Ah, but then...but then...
The game starts to screw with the fourth wall.
The screen goes dark, as if the power got cut. It fakes errors, including a blue screen of death and deleted save games. It even, at one point, pretends that you have reached the end of the game, and you will have to await the sequel in order to see the rest of the plot.
This could all be taken as epic-level trolling of the player, but I think it actually works quite well. The standard in-game sanity effects are unsettling enough on their own. But its this unexpected meta-aspect that really takes Eternal Darkness to the next level. The cleverness of these "glitches" is that they are things that long-time gamers have come to expect. When the game suddenly fades to black and talks about a sequel with a graphic more reminiscent of a JRPG than of the artwork on the box, it's poking fun at the genre's endless parade of sequels, but it's also wigging the player out. I wouldn't be surprised at all if people had played this game, hit one of the fake error screens, and stood up to reset their console, grumbling and muttering about hardware. Only to find the screen blinking back to life as the on-screen character shrieks "This...isn't...REAL!!!"
Eternal Darkness is a fantastic game. It understands the tropes of the genre and exploits them both in a meaningful, storytelling capacity, and in a way that is playful and taunting. The characters are varied and colorful, and there is some great replayability in the form of three different Ancient Evils to challenge.
During a time where horror video games were content to settle into a rather dull, repetitive pattern, Eternal Darkness stood up, pulled the plug on your reality, and shook it up to see what came out.