“This can’t be happening,” I said that exact phrase more than once while playing Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a survival horror game released for Nintendo’s GameCube console. Most people don’t expect to see the words “survival horror” and “Nintendo” in the same sentence, but in 2002, survival horror was the genre to play. A slew of titles from the early 2000s such as Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame, and Siren had captured the attention of Americans, and Nintendo must have been eager to get in on the action.
Eternal Darkness also represented a leap forward in Nintendo’s thinking; it was Nintendo’s first title published directly by the company, rather than a third-party, to garner an M rating. Which is no surprise, considering that Silicon Knights’ development on Eternal Darkness began as early as 1998 on an ill-fated N64 version that even made it to a few conventions before Nintendo scrapped the project in favor of retooling it for the soon-to-be-released GameCube. The game also represented a leap forward in Nintendo’s thinking; it was Nintendo’s first title published directly by the company, rather than a third-party, to garner an M rating. For a company known for its cutely colorful, child-oriented franchises, rendering a game whose main gameplay mechanic has you hewing zombies and eldritch horrors limb from limb with a variety of swords and guns, represented a step in a much darker, and very welcome, direction. This was also the first Nintendo game to make use of professional voice actors, including noteworthy performers like Jennifer Hale, Cam Clarke, and Kim Mai Guest – a turning point for a company who always relied on in-house staffers and unknown talent to provide vocal work.
In the game, players take control of Alexandra Roivas, a university student returning to her family’s ancestral home in Rhode Island to investigate the mysterious death of her grandfather Edward. However, once Alex discovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness, an intimidating book bound in human flesh, players explore the game’s narrative as a dozen different characters through many different time periods and many exotic locales, including Cambodia, France, the Middle East, and a hidden underground city. Each chapter reveals more secrets, and how a disparate group of people, displaced by time and united by madness, is surreptitiously brought together to prevent the emergence of an alien god bent on consuming humanity, body and soul.
Aficionados of old-school horror will no doubt recognize the game’s consistent homage to H.P. Lovecraft. It’s compelling stuff, and aficionados of old-school horror will no doubt recognize the game’s consistent homage to H.P. Lovecraft, creator of the Cthulhu mythos, which had a direct effect on the creators. Eternal Darkness, while not an actual Lovecraft game per se, is perhaps the best rendition of Lovecraft’s ideas and ambiance in any type of game, ever. Despite Lovecraft’s influence on almost every writer in modern history, with the possible exception of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, there had never been a film, game, comic book, or radio teleplay that captured the essence of his work with such enormous clarity until Eternal Darkness came along.
Part of that clarity comes from the game’s attention to detail. Moving development to the GameCube was perhaps the single wisest decision in the game’s history, as the GC’s more powerful graphics engine was able to render the developer’s vision into stunning relief. Nintendo’s emphasis on the colorful helped craft its world into a clarity that bordered on the unsettling. Eternal Darkness has the unique distinction of being the most vivid game in the survival horror genre – a genre that had no lack of grimy, noisy, visually congested games that relied on murkiness and multiple shades of black and grey to create a feeling of dread. The aggressive brilliance of Eternal Darkness’ graphics brought its nightmarish ghouls into an eye-popping reality heretofore untried by survival horror game developers. The enemies courageously, and horrifyingly, step forward to threaten the player, implying a more grotesque intelligence behind their manifestation. So profound was their design, every monster dispatched never brought a feeling of relief, but required the player to ask, “Holy shit, what’s next?”
The Sanity Meter represents a hallmark of Lovecraft’s writing. All of these points would have given even Resident Evil 2 a run for its money. But all comparisons pale in the face of Eternal Darkness’ most celebrated feature: the Sanity Meter. The Sanity Meter represents a hallmark of Lovecraft’s writing: encounters with the occult and unknowable often result in a person’s eventual, permanent lunacy. Throughout the game, as players encounter various zombies, monsters, shoggoths, and behemoths, their sanity, represented by a green vial, depletes, and creates in-game distortions that affect gameplay.
The most common distortions include skewed camera angles that make it harder to move around, noises and graphic inconsistencies that make it harder to aim certain weapons, gravity flips, hallucinations, all the way up to effects that break the “fourth wall” and invade the real world of the player. To reveal more would dilute the wonder of this particular effect. Players can find restoratives that reduce the Sanity Meter’s effects, but that almost does it a disservice. Were Eternal Darkness published today, there would be PS3-style trophies for finishing a chapter with completely reduced sanity. Suffice to say, Nintendo patented the effect, and has continued to do so, eleven years since the game’s release. No game since has ever possessed the Sanity Meter’s greatness.
Which is also somewhat tragic. While one of the most critically acclaimed survival horror games ever, with IGN, UGO, and GamesRadar having all gone on record to say that it deserves a sequel, Eternal Darkness only garnered “respectable sales” in its release year, according to Kotaku’s Andrew McMillen. In the interim eleven years, the game has since become mostly a cult classic. Director Denis Dyack did reveal that his next project, the crowdfunding Shadow of the Eternals, developed by Precursor Games, which includes a few people from the old Silicon Knights team, is a “spiritual successor” to Eternal Darkness. However, “the games industry is currently in a state in which publishers no longer take chances on a project like this,” according to the SotE FAQ online. Whether a moderate jab at former partner Nintendo, or dodgy backpedaling in the wake of the developer’s X-Men: Destiny disaster, the bottom line is that fans of this type of game are ultimately getting screwed. Shadow of the Eternals is perhaps the last, best hope fans of Eternal Darkness have at getting sequel, but with its Kickstarter woefully underfunded with only a couple days to go, the future is in doubt.
“This can’t be happening.”
With NecronomiCON beginning tomorrow in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, now is the perfect time to revisit this overlooked gem. This phrase is uttered by more than one character in Eternal Darkness, not just the player. That’s the kind of game Eternal Darkness is – one of the very few that can actually reach out across digital space and affect the gamer in as real and visceral a way as being physically touched. Its legacy can be felt in games as diverse as 2007’s Penumbra Overture to 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. With NecronomiCON beginning tomorrow in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, Cthulhu mythos fans should whet their appetites for the occult with this often overlooked gem of a game. Boasting all the best parts of Lovecraft’s work while providing a fresh take on the genre, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a game worth triple visitations. Lovecraft, I think, would be proud.