I take a trip down memory lane with one of my favourite videogame experiences: Silicon Knights’ Lovecraftian horror Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, over at SquareGo.
The horror genre is a difficult mainstay of gaming as what frightens one person will seem dull and boring to another. As such it’s all about the atmosphere. Which is why Silicon Knights’ entrance into the horror genre was utterly unique for its time. Eschewing the popular trends towards zombies, ghosts and demons or the wholesale copying from crass movies, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (ED:SR), turned instead to favour the bizarre stories of H.P. Lovecraft and his mythos of the elder-gods.
Beginning the game in the right mood, the first screen the player is confronted with is a quotation from Edgar Allen Poe, followed by a series of bleakly dark menus, all set to deep rumbling and the barest hint of music. The rest of the game is no different, as the default ambience is one that instills unease. From the outset, the game is filled with sporadic creaks, bangs and cries, enough to create a sense of discombobulation in anyone and where the dark and dingy levels and well utilised camera angles show enough to keep the player entranced without ever removing the fear of what might just be lurking around the corner.
However brilliant the atmosphere, the story has to be there to keep the audience interested and this is where Silicon Knights managed to trump the competition. Instead of the usual plodding narrative that so many survival horror games toss limply at the player, Eternal Darkness weaves a aeon-spanning tale of Gods and mortals struggling with the balance of power in the universe.
Our heroine is one of the best realised and unapologetically strong women characters in gaming history. Alexandra Roivas (that’s saviour backwards if you have the American ‘U’ disability) is summoned to her Uncle’s Rhode Island mansion upon his mysterious death, and once alone in the house discovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a supernatural book her family has been using to chart the events for years. As Alex reads the pages, the player plays out the different characters and locations slowly learning the spells and abilities of the magicks within.
What sets the game apart is the ability to experiment with the spells and create some long in advance of learning their meanings. A dangerous practice which can offer rich rewards. What’s more with three undying deities vying for domination, the game has three magickal alignments to follow, meaning it has to be completed three times to get the full ending. As the universe needed saved in all of the different realities to stop the Gods taking control.
Games wise it’s a pretty sharp third person survival horror in the Resident Evil style, although with the ability to aim for specific body parts playing a major role in strategic takedowns. Add to that the magickal attacks and defenses, and a strong but never irritating puzzle-solving element and you had yourelf a pretty damn solid experience.
The game’s final ace up it’s sleeve and it’s great addition to the gaming world was also a recurrent theme from Lovecraftian horror; madness. ED:SR came up with the sanity meter; a green healthbar which would deplete as more and more terrible things happened to the characters. As it drops, the music becomes more sinister, the camera angles become steeper and strange things begin to happen. Paintings bleed, statues begin to move in the background and sinister laughter and the sounds of babies crying begin to sound in the distance.
If that was all it would be bad enough but ED:SR doesn’t stop there. It’s one thing to play a horror game and be unnerved by the events, another to find your character suddenly explode, or to find yourself on the ceiling of a room as ‘madness effects’ become more pronounced. Flies appear to walk about onscreen, messages flash up telling you to reconnect control pads, leaving players frantically faffing with their equipment and at one stage the game even came up with a false end sequence halfway through. Each time only to suddenly flash-back to reality with a loud boom and a murmur from the character of “this can’t be happening…”
Rumours of a possible sequel have abounded ever since it’s acclaimed release, but since Silicon Knights followed it up with a remake of Metal Gear Solid, (which will give you a nice little surprise if you have an ED:SR savegame on your memory card) and the somewhat limp Too Human, it’s unlikely we’ll now ever return to the Elder Gods and their war with the Roivas family. So as it stands, a single unique game that we’ll probably never see the like of again.