Recently I had a chance to go back and play Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem by Silicon Knights. If you follow gaming news at all you’ve heard that Silicon Knights got their ass handed to them by Epic Games over issues involving the Unreal 3 engine and after the series of legal rulings Silicon Knights has about as much chance as surviving as an infant with a pack of wolves. You also might have heard about the kickstarter going on to create a spiritual successor to the game.
But I’m not here to talk about that. Enough analysis has been made of the demise of Silicon Knights and honestly opinions have become so scattered that even the details of the legal ruling get muddled in the retelling of it. Instead I’d rather talk about one of their greatest games, if not the greatest of them Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem a game that I feel, redefined how survival horror games ought to be made.
Which makes me all the more sad that no one really realized it.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was released in June of 2002 on Nintendo’s Gamecube. I believe it was done so to prove that a good survival horror game could be put on the console and be made viable. Well it was. Eternal Darkness became one of those great non-first party titles that you had to have on your Gamecube like Resident Evil 4 and Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii. It isn’t hard to find online but I haven’t seen it in a proper store or convention in years.
And I think it’s the best survival horror game ever. If not the best paced.
The entire game is told from the perspective of Alexandria Rovias who is called to the estate of her grandfather Edward Rovias by the police. It is revealed that Edward was murdered brutally and his head is missing. Alex is eventually left to explore her beloved grandfather’s mansion and eventually discovers a hidden room with a book, bound in human skin and bone known only as the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Within its pages are chapters of a dark story detailing a chain of events tracing back to ancient Rome and may at last end with her.
The gameplay of Eternal Darkness is divided into chapters where you the player take on the main character of those chapters. Each chapter has you playing as a pivotal character in this story trying to survive against the escalating horrors. You start off as the Roman Centurion Pious Agustus who discovers a hidden temple beneath the sands of the desert. Tempted by voices within he’s compelled to pick one of three relics. This moment, rather than being a simple plot choice actually dictates the kind of enemies the player will encounter throughout the game. Depending on which relic Pious takes he will become the servant of its corresponding ancient being of immeasurable power. As such the enemies you will encounter are dictated by which Ancient Pious serves.
In total there are four Ancients, there’s Chattur’gha; the brute who focuses on physical strength and might, Ulyaoth; the mind who focuses on magic and intelligence and Xel’lotath the mad who focuses on sanity and reason. These three are in constant conflict with each other and each one has one that they are weak against and one they are strong against. The last is Mantorok the Ancient of chaos who presides over all. Sort of. I don’t want to spoil it.
So, from the very start you already have a look into a complex mythology rather than the usual “Oh I don’t know, it could be demons, it could be magic, it could be science, it’s a mystery.” Now you’d think that telling the player exactly what their facing would detract from the horror element. Well, no actually. Instead a new element is added, the player is given knowledge to arm them against the creatures they fight. Yes, fight. Eternal Darkness has excellent combat mechanics. None of that Silent Hill 2 bullshit. Plus each of the 3-4 map areas is small allowing more content contained and for players to see a progression as time moves forward and more areas are unlocked.
So how does the game craft horror? Well one of the infamous tricks are things called insanity effects. You see, in addition to health and magic the player has a third meter denoting sanity. As it lowers strange things happen on screen. Of all the elements of the game this is one I won’t spoil. To say the least there’s a hell of a lot more than simple blurred vision and distortions.
No the game outright screws with you.
In addition, the majority of characters you play as end up dead. And this isn’t simply because they die of old age, no, they die at the end of their respective chapters because, regretfully, that’s the only way they can sometimes accomplish their goals. They exist in the story only to facilitate the ongoing quest to stop Pious and his ancient. Then they pay the price of staring into eternal darkness.
There’s still some debate to this day over if the game can truly be called survival horror given the weapons, magic and incredibly precise targeting system used in the game. Personally I’ve always felt that the narrow limitations of survival horror (including the poor fighting mechanics) has always limited the growth of the franchise. There must exist a way to have competent controls and still evoke fear for players. Eternal Darkness accomplishes that, not just through strong narrative, brilliant in-game insanity effects and the tight, cramped areas but in creating an overall experience that truly takes the player through the bad end of a story of despair while not sacrificing solid gameplay mechanics.
And that, I think, is a truly rare thing.
So too does this work exist.