Thursday, October 2, 2014

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

There are essentially two types of "horror" systems in video games.  You have games that set dark, foreboding atmospheres, play off the natural fears we, as players, all have, and let the tension build until we wind up getting ourselves completely worked up waiting for the killer to emerge or not emerge from behind every door.

You also have "twitch" horror games that mostly involve monsters jumping out of dark places, poorly lit rooms that make it hard to see everything, and typically allow the player to carry enough ammo to make Commando jealous.  The only real "scares" are the same "jump" scares that many modern horror movies use when they're out of ideas or are afraid the audience is getting bored.  Now, while a "jump" scare can be extremely effective when done correctly, a game that's nothing but jump scares tends to become tiring extremely quickly.

Needless to say, I'm much more a fan of the former than the latter.

Now, while I will say that no game sets up a better atmosphere than the Silent Hill franchise (a shame they stopped after four games, no matter what anybody else says), I think the game that made me the most tense and freaked me out the most was Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem.

I'm not going to post much in the way of screenshots here because a) a lot of the effects of the game can't properly be conveyed through a still image, and b) compared to today's graphics, this game doesn't really hold up as well as you might hope.  It's not bad by any means, but again, that single screenshot takes away from any fluid motion the game might have and just gives you a block of pixels.

Alexandra Roivas (voiced by Commander Shepard), who I've discussed before, comes to Rhode Island to investigate the suspicious but probably natural causes death gruesome murder of her uncle, who also happens to leave a creepy old house to her as well as a book that transports her mind back through time to see how various figures through the past have interacted with the same book.

There are multiple "stages," and all of the ones that aren't focused on Alexandra focus on a different character and their connection to the over-arcing story.  You have everybody from a pageboy at a church, a wandering girl stuck in old temple, a Roman centurion, or a Canadian firefighter fighting oil fires in Kuwait.  Each one has a key part to play in the story, although very few get to escape from the horrors hunting them even remotely unscathed.  Some characters' roles might appear more important than others, but every one, whether it's simply transporting an item from one area to another for someone else to find in the future or sacrificing themselves to guard over a powerful artifact, each story feels complete on its own, but leaving you wondering how it's going to come back later.

However, besides an atmosphere that is genuinely spooky (old temples, church basements, abandoned empty underground cities, scary mansions), the key feature of the game was the sanity meter each character had.  The more monsters you came upon, the lower your sanity got.  You could increase the sanity by fighting and killing the monsters, but while some characters were very skilled in battle (see: centurion) , others (see: pageboy) were not and would frequently need to run away.  Alex's sanity would also drop some after reading each chapter, and it wouldn't be until later in the game that she'd have any monsters she could fight to regain it.

When a character's sanity got low, the game took it upon itself to not just make the character question what they were seeing, but also make the player wonder what was going on.  At random times, the volume of the game would decrease, the TV would change stations, or you'd get an infamous Windows BSOD-type screen saying the game crashed.  You might suddenly have all of your saved games become erased right before the game reset itself, or your character might simply have their limbs and head fall off the moment you entered a room.  A room might be upside down, blood might drip from the ceiling, and paintings of beautiful landscapes become hellish scenes of madness.

These, of course, are all temporary, and many will vanish with a flash of white light and your character saying in a shaken voice that this "can't be happening."  Some things will continue until the sanity meter comes back to a high enough level.  But the key thing here is that the game messes with you, the player, during moments that up to that point were known to be "safe" from game play.  Pause menus, inventory screens, and save/load screens can all be subjected to little bursts of madness, and when the player isn't expecting it, it can be extremely unsettling to witness.

The graphics were good "for the time," (keep in mind the game came out in 2002, twelve years ago.  Twelve years before that, the first Final Fantasy game came out for the Nintendo.), but the voice cast was extremely well utilized, since you have to connect to characters in order to be afraid when something bad might happen to them.

The "horror" in the game comes from the same sense of horror that many Call of Cthulhu-style horrors come from.  There are beings out in the universe that quite simply look at humanity as a cluster of ants on a particularly pretty ant hill, and if they want to have their picnic in that spot in the galaxy, they can simply grind their heel into the Earth and wipe us out without a second thought.  It's only by tapping into forces older and beyond our possible understanding can we even hope to distract or stall them long enough for us to survive.

With solid game play, combat controls that make you adapt your strategies based on your character type and their preferred weapon (hint: a broadsword moves slower than a scimitar), and a story line that keeps a deathly cold grip on you until you finish it, Eternal Darkness is one of those games that has a well-deserved cult following and has people discussing their "insanity moments" years after the game was finished.

There were two attempts to Kickstarter a sequel, but both failed.  I didn't contribute to either, but then again, I didn't know either one even existed until I went back and did some research for this article.  I hope they do manage to make a sequel some day, because I can only imagine what they can do to mess with a player's mind in this age of motion controls, linked video devices, and wireless communications.

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