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Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (GameCube) artwork

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (GameCube) review


"The idea of survival horror is a fascinating one. While films are usually identified by aesthetic and emotive theme - fantasy, or action, or science-fiction - games tend to be categorised by activity. Do you shoot in this game? Then it's a shooting game. Do you strategise in it? Then it's a strategy. Videogame genre naming conventions leave very little room for thematics. Maybe that's to be expected. Games are, after all, primarily about doing stuff. "



The idea of survival horror is a fascinating one. While films are usually identified by aesthetic and emotive theme - fantasy, or action, or science-fiction - games tend to be categorised by activity. Do you shoot in this game? Then it's a shooting game. Do you strategise in it? Then it's a strategy. Videogame genre naming conventions leave very little room for thematics. Maybe that's to be expected. Games are, after all, primarily about doing stuff.

But it means that, when something like the survival horror genre comes along, those two little words say a lot. You survive, and it's horrible, presumably. This spectacular little combination of words is interesting, as it brings both game and theme to the table. There's immediately a very strong sense of flimic borrowing. This isn't just a puzzle game, or an action game, or whatever. It's a horror game. Its aesthetic and emotive purpose is to make you scared.

So. How do you do survival horror?

Make a film and shoehorn in some game, if plenty of titles are to be believed. Resident Evil has always rubbed me up the wrong way because it does both survival and horror so awfully. The horror's melodramatic and uninspired, and the only thing that makes it remotely frightening is that the survival is so utterly and pathetically contrived. It's a cheat's way, for example, to ramp up the tension by making basic activities like walking around a bloody room so implausibly difficult. That so many genre examples play up to this nasty notion - even the wonderful Silent Hill series controls like a retarded bus - is something I find really saddening. Indeed, when pressed, I can usually only name three survival horror games that fully realise the genre's potential, and they're not even what we'd typically think of as survival horror. System Shock 2, STALKER and Pathologic are all totally about staying alive in a horrible environment, rather than wrestling with a gamepad and cursing the most atrocious of camera angles.

Except there's one more. It's a fabulous gem of a Gamecube title, one that fully realises everything the genre has to offer, and it's called Eternal Darkness. It does things a little differently to the rest.

In Eternal Darkness, you primarily play as Alexandra Roivas, who looks an awful lot like a digitised Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You also play as a whole heap of historical figures as you shuffle your way through the pages of a magical tome, discovered at the place of your father's tragic demise: a good old spooky mansion in the middle of a dark nowhere.

Ostensibly, it makes exactly the same mistakes as all those other horrible slices of gaming. Though less tank-like than Resi, its controls are still a tad on the fiddly side, the camera still not quite where you'd like it to be. Its initial setting is similarly unimaginative. And the various nasties are rarely enough to get you fidgeting, let alone to make you jump out of your seat and go to bed with several thousand floodlights surrounding you for comfort. The story is complex, but ultimately functional at best. The puzzles are solid but unremarkable.

Yet Eternal Darkness works. And it works because it plays around with the form, emerging with something that succeeds in scaring the living twilights out of you in a way that could only ever work in a computer game. Sure, the camera's very "directed", if you see what I mean, but Silicon Knights never tried to make a film. They tried to make a game. A survival horror game, in the truest sense of the term.

So. Buckle up and watch your sanity meter. You'll need to, given the hideous depths of pretentiousness that this essay is heading for. For example, I just called it an essay...

***

Brief tangent. I went to the Develop Conference in Brighton last summer. Mr. Silicon Knights, Sir Denis of Dyack, delivered a talk entitled "Videogames as the Eighth Art". In it, he detailed the various ways in which they had crafted Too Human into a work of art rather than just a game, and how understanding and borrowing from the medium of film helped them to achieve this.

And... it's just bollocks, isn't it? Aside from the fact that Too Human was a rather impressive failure, two things jumped out at me. Thing the first: we need to stop trying to be films. Surely. I loudly applauded, much to everyone's bemusement, when Flower developer Jenova Chen challenged the very core of his argument from the back of the crowded room. I totally get what Dyack was trying to say: that new art forms evolve from older ones. But when you actually play Too Human, you get the impression it's not so much trying to understand and borrow from film, but actually just sodding be one, with arbitrary button mashing thrown in. It's also nowhere near as creative or clever as it thinks it is, I'd say. But that's another rant for another day. And to be fair, I've only played a tad of it.

Thing the second: why didn't he talk about Eternal Darkness? As far as videogame artistry goes, I suspect it would have made for a much stronger case. In its boundary pushing and its deep understanding of what makes games - and players' minds - tick, it's a hell of a lot more affecting and stimulating than any piece of interactive cinema I've ever twiddled my thumbs through.

***

The sanity meter is a little bar in the top left corner of the screen, above the health gauge. When you get injured, your health drops. But when you start delving into the darkness and witnessing all sorts of nightmarish sights, your sanity drops. Eternal Darkness is a game about going insane.

That takes some guts to approach. Plenty of games have dealt with psychology to an extent, but none have made descending into madness in a very real way the absolute crux of the experience. And while plenty of other games have enjoyed breaking down that good old fourth wall, none have done it in a way that so uniquely works in the context of its respective gaming narrative.

When your sanity meter reaches zero, everything goes completely messed up. Sometimes, it's subtle - a quick flash of an image, perhaps - while other times it's something so improbably barmy it's astonishing. Importantly, most have an effect on how you play the game, even if it's only temporary. Picking up shotgun shells is likely to make you less conservative with your shotgun. Realise a few minutes later that you never actually picked those shells up is an unsettling revelation that has a tangible impact on your play style. It means something not just to your character, but to you, sitting in your chair in front of the screen. And that's the core of how Eternal Darkness goes about its horrible tactics.

We're getting a bit analytical here, aren't we? Watch your sanity meter. I'm guessing it'll have dropped.

Compare with other games that have borrowed from Eternal Darkness' trickery, and it's quickly evident why nothing has ever matched them. The recent Batman: Arkham Asylum Scarecrow sections were unthinkably brilliant, but they never quite had the same impact. Why? Because there was never the option to avoid them. You accepted these mind-games because they were part of a linear story, and you knew you'd always have to battle through them in order to access the next bit of the game. Quantic Dreams' flawed classic Fahrenheit, known as Indigo Prophecy Stateside, got it right in having you try to avoid going a bit mental, but stumbled over itself by ending the game if you did. All it boiled down to was "don't get insane if you want to carry on playing". All the mechanic did was run you into the brick wall of the loading screen.

Eternal Darkness' system remains the most clever because it encourages you to avoid this psychological torment while never backing you into a game-ending corner if you fail to keep your character of stable mind. So it becomes a battle to stop the game from fucking with you quite so much, because it leads to things happening that totally break all the game design rules. But because these sequences are just vignettes that occur as part of the wider scope of the game, you never feel like you're being cheated. And the fact that the sequences are often so utterly cool leaves you oddly eager to see them anyway. And all this conflicting information that's zooming from designer to developer to disc to console to screen to eyes to brain creates a whole new form of psychological anguish in itself. It's really, really compelling.

Sanity meter. Definitely dropped a load. Watch out, it's running low.

***

Eternal Darkness is not perfect. That's because it's not the following game.

A while ago, I had a dream. I was playing Eternal Darkness, only it wasn't quite Eternal Darkness. It was Eternal Darkness as it would be if it were a virtual reality simulator, played in four-player co-op. Your task was to collect the various pages of the game's tome, which were strewn around the house, as well as avoiding the astonishingly powerful enemies that turned up just every half-hour or so. It was really, really slow, to the point of often being painfully boring. As a result, the most brilliant of choices opened up: do you stick together and be largely bored, but safe, or do you split up and get things done more quickly, nagged by the knowledge that if a foe turned up at any moment, it would wipe you off the face of the game faster than Barack Obama could swat a fly?

That's tension, right there. My dream version of the game didn't even include any sanity effects. Imagine that game, with the real Eternal Darkness' logical polish and the sanity meter, and I reckon you'd have something approaching perfection.

Wait, shit... shit, the sanity meter! You mean you weren't watching it? Even though you were reading a game review in which the writer started talking about a fucking dream he had? Oh, no, this isn't good. Not good at all. Look... it's empty...

***

You're in a room.

The camera's slanted slightly downwards to the right, and you're walking towards it, controls reversed. You're walking into the darkness, the long shadows cast by the low lights converging into a muddy pool of black at the near-end of the area. There's a noise coming from... somewhere. Off-screen, and unidentifiable, but not something pleasant.

Then, suddenly, Red Faction doesnít really do atmosphere. It tries to, sure, but somewhere between the incompetent AI, bland visuals and uninventive storyline, it resolutely fails. Itís also a game of unfulfilled promises, a textbook old-school shooter that seemed to forget it aspired to be the genreís reinvention. Who else remembers their crippling disappointment regarding the much-touted GeoMod technology, which purported to allow players to blast their own ways through levels by destroying the environment? Seemingly, Volition expected players to forgive its inconsistent application early on, and forget it even existed by the time the entirely static later levels rolled around. Red Faction set its sights high, then slipped achingly back to mediocrity. Mediocre games donít do this to me. Whatís going on?

Red Faction starts abominably. Cast into your day job as an oppressed miner on a future Mars, your shift ends in a splatter of spilt blood, as - for seemingly no reason whatsoever - the entire security force starts shooting at you after your buddy gets into a minor altercation with one of the guards. Itís a nonsense opening, glossing over any logic in a dismal attempt to thrust players straight into the action. This is a game that cited the slow-burning unease of Half-Life as a major influence on its heady ambiance. Goodness knows what they were thinking here.

Thus begins a treacherous yet dull sci-fi dungeon crawl, through monotonous underground networks, plagued by badly-planned blueprints and texture issues. The first couple of hours of Red Faction are woeful, but something compelled me, spurred me on, something other than the gradually improving level design. Itís worth noting that Red Faction is one of only two games Iíve ever played through in a single day. What was it that I found so captivating about this ugly and broken shooter?

Maybe itís escapism. Itís what the modern videogame form does so very well, after all: taking us to places we could never visit, positioning us in roles usually confined to dreams. Red Factionís ludicrous implausibility lends itself surprisingly well to this, and the chance to rise from everyman to every manís hero is what drives experiences such as this one. As you plough through the Ultor facility in search of your freedom, your reputation rises. People begin to recognise you: ďYouíre that miner from Sector M4! I canít believe youíve made it this far!Ē And it feels good.

And then you're back in the room, and you're left wondering whether your head really did fall off, or if it was all in your mind.

***

Right. Enough of that.

Point is, Eternal Darkness understands the core of survival horror as well as any of the less traditional but more successful attempts at the genre. It has a complete working grasp of what's at its core, but subverts both strands into something really intelligent. Survival doesn't just mean physical survival, but emotional survival as well. The horror doesn't really stem from what's actually going on in this terrible world, but what's going on inside the head of your character and, through its clever integration of sanity effects into the game itself, your own head as well. That it still devotes itself to being as filmic as it can get away with is almost a shame, but it's also proof that you don't have to deviate so far away from genre conventions to do something wildly imaginative and wholly conceptually successful.

Is this making more sense now? Is your sanity meter back up yet? All the way?

Good. Now would you mind having a read of this for me?

Oh, no, it's falling, it's falling... shit, shit, shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit...

Rating: 9/10

Lewis's avatar
Community review by Lewis (January 03, 2010)

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Suskie posted January 03, 2010:

Hmm. Well, glad we at least see eye-to-eye on this one. Eternal Darkness understands survival horror more than any other game in the genre as far as I'm concerned. You've read my own review so you know I agree with pretty much everything you say.

I share your bafflement over Dyack citing Too Human over Eternal Darkness in the games-are-art argument. The game is so mechanical in every way that it's further from art than any other modern game I've played. That both games were headed by the same guy is astonishing to me, as they literally represent opposite ends of the spectrum.

Also: Too Human employs stick jerking, not button mashing. I want this to catch on.
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bloomer posted January 03, 2010:

A genuinely and successfully novel review here. Good work. You also moved me to go look at the unfinished ED review on my hard drive from 2004(!). I am surprised how decent and near-done it is, and perhaps if I just structure it a little, I can post it in the near future, and that will show where my own interests fell while playing ED, rather than me just typing them in this box here.
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overdrive posted January 03, 2010:

You know what? All of us have our own style and I'd guess we all see things in other writers that we envy. After reading this review, I'm feeling that emotion right now. This was just a clever fucking bit of writing. Using the game's sanity meter as a gimmick for your review to throw in seemingly unrelated things to tie into the points you were making was pure genius!

Due to the way I look at games and write about them, I could never pen this review. And I am jealous of that.
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Lewis posted January 04, 2010:

Thanks, folks. I'm glad people think this was successful. I had a real urge to write something that would top last year's Alphabet Olympics entry in terms of utter ridiculousness, but knew it would be something of a risk. Hopefully the Judges of Doom think it paid off as well.

Ultimately, the thing that would bring people's sanity meters crashing down the hardest was, well, last year's entry. Which I look back at now with a sense of horror that I'd ever write such a thing. A real cringe moment of writing for me, in retrospect.

But I thought it made for quite a cheeky ending.

Maybe I'll look back on this next year and go "what the fuck was I thinking?" But then, that was probably half the point.
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jerec posted January 04, 2010:

I do have one question, Lewis. What's the game like, apart from the sanity stuff? Because I came out of that review knowing more about Red Faction. And I've never played Red Faction.

But do you know what? I have played Eternal Darkness. I did like the review, and I do think it works. And that guy probably talked about Too Human because he was told to, because it was a new game. Eternal Darkness has been around for years. Who would bother talking about it? Where's the profit?

Wait, Too Human was released in 2008? I completely missed that. Flew right under the radar. Maybe that's why he had to talk about it.
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radicaldreamer posted January 04, 2010:

I wasn't really a big fan of trying to incorporate the sanity effects into the review or the presence of the Red Faction tangent. I think the Red Faction part would be great for an actual Red Faction review, and the parts of this piece that are actually relevant to the game in question are really interesting and insightful, especially the intro paragraphs and the comparisons to AA and Indigo Prophecy.
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Lewis posted January 04, 2010:

The Red Faction stuff was lifted straight out of anoter of my experiMENTAL competition entries from some time last year. Wasn't sure how much of it to shoehorn in. I wanted it to be enough that it made you feel a bit awkward to read it all, but not so much that you just stopped entirely.

As for the game, well, I'd argue it is the sanity effects. I think Suskie said something similar in his review. Aside from the way it weaves its creepiness around you, it's pretty much unremarkable survival horror.
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aschultz posted January 04, 2010:

Judges of doom, eh? It will be as monsieur requests!
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zippdementia posted January 07, 2010:

I think Eternal Sanity's sanity meter was underused. It was so easy to avoid going insane that it became something I would just show friends to try and convince them the game was cool.

Then I'd go back to being bored. Because it really is a pretty boring game. They stretched four small levels over the course of a ten hour game and then ask that you play it three times to see the real ending.

Which I did and that says something, at least, about the game's aesthetic. But it's an aesthetic forced into flawed level design.

Anyway, this review is an interesting one. I'm not sure I dig its approach as an editorial. It feels a bit like a well written blog post and not a review proper, which I only bring up because it's not a piece that would convince me to play Eternal Darkness. But it covers a lot of interesting points that are worth discussing further.

I especially agree with the first bit about survival horror games (see my Fatal Frame review for another take on this). Survival Horror shouldn't be about poor controls and camera angles. It should be about disturbing environments and level design. My favourite things are when a game that's NOT survival horror ends up being scary. Such as Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, with the occasional jump out monster or that basment with the growling... thing. Or even Dragon Age, when spiders ambushed me inside a group of tunnels and caught me totally unawares.

Best Survival Horror of all time? Half Life 1.
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qxz posted January 08, 2010:

My own brief experience with Eternal Darkness very closely mimics ZippedDimentia's. I was thoroughly bored with the game only two chapters in.

Seeing as how my brother absolutely loves the game, having thoroughly completed it, it's doubtful Eternal Darkness will hold any surprises for me in the even I ever go back to playing it.
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sashanan posted January 10, 2010:

I think Eternal Sanity's sanity meter was underused. It was so easy to avoid going insane that it became something I would just show friends to try and convince them the game was cool.

All the more reason why, on my next playthrough, I impose one little restriction on myself: healing up the sanity bar is forbidden. It's not even to make the game harder but to make it creepier. Why deprive yourself of the one thing that sets this game apart ? Because it certainly isn't the combat. The most horror I got from that was having to do the final boss fight eight times before I got it right, every time being forced to sit through the same unskippable sequences. I wish people would stop copying that bad bad habit from Final Fantasy.
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zigfried posted January 11, 2010:

Now that the contest has been judged ---

I appreciate what you were going for here, Lewis. In reviewing theory, every game has a number of potential angles that a writer could take, and each angle has a limit. Most of the time, people stay within a safe comfort zone, well away from that limit. However -- the closer someone hedges that limit, the more likely they'll produce something brilliant. It's an imprecise limit and thus difficult to measure (as opposed to a clear line) and crossing too far is when people are likely to lose interest, roll their eyes, or label a review as "pretentious", "overwritten", etc.

Point is, hedging that limit is a skill and skills are sharpened through practice. Experimentation in contests can do nothing but improve your "normal" writing. Regarding the ED review in particular, I was digging it most of the way (including the dream part), until the next bit when you started talking about Red Faction. I thought it was a cool angle, I just think you ended up taking it too far. So there's my feedback.

//Zig

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