Sunday, 11 November 2012

On the Eternal Darkness

  I’ve recently dug up one of my all time favorite classics on the Gamecube – Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.  This game stands as one of the better mature rated titles on the system, released in 2002 by Silicone Knights.  Even as news declares the company’s rocky future, I must proclaim their work a certain candidate for the classification of art in video games. 

  Eternal Darkness begins and ends with college girl Alexandra Roivas, whose grandfather has been killed, leaving her the only living relative.  She explores his mansion, searching for clues; finding them delivers the player with chapters of the Tome of Eternal Darkness.  The “use” command reads the chapters, and moves the story to the next person.

  Each of the characters have their own chapters, and all but Pius Augustus (*snicker* these names *snicker*) obtain the tome of Eternal Darkness, usually from an outright contrivance where walking through a door drops them in the pedestal room with no way to turn back.  The Tome becomes a necessary item, and ties the characters together.  Each chapter forms around a set that remains temporally appropriate for each character, for example each gets a sword but swords change as the cultures change.  The millennia spanning narrative adds numerous colorful details that bring each set to life.

  The antagonists begin with zombies, but these are not the only enemies faced.  Smoothly moving into Chthulu horror, Bonethieves, Trappers, and Behemoths prowl the corridors, adding several styles of Guardians, each with their own attack tactics to learn and adapt to.  Contrasting other horror games ED enemies can be fought, but do not even try to make sense – they remain firmly ensconced in the impossible.  This lends to the games other major mechanic beyond combat.  While ED forces conserving hit points and ammunition like other games I could mention (Resident Evil 4,5, and 6 don’t count), the characters must also conserve sanity.

  Sanity is tracked on a green bar in addition to health and magic.  Even meeting a monster forces sanity loss, but some cause it continually, while the Trappers have the ability to send the characters beyond the veil of reality, a nasty sort of mini game that strongly incents players to leave as quickly as possible.  The tutorial systems are efficient and bring the player up to speed on these conditions, and how to avoid them, well. 

  Sanity also lends to the greatest selling point of the game.  Running with low sanity can randomly call a sanity effect.  These are one-offs, typically jokes, but designed to run on the fears of the player and character – in the gap between them.  Sometimes this involves clipping through the world geometry, or steadily sinking through the floor.  Other times it means flashing a “To Be Continued” Screen, or helpfully offering and then proceeding with deleting all of the save files.  They are wonderfully macabre, just check out this video on Youtube to spoil the rest of them.  Rest assure that there has actually been a lot of clearly evident work on debugging, and each effect ends with the character screaming “This isn’t really happening!!” at the point where they were last safe.  I’ve taken to using these effects as friendly reminders to save my game, frequently.

  The magic system is shallow, with only about 12 runes to play with in creating about 12 spells.  I’ve always wanted to see an Eternal Darkness 2 to revisit the concept.  Still, I've always loved the ability to play with magic as they've done it; consider this example.  You enter a room and you are swarmed with five or more zombies.  In any horror game, and in Eternal Darkness as well, you are dead; they’ll swarm you and prevent you from acting.  But that’s only if you stand in place and squeeze off shells like a tank.  ED’s magic system lets you play with this scenario, either by summoning monsters to even the odds, creating a shield to defend yourself, or dropping a forcefield on the ground that auto zaps the first monster, but only the first, to walk into it.  ED can have you running if you haven’t explored the magic system deeply enough, but once you have all of the runes (which you have early enough in the game) you can game change losing battles very efficiently.

  There’s a good challenge to be had here, so I’ll promote this aesthetic first and foremost.  There is a visceral psychological terror, as well, making Sense pleasure the number two aesthetic.  Narrative is for me the third best reason to play it.  It’s story stands out compared to horror games, but does little to stand away from the best narratives in all of gaming.  Finally this game stands out for good mention because it is such a fun way to play with mortal terror, due to its brilliant magic system. 

  I hope that I can inspire others to try this game.  It stands worthy of being a long lived classic, even if its creators are in trouble.

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