Horror Classics: Eternal Darkness-Sanity’s Requiem

The Gamecube wasn’t exactly known for its horror games. From the cartoon graphics of Wind Waker to the brightly painted worlds of Super Mario Sunshine, it was a console whose games could mostly be played by a 5 year old without anyone batting an eye. Unknown to many, though, the Gamecube’s library hid a dark secret, a gateway to the Things Man Was Never Meant To Know. That secret was Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, one of the most terrifying experiences ever crafted in a video game.

Conceived by its developers, Silicon Knights, as a “psychological thriller” that would “mess with people’s heads”, the game was originally planned to be released for the N64, but was later moved to the Gamecube. Finally released in 2002, it was met with rave reviews: 9/10 from Eurogamer, 9.6 from IGN, a metacritic average of 91%; all pointed to Eternal Darkness being an instant classic. But what was the secret to the game’s brilliance? What set it apart from other horror games?

The key was subtlety. Eternal Darkness largely eschewed the sudden jump scares and hideous monsters found in many horror games, instead crafting an unsettling atmosphere of dread that made even the most innocuous events suddenly terrifying. Footsteps that were just a little too loud, whispers you couldn’t quite make out,  mysteries whose answers were always just out of reach, all these and more were used to disorient, confuse, and terrify. The crowning glory of this approach was the Sanity Meter, an idea so good that Nintendo actually patented it. Battling the monsters from beyond would steadily erode your character’s sanity, leading to an ever escalating series of hallucinations. These would start innocently enough, with phantom sounds and other minor issues, but would rapidly get worse as your sanity declined, until the walls themselves seemed to run with blood and your own body appeared to fall apart in a mess of limbs.

Eternal Darkness wasn’t content with just tormenting your character though: It also went after the player directly. As the sanity bar got lower, the game would play increasingly cruel pranks on the player, pretending to crash, to freeze, to mess with the input, the volume and the display, even to delete the players save data. Playing Sanity’s Requiem meant being constantly on edge, wondering if this time, the apparent glitch, bug, or crash was real, or if it was just another of Silicon Knights tricks. Combine the out-of-game tension with the in-game threat of murderous zombies, and you had a recipe for near-constant panic.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Eternal Darkness was so mind-bending. The game wore its inspirations openly enough, and one of the main ones was the notoriously bizarre work of H.P. Lovecraft. Eternal Darkness told a millenia-spanning story of unfathomable cosmic entities and ancient rituals that could have been pulled directly from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, making it the closest thing we might ever get to a truly great Cthulu game. Other influences included the work of Edgar Allan Poe, who inspired the games gloomy, oppressive aesthetic, and real world history, a subject which greatly interested the game’s director, Denis Dyack.

It was the historical element that gave it structure. Though players initially control Alexandra Roivas, a modern day (well, the year 2000, which I suppose isn’t really “modern” anymore) young woman investigating the death of her grandfather, it isn’t long before they stumble upon the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Reading this book whisks the player back in time to a variety of historical periods, and puts them in control of a series of often doomed characters caught up in an undead Centurions plot to summon his extra-planar master into our reality. With all of history to play with, the developers have a near-unlimited range of terrifying scenarios to trust the player into, including one gloriously cathartic level in which you play a tough-guy fireman with an assault rifle, allowing you to finally work off all that tension by blasting the unspeakable horrors of the netherworld into pulp.

Of course, undead Romans, Lovecraft references, and fake game crashes weren’t all Eternal Darkness had in it’s arsenal. Silicon Knight were equally adept at the more conventional elements of horror: tense sound design, surprisingly solid voice work and dialogue, and morbidly gloomy environments all contributed to the overall feeling of dread. The gameplay admittedly wasn’t outstanding, but it did present you with a variety of powerful, frightening, and numerous monsters, and really, what more can you ask for in a horror game? Add it all together, and the result was one of the scariest games ever published, and a cult hit that endures to this day.

Sadly, despite its positive reception and mountain of awards, Eternal Darkness under-performed financially, selling less than half a million copies. Maybe it was a poor fit for the Gamecube’s demographics, maybe the “Mature” rating scared off potential customers, or maybe there just wasn’t a market for terrifying psychological horror games.  In any case, the poor performance meant that no sequel was immediately forthcoming. Though Silicon Knight often discussed the possibility, and rumours frequently emerged that a new game was coming, all hope was finally crushed in 2013, when the company went bankrupt. Attempts at a spiritual sequel named Shadow of the Eternals by Silicon Knights successor company Precursor Games proved similarly futile, and were dogged by controversies and failed crowdfunding events. The ultimate fate of Shadow of the Eternals remains uncertain, and the project showed signs of new life earlier this year, but for now at least, the only way to experience the terrifying genius of Denis Dyack is to find yourself a Gamecube and take a trip to the used games store. You won’t regret it if you do. Unless, of course, you wanted to sleep tonight.