“Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there
wondering, fearing, doubting…”
For my first “Naughty Looks Back” post, where I look back at older and less recent works, I decided to take a look back at a game that I replayed for the umpteenth time recently- Silicon Knights’ 2002 cult classic Eternal Darkness. Heavily inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft and following a dozen characters through 2000 years of history, Eternal Darkness failed to smash any sales records in its debut but is still looked upon fondly by many fans almost 15 years later.
Starting off with the grisly murder of an elderly Rhode Island citizen, the game follows his granddaughter as she explores his empty mansion to search for clues as to the nature of his demise. It isn’t long before Alexandra Roivas and the player are both sucked into an ancient conspiracy spanning two millennia and featuring staples of Lovecraftian and eldritch horror like:
- Ancient malevolent beings from outside our reality
- Similarly malevolent servants who want to bring said beings into our reality
- Insignificance and hopelessness in the face of these beings
- Creatures that drive men to madness just from appearance
And so on in that order. As the title suggests, the game (curiously for a Nintendo property) features a very bleak atmosphere and most of the playable characters die frequently and (seemingly) senselessly; simple pawns in a game beyond their understanding.
This Can’t Be Happening!
The signature piece of game that makes it stand out even nearly 15 years later is the insanity mechanic. To sum up, the player character possesses an insanity meter that lowers every time they see a monster and is only regained by striking a finishing blow on that monster (or just cheesing it with the Recover spell later in the game). As the meter lowers, insanity starts taking hold in a wide variety of hallucinations as the character envisions themselves sinking into the ground, exploding, attacked by swarms of monsters, et cetera.
However, these insanity effects are also visiting upon the player in a number illusions that shatter the fourth wall. Over the course of the game the player will see the volume drop on their television, the game’s video cut out as the audio plays their character getting slaughtered, bugs crawling over the screen and similar effects. Many of these illusions are particularly effective at catching the player off-guard, and you will start panicking at the sight of your files getting deleted when you go to save in the game’s finale.
The Veil of Reality
Right from the start, the atmosphere of the mansion sets the tone for the game to follow. Empty and haunting, and the gut feeling of danger lying just beyond what you can see (even though Alexandra doesn’t face any threats in the mansion until the last few chapters). Where the survival horror genre has made a big return in recent years with first-person horror titles like Amnesia, Outlast and Alien: Isolation, Eternal Darkness relies more on its foreboding atmosphere and the classic themes of eldritch horror to instill fear. Save for a couple of the more intense illusions, there is exactly one jump scare relatively early on in the game, executed effectively enough to put the player on edge for the next eight to ten hours of gameplay.
This isn’t even getting into the different settings of the game’s historic segments. Trading around between a lost Cambodian temple, an ancient Middle Eastern tomb, a French cathedral and the Rhode Island mansion, Eternal Darkness explores these areas in different centuries and with enough changes to keep from feeling repetitive (although the very last segment of the game essentially plays as a tedious reiteration of two chapters prior).
What Lies Beyond?
Because of the game’s unimpressive sales and the utter destruction of its developer Silicon Knights, there has been no continuation of the franchise despite Nintendo still possessing the license for it. While there have been a couple attempts in recent years by some of the former development staff to create a spiritual successor, nothing has come of it and it’s doubtful we’ll be seeing any more in that regard.
Given the upcoming 15th anniversary next year and the gaming industry’s love of treading old ground, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an updated rerelease or remastering of the cult classic sometime soon. In the meantime, I’ll be putting it on my Nintendo wishlist along with No More Heroes 3, The Last Story 2 and another Advance Wars game.