[9 February 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
One of the curious byproducts of video game narratives is that the person you are investing your time and energy into must inadvertently always remain relevant to the plot. The dilemma that comes up is that you are now having a character who can blast their way through dozens of foes and has saved the world several times over. Assuming it’s monsters all the way down for the game, you can either adjust their backstory to explain why they are the ultimate badass, have everyone remain bizarrely oblivious, or break up the narrative into playing as multiple characters. The problem with the first option is that it ceases to make sense for the player to ever lose if they are indeed this badass, the second is just painful, and the third means crafting a game design that doesn’t suffer when different characters are played. What makes Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem interesting is that it takes the third option and runs with it. You play a wide range of sometimes strong and sometimes weak characters. What links them together is a common goal spanning several centuries to try and prevent an ancient God from taking over our world. Incorporating the idea of building a legacy instead of one individual is what makes Eternal Darkness stand out even today.
The game opens with your Uncle extolling the impenetrable mystery of life and how we are often too little aware of the consequences of our own actions. Roivas explains that our perceptions do not change reality, but rather color them. To commiserate this sentiment the game uses a similar tactic to Silent Hill 2 by dropping us into a combat situation before it explains any controls. Alex is locked in her room, surrounded by undead, and trying to figure out how to use the shotgun in her hand. The outcome is pre-defined, but because the controls require you to hold R1 before you shoot you can’t just button mash your way out of it. This turns out to be a nightmare but the introduction’s horror of the unknown has been established using the game design. Alex Roivas, who could be considered the game’s overall protagonist, awakens from this nightmare to discover that her Uncle has been murdered. The police don’t understand what happened to him and the detective bumbles his way around talking to us. Making the conversation more poignant are his half-hearted attempts to hit on you, emphasizing the insecurity the player feels after the game’s nightmarish start and Alex’s own vulnerability. Control is finally handed over to the player and we are given free reign over the bottom floor of the mansion. Outside it is eternally sunset, a thematic nod to the game’s setting of an approaching darkness that will corrupt the world.
A few simple puzzles later and the game’s basic structure is underway. Your character discovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Each time they read it or find a page, a brief level is unlocked where you become a different character. Starting all the way at the beginning of the mystery, you slowly uncover the full story of how the Roivas family got caught up in a god’s attempt to return to the corporeal realm. The abilities won and even mental trauma accrued in each level will build back onto both Alex and subsequent users of the tome. In this way the book itself acts as the accumulated power and experience of the player rather than any individual character. You’re not upgrading a person, you’re building a legacy through the book. Each character in a mission is summoned to the book and must act out their part in its history. Complimenting the themes of horror and struggle is a combat system that never quite grants the player an enormous edge. In terms of fighting, each character is going to pick up a different weapon, have a different level of health & magic, and have a different kind of combat scenario to face. There is no stockpiling ammo or saving the best weapon, your circumstances are always changing from level to level. It is the accumulated knowledge of the book that the player is building, not any one particular hero.
The opening chapter begins with how the entire problem got started: a lone Roman Centurion whose blind loyalty to one Emperor ends with his enslavement to a new, bigger one. Pious is willing to exchange freedom for power, humanity for knowledge, and feels no doubts about this conduct. He is the only character you play who does not experience sanity loss at the monsters, reflecting his own indefatigable faith in himself and his actions. After his body is changed and he becomes the servant of one of three Gods, he is shown still loyally wearing his centurion armor. He will wear it all the way to the end of the game. Elia, the second character, is shown reading a book full of fanciful myths that echoes Alex’s own position as reading a book about fantastic events. She is equally burdened by a God and loses her life as a consequence. A messenger trying to foil a plot to kill Emperor Charlemagne, a Persian treasure hunter, and your own ancestors make up just a few of the characters you’ll play as. What binds these characters is not their inevitable discovery of a conspiracy we are watching manifest from afar, but the realization that their individual contribution is not enough to defeat the darkness. Elia is murdered and forced to spend centuries as a lost spirit, only to be found years later by another adventurer. Bianchi the architect is dumped into the Hellish tower of tormented souls he helped to build. It is not until the Iraq War that a firefighter stumbles upon the tower and recovers the essence of a God that Bianchi found. Paul Luther, a Franciscan monk, discovers Pious’s machinations only to be killed by the hideous beast he is concealing. 431 years later a reporter during World War I discovers the same conspiracy but is able to stop the monster. Your ancestor Maximillian discovers a huge underground city underneath his mansion, but he is locked in the mad house when he tries to warn others. Your grandfather came close to sealing the city underground forever, but not close enough. The fragility of the player, the people involved in this vast mystery, and the constant struggle to make any positive progress creates a genuine sense of uncertainty. You never know what’s going to happen to each of the characters you play as. In this way the mystery is slowly unraveled in reverse for Alex, a nod to the Roivas name itself which is savior spelled backwards.
Helping to generate a sense of continuity between all these characters is a consistent theme of place. Although you might play as twelve different people, you will be consistently exploring four different environments. A Sumerian temple in Iraq, another temple in Cambodia, a large Cathedral in France, and the Roivas Mansion in Rhode Island. Each one is depicted during different periods of history that allow for just enough changes to make them interesting to visit repeatedly yet are familiar enough that the player is able to feel competent revisting them. Since there is no sense of progression by developing an individual character, Eternal Darkness creates one by allowing the player to develop the same familiarity the tome is providing to people within the narrative. They are relying on the knowledge they developed playing as other characters just as within the narrative characters are relying on what they have read in the book. The repetition of levels also allows the developers to make these spaces believable. The Roivas mansion is not some Resident Evil style palace with more rooms than Xanadu, it is a fairly large country manor with rooms and locations that seem plausible (until you head underground). The cathedral and temples follow similar suit; they’re large and have their trap rooms but they are just small enough that they don’t become ridiculous. The video game crutch of larger than life levels with incredibly ridiculous traps is no longer necessary thanks to the game’s setup, it instead relies on switching locations and time periods to facilitate a sense of progress. Paintings of each location are placed around the mansion, along with various artifacts and puzzles that were solved back while playing as another character. Having identifiable details to each area is fleshed out by placing those details in other locations and having them serve as reminders to the player.
What really makes this game stand out though are just the little touches. The torches will randomly pop, continually making the player jump out of their seat. The connection with real world events makes the game’s plot become more grounded than the average fantasy. The ominous whispering in the background, the incessant banging on doors, and the book itself make up the true scares of this game. Every character who uses the book must walk through a long hallway. Along each side is a person who has sacrificed their lives in its service. Along the walls and floor are their screaming faces, the pain and suffering the book causes for all who wield it. The common link between all of these people is not their abilities or their accomplishments, it is their mutual suffering for a greater task. This theme of building a legacy, of a dozen people contributing to a battle with a growing darkness, culminates in the Mansion. Depending on the player’s actions, the best sword in the game along with the artifacts she needs will be delivered by the last character in the book, who received it because of the actions of the others as well. In the final boss fight Alex uses the book to summon each person and have them attack Pious while he defends the summoning ritual. That the game design communicates this final battle as a legacy’s culmination, instead of an individual accomplishment, is what makes Eternal Darkness such an interesting take on survival horror.