Gamers have been trained to have, shall we say, a unique grasp on reality.
What many consider to be the origin point for video games was a simple tennis sim, but from there we quickly escalated into the realm of yellow-puck-thing must devour dots in an inescapable labyrinth while pursued by ghost monsters (but a big dot will turn the tables). By the time Nintendo hit the console scene, no one batted an eye at a tubby, size-changing plumber jumping to save a human princess and her kingdom of mushroom people from the spikey clutches of a giant, fire-breathing turtle and his army of chestnuts. The elf battling the giant pig, or the robot lady freezing space jellyfish seemed downright sane by comparison. More modern, more “realistic” franchises even seem to come from the same place: Halo is still the kind of futuristic sci-fi that would relegate it, in any other medium, to its eventual station as a Syfy original movie, likely airing in an undesirable timeslot after Sharknado 7: Tokyo Spin. This isn’t to say video games have to be “weird”, I’m simply noting that, were a multi-angled, multi-tentacled monster of madness to pop up and devour Harry Potter’s mind, adults and children alike would be shocked; meanwhile, should the same creature show up in a video game, we just call it an over-sized blooper, and it’s mildly inconveniencing a race of palm tree people.
Then there’s the subtle, almost impossible fourth-wall tricks demonstrated by a number of games. Say what you will about video games, but there is literally no other story telling medium that can touch a video game’s ability to absolutely blow a player’s mind with a “should I be doing this?” Mario finds himself running above the roof only to later discover warp pipes. Edgar Roni Figaro casts a series of spells that guarantee the final boss isn’t even going to move before its vaporization. Chell sneaks into a room “off” the course and… is that graffiti on the wall? And this is all before we even get into the concept of cheat codes (“This is Officer Brady requesting additional backup, suspect has apparently summoned a tank, over.”). The first time I ever saw a Mortal Kombat fatality (the relatively tame “Toasty” Scorpion finisher) I assumed the rad teenager at the controller had done some kind of hacking magic to make such an amazing event occur. I thought you were just supposed to do a cool uppercut to “Finish Him!”
I’m not listing gaming’s greatest hits here because I’m trying to entice Grant Morrison to start creating video games (that would just be a nice bonus), I’m simply noting that by the time a gamer hits those teenage years, no matter the decade, there’s already a healthy base for “anything can happen”. For good or ill, every video game puts the player at the mercy of the programmer, there is no “gamer’s bill of rights”, and if you’re playing some nonsense game that doesn’t even allow you the convenience of skipping cutscenes or saving anywhere, well, too bad, that’s the way it is.
“The way it is” is exactly what makes Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem so great. At first glance (and first level), you would be forgiven for assuming ED:SR is a simple “graduated Resident Evil” game: there’s minor “key goes in door” style puzzles, resources and health are limited, and there’s an army of zombies creeping around like they own the place. The controls are better than RE’s original “tank” movements, but not dramatically so, so don’t expect Alexandra Roivas to go flipping away from danger like Bayonetta. You’ve got a sword, sometimes you’ll have a gun, occasionally it will behoove you to use a magical spell or two, but otherwise, this is all pretty standard horror/survival genre stuff.
And then, in Chapter 2, the real fun kicks in.
Ellia, star of Chapter 2, knows bonkers when she sees it, so, unless she takes the time to “finish” each and every zombie she encounters, her sanity will erode, and she, and the player, will gradually suffer from debilitating visions of madness. It would be the easiest thing in the world to, like many video games before it, tie your character’s health or other “score” representation to various actions that must be completed, otherwise it’s game over, but, no, ED:SR decides to literally play with reality as a character’s sanity drains away. First, the camera skews and eerie voices drop into the audio track, then completely crazy things happen, like Ellia randomly losing limbs or finding herself shrinking to mouse size. And then really crazy nonsense starts happening, like the game fading out to a screen advertising a sequel that would never be, or taunts about memory card data being wiped.
Which is why it’s all such a shame that this little bugger is here…
That’s the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo, and it tells you exactly how low your sanity has fallen. Full of sanity? Great! You’re gonna be just fine. About a quart low? Well then, brace yourself for all manner of craziness. And that’s a problem.
Don’t get me wrong: I love gauges. Video games need health meters like books need page numbers, it’s an essential piece of the experience, and when it’s shunted into something more abstract (looking at you, Fable 3), it immediately makes the game worse. It’s basic resource management: you need to know how much health you have left, because it allows you to make important decisions. Down to 2 HP? Well, if the alternative is just a game over where you have to restart anyway, it’s time to use that special super deluxe ultra move you’ve been saving for a rainy day, because, guess what, it’s raining. Full health? Then who gives a damn, just flail around wildly, you’ve got some wiggle room. Bonus points to any game that allows you to “reserve” health, because the minute you see that health gauge dipping into the red (redder?) top it back off with a healing spell or subtank or whatever you’ve got handy. Nobody likes to be creeping around with festering wounds, after all.
So the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo, presented to a gamer that has been playing videogames for years, completely undermines its own purpose. For one thing, there’s the natural impulse to always see that gauge full, because if it dips, bad things may happen to your playthrough, thus undercutting your own efforts. The sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo is introduced with precise instructions on how to refill it (and there’s a spell later that can be used pretty much continually without repercussions), and a message warning you that low sanity may also adversely affect your health. Never let the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo tumble? Got it, game, thanks.
And then there’s the other elephant in the room: when you have every capability to control the presence of the elephant, you’re not really dealing with an elephant, you’re dealing with, I don’t know, a pug. Nobody is afraid of pugs. I spent the weekend dealing with a pug, and, should that pug have snapped into vicious mode, I could have just tossed that pug in a manner not unlike a football, and been done with the problem (NOTE: No animals were harmed during my time pug-sitting. He’s a good boy. Good boy). The sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo works in much the same way: you have almost full control over that meter, so you don’t have to deal with any insanity effects if you don’t want to. On the rare occasions when you have lost control, though, you absolutely know it, because that omnipresent gauge is chilling right there in your field of vision, and if it’s dipping low, brace yourself for horror.
You know what doesn’t help shocks and scares? Knowing exactly what’s coming. Jason Voorhees thrives on unexpectedly crashing through a tent or New York or space or whatever it is this week. Jason would lose a significant chunk of his appeal if he only came when invited, perhaps at prearranged times for greater convenience. Horror can’t work with an indicator, because horror is sudden, horror is unexpected, and, most of all, horror is abrupt. Horror, and the very concept of insanity, should make you question yourself, make you stand up and notice what reality is, and that’s never going to happen when you can ease into the notion. Uh-oh, missed a couple of zombies, better get ready for craaaaaazy times.
The best, scariest, and most memorable moment in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem occurs in a certain bathroom. It also has nothing to do with the sanity meter© 2002 Nintendo, and that is no accident.
Gamers can deal with crazy. We’ve been dealing with insanity from the opening bell, when we were all expected to imagine those rectangles as tennis players or whatever was supposed to be happening in Pong. If you’re already playing Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, you’re expecting horror. This isn’t Yarn Roivas, it’s a game filled with zombies and monsters with either too many or not enough heads. Let the irrational happen, derive some genuine scares from unexpected twists on the genre. Don’t stick a claxon up in the corner, and don’t ever give a warning for horror, because true horror never does.
Don’t be afraid of being scary. Gamers can take it.
FGC #55 Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
- System: Nintendo Gamecube, the scariest of all purple lunchboxes.
- Number of Players: Just one. Come to think of it, the WiiU gamepad would be amazing for a two player game that involves attempting to frighten the other player. Somebody get that Penn & Teller game out of the garbage…
- Geez, pretty harsh review: You wouldn’t know it from the preceding post, but this is easily one of my favorite games, and definitely in my top three for the Gamecube (which would be, in order: Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Mario Sunshine, and then Eternal Darkness… Beyond Good and Evil and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door are next). It’s likely a result of having played the game so many times that I decided to home in on its one, glaring flaw.
- Favorite Character/Chapter: Poor, doomed Anthony, Charlemagne’s messenger who winds up with a curse meant for his liege, seems to embody everything good about ED:SR’s Lovecraftian roots. You are literally doomed before you even gain control of Anthony, but you still soldier on to save the king, and, whoops, turns out nothing you ever did mattered, and you’re stuck in a closet for a century or six, waiting to be slaughtered by the next “hero” who swings by.
- Favorite Sanity Effect:
I’ve seen a similar screen for other reasons many an occasion. Drives me nuts every time.
- Did you know? The surname of the hero’s family is Roivas. That’s “savior” spelled backwards. The Alucard Foundation for the Destruction of the Darkness approves.
- Would I play again: Yes, definitely. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem even respects me enough to unlock a level select and God Mode for future replays, so I can just pick up and go as not-Ben Franklin or not-Indiana Jones at my leisure. It’s hard to choose between a mad monk and a Canadian Firefighter with infinity grenades, but I think I’ll manage.
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen to conclude spooky week with… Super Ghouls and Ghosts! Put on your best boxers, grab your lance, and let’s tour the Ghoul Realm. Please look forward to it!