Gaming on a Timer

Insanity in Horror Games – Eternal Darkness Retrospect

Eternal Darkness box art.

I’ve never been a fan of horror games as a whole. Oh, I’ve played around with the Resident Evil series (long before it was reincarnated into it’s trigger-happy fourth installment) and even tried the Silent Hill games on the PSX, but I’ve never been able to stomach the truly visceral horrors of, say, Amnesia or Fatal Frame.

One particular exception to this rule, however, was Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem by Silicon Knights, released way back in 2002 on the GCN. Here was a game that, at first glance, was a cheap grab at the Cthulhu mythos with eldritch abominations, forgotten gods and Lovecraftian settings (such as the Rhode Island manor, or the underground city of Ehn’gha), which nonetheless manages to stand out for it’s original, multi-perspective narrative, interesting combat system and, ultimately, the Sanity system.

Note the sanity bar, color-coded green.

The sanity system in Eternal Darkness, while by no means original (effectively a second health bar), was implemented in such a way that caught most gamers off-balance. Aside from the more mundane camera tilts and eerie whispers, as your sanity dwindled and dropped further, paintings’ vistas warp from serene to infernal settings, walls start bleeding and stone busts turn to face your character as you walk past. And eventually, one of the more intense insanity effects would trigger: Your character’s limbs might explode, or they might shrink down to a fifth of their size, or possibly the next room you entered would be upside-down. Finally, one of the real heavy-hitters would jump in: the TV volume would seemingly lower itself down to zero, or a BSOD would kick in, informing you that the game was corrupt and had to be restarted. Talk about a real mind screw.

Blur-o-vision, how predictible.

What surprises me nowadays, though, is that in an industry that thrives on “borrowing” successful ideas, I have yet to see another game that implements these ideas (even the mildest of them). Take in comparison Amnesia: The Dark Descent (a visceral, haunting take on the “survival” part of the whole survival horror genre ~ *highly* recommended if you’re into horror). In Amnesia, there’s also an implementation of the sanity meter, however it only manifests as a blur filter over your vision. Underwhelming to say the least, it feels like a missed opportunity.

How about blood instead of water
when your sanity drops?

What’s weird is how well an Eternal Darkness-esque set of effects would translate into Amnesia. Agreed, maybe the whole “corrupt memory card” thing would feel out of place, but what about the other stuff? Statues animating or portraits weeping blood, this would capitalize on the sanity system in a better way than some overdone and overexploited vision filter. Maybe have a piece of furniture move in a conspicuous way, only to find it back in it’s place once you return to the scene? Again, a missed opportunity that was presumably ignored in favour of blur, the industry’s new favourite gimmick (abysmal motion controls not withstanding).

That being said, Amnesia is one of the best examples of horror-provoking, cleverly thought out game ideas of the past few years, but that’s a discussion for another time.

* Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem Wikipedia entry
* Amnesia: The Dark Descent Wikipedia entry
* Silicon Knights official website
* Amnesia: The Dark Descent official website

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