The Story: Taking place in different locations and throughout different times, the story centers on young Alexandra Roivas (Savior spelled backwards), who is called to her grandfather’s lavish Rhode Island mansion upon his mysterious murder. Exploring the home, she discovers a secret room where she finds an odd and ghastly book made with human skin and bones called The Tome of Eternal Darkness. As she continues to wander about the mansion, she discovers more chapters from the book, and as she reads, we see the stories of the character’s within dating from 26 BC to present times.
Impressions: While not a commercial success, the game garnered a tremendous amount of acclaim and awards for its innovative gameplay, game design, story and art direction. Of note was the game’s use of “Sanity Effects” (see below), a Nintendo patented plot device where the player is mentally affected by the environments and situations, indicated by a green bar on the screen. The player controls 12 different characters throughout history and uses a number of spells and magic aligned to certain gods that affect gameplay difficulty and outcomes. There are some well-executed combat scenarios and a few very clever puzzles where the proper spells can make a big difference for the player. The story is deep but never cumbersome and Alex makes for a great protagonist, voiced by Jennifer Hale. She’s compelling and like her distant gaming cousin Lara Croft, indomitable, intelligent, and a character that has since become beloved, despite being in only one game. A unique experience, Eternal Darkness is a must play adventure.
That Moment: Most memorable is of course is the aforementioned Sanity Effects, a very clever gimmick that actually doesn’t feel gimmicky. Working subtly at first, if seen by enemies or in distress or from other triggered events, the green Sanity bar (displayed in the HUD’s upper left corner) depletes, causing a series of increasingly larger effects on what the player sees and experiences. This could be shifting camera angles and other slight visual cues but as the effects grow worse, the player begins to hear whispers, disturbing voices and other sounds, such a ringing phones and door knocks that are heightened and meant to simulate events in the actual player’s home. It continues with on-screen notifications such that the audio on the player’s television adjusting or insects appearing to scurry across the screen and other Fourth Wall breaks including the now famous GameCube Blue Screen of Death that warns the player that a fatal error has occurred in the system. None of these elements affected gameplay and were only meant to represent the player-controlled character’s waning sanity. It is this effect, the Blue Screen of Death that is the defining moment of the game and the one that had players jumping out of their seats. By using a visual trigger that any PC computer user would be already familiar with, and one that caused a knee-jerk angry reaction, the sudden pop-up of this on the game screen sent a shock through the player that surely sent some controllers flying across living rooms.
Why it Matters: Immersion is something any game developer is striving for. How can they get the player to believe the world they have created is real and have players motivated to keep going? Many great games do this with plot points, graphics, game design and interesting characters. Silicon Knights (Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes) went the extra step and added a bit of psychology to the mix, toying with player’s perceptions of reality and imagination. Playing this game with the lights off adds a lot to the already jolting audio effects, especially the door knock. There is also a clever Game Save screen that flashes on the screen and asks if the player wants to save or delete the game. No matter the choice, the games informs that all data has been successfully deleted, a deviously clever trick. But none compare with the Blue Screen of Death, a bright blue screen that it strikingly similar to the early Microsoft Windows version where the warning declares the system has truly failed. The first time it appears, sure, players might be a little primed as your Sanity Meter is depleted, but that’s if you’re even paying attention to it. When it comes, there is almost a motor memory rage reaction that overwhelms, but then quickly dissipates and replaced by laughs at the cleverness of the “gotcha” moment. Part of the fun of any game is wondering what’s is coming next, and while Eternal Darkness is full of great gaming moments, it is this innovate player inclusion that leaves the strongest lasting memory and makes it one well worth playing.