As an Xbox fanboy, I bought my GameCube on a whim. It was the summer of 2002 and they were offering Super Mario Sunshine for free. Could you blame me? Right off the bat, I even favored the flagship Mario title over Eternal Darkness, which I had set aside to collect dust after a few levels. I remember the dishing the game received on the forums for having a visible sanity bar, which seemed antithetical to the on-screen craziness (like the game stating it had deleted your save) when you already knew it was coming. I thought it was an interesting diversion, being an M-rated Nintendo game for crying out loud, but it lost a lot of time against Sunshine and Animal Crossing. It wasn’t until college that my opinion changed…
Eternal Darkness is a history spanning action-adventure game, in a vein similar to Resident Evil, in which you take control of a variety of characters with intertwining narratives regarding ancient beings, horrible atrocities, and the aforementioned darkness. After an incredible logo sequence, you start as a young Alex Roivas in a barren room, fighting an endless swarm of ghouls - interestingly, before you’re given a grapple on the controls. She wakes to a phone call in which her grandfather has been brutally murdered in his Rhode Island mansion. She comes up to identify the body and she decides to hunker down to solve the mystery. In a hidden room, you come across the Tomb of Eternal Darkness, an ancient book bound in flesh and bone, each new page serving as a new episode in the story. The first tale is about a Roman soldier, Pious Augustus, taking place in the deserts of Persia two millennia ago. Lured down into an ancient temple, he unwillingly becomes the servant of an ancient transcendental being with a horrible prerogative. The story then builds on Pious’ goal of bringing his master back into this realm to bring about an eternal darkness.
It was when I explained the game to my roommate in college that the game really became an adventure. As I would play, he would sit behind and simply experience the story as I played it, which made me enjoy the game that much more. The game’s mostly melee-based action didn’t quite click until I got used to target individual limbs on a ghoul or bonethief to slow them down or disable them. On top of that, you have a spell system which allows you to experiment with the various runes you pick up. I mentioned Pious becomes an unwilling servant to an ancient master, but one critical aspect is which master: the three gods change the game’s difficulty in different ways in that the enemies you fight will sap you of a different essence. For example, if Pious chooses the green Xel’lotath rune, the enemies you fight throughout history will drain you of your sanity, which eventually affects your health. The blue-themed Ulayoth drains your mana, etc. Reminiscent of rock-paper-scissors, each god is both vulnerable and super effective against the others.
The game’s socketable spells are incredible fun, too. While you can accidentally discover many on your own, the game drip feeds specific ones to you as you play. If you take that previously mentioned green Xel’lotath rune and pair it with some others, you can regain your sanity through a spell. As the spells become larger, you simply add ‘pargon’ runes to amp the power. You can then hot key the spells for quick deployment and they light up on the ground around you.
Let’s talk about the sanity effects for a moment. As your character witnesses bizarre stuff, it starts to drain and as the game continues, you start to buy why this stuff is so unsettling to them: it becomes unsettling to you. Starting a game with an Edgar Allen Poe seems awfully pretentious, but it’s the incredibly serious nature of the game that works in its favor. The effects don’t begin to really kick in until halfway in, but they’re mostly brilliant. One has your limbs exploding one by one until you eventually die. Another flips the level upside down. Still another inverts the controls. Whispers fill the environment as you descend into madness, something scratches at the walls. If you know what your TV’s options look like, then the ‘muted TV’ effect won’t have quite the punch, but when that sanity meter begins to deplete, you know trouble’s coming. The meter also delineates when your health begins to suffer as a result of sanity, rather than attacks from foes.
The game has its fair share of jump scares — the best being the ‘blood bath’ sequence that freaked out everyone who played it, including myself! — but it also builds a thick layer of psychological tension through its engrossing narrative, too. Unlike other games or films, the horrors here aren’t merely malicious, they have a reason they’re doing the terrible things they’re doing. This is one of the few games that I’ve played through multiple times as playing under the influence of a different deity not only changes the game, but also builds toward a new ending in which you destroy all three ancients in parallel timelines. It’s trippy. Short of perfection, the game suffers from a horrible bout of repetition, especially in the ancient city hidden conveniently under the mansion. You revisit locations several times in different time periods, but they escape irritation by being different enough to make you curious as to what happened in the gaps between the pages.
The game fared poorly commercially, which is a shame considering how brilliant it is. It’s an original IP, it’s Nintendo’s first M-rated game (intended to bridge that gap to the core audience they were losing with a console that looked like a purse), and it’s an amazing story. Developer Silicon Knights would end up divorcing Nintendo in favor of Microsoft. There, they would launch their techno-Viking-themed Too Human which, despite all the good will I invested because of Eternal Darkness, was a pretty decent narrative with a poor game. The GameCube had a few really great games, Super Mario Sunshine and Animal Crossing definitely headlining. I don’t dig Zelda games, so those are out. Metroid Prime was a breath of fresh air, but the exploration-based gameplay just couldn’t sink into my brain like Eternal Darkness‘ story did. Silicon Knights says they’ll return to that universe some day, but it’s just not soon enough.