It was late August in 2002 and I was doing some shopping at the mall. I’d picked up a new pair of soccer shoes as school would be starting in only a few weeks and decided to take a look at the Sam Goody store shortly before we were set to leave. I flipped through the cd and movie aisles before I browsing the video games situated in the back wall of the store – PS2, GameCube, Game Boy Advance(what a time to be alive!). It was there I found a new GameCube game that I’d been wanting to play since first reading about it in Nintendo Power and EGM(back when it was planned as an N64 release). After looking around for a few more minutes I finally brought the game and whatever other cd’s I’d picked out to the sales counter at the front of the store. I remember the cashier ringing up my latest splurge and can still hear his voice as he said “Ohhh…this is supposed to be really scary!”. The game was Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and it’s one of my most memorable gaming experiences after twenty years…
(Cool story, bro…)
Eternal Darkness was developed by Silicon Knights and published by Nintendo. Game Director/Writer Denis Dyack set out to create a horror game, but would eschew the survival horror of games like Resident Evil and opt for a psychological horror experience that would “mess with people’s heads”. The game would take much of its inspiration from the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft involving ancient unspeakable god-like entities which exist beyond mortal perception as well as the sense of foreboding and macabre found in the writing of Edgar Allen Poe(both authors are referenced within the game itself). It was originally conceived as a release on the Nintendo 64 with a targeted release of October 31, 1999, but Silicon Knights made the decision to rebuild the game and was a projected launch title for the GameCube’s release date of November 18, 2001. This was also not to be as it was once again delayed and planned for a summer 2002 release date.
The story begins with protagonist Alexandra Roivas, awakened from a nightmare by a telephone call informing her there has been an incident at her family’s estate in Rhode Island. Upon arriving she receives the grisly details surrounding the murder of her grandfather, Edward Roivas. After becoming frustrated by the lack of progress in the police investigation, she decides to look around the mansion for clues. She soon discovers her grandfather’s hidden study and within it, a book crafted from human skin and bone – the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Alex begins to read the ancient text, which tells the story of multiple mortals whose fates become intertwined with that of the Ancients – Mantorok, Chattur’gha, Xel’lotath and Ulyaoth. Each chapter of the tome contains a different story as it follows an unknowing human’s brush with the Ancients and other horrors across two millennia, told outside of chronological order. The stories all take place in one of several locations – Ancient Persia, Cambodia, France, and Rhode Island. The first tale takes place in Ancient Persia as Pious Augustus, Roman Legionnaire is drawn by mysterious voices to the Forbidden City, which lies under the desert sands. Making his way through the labyrinthian underground he stumbles upon three artifacts, each containing the essence of one of the Ancients – Chattur’gha, Xel’lotath, or Ulyaoth. The player is then given the choice of which artifact to take. As soon as Pious touches an artifact, coming into contact with one of the god-like entities and beomces immediately corrupted by their power, thus aligning himself with the supernatural being. Each of the Ancients corresponds to a different attribute: Chattur’gha(red) – life/vitality, Xel’lotath(green) – mentality, Ulyaoth(blue) – magick. Pious’ choice of artifact will affect the elemental strengths and weakness of enemies throughout the game and will also dictate which ending the player receives upon completing the game.
At first glance, Eternal Darkness’ core gameplay may not appear all that different from horror games like Silent Hill or Alone in the Dark. The player must guide the chapter’s character through the area, solving puzzles as well as defeating the armies of darkness that dwell within. Puzzles generally consist of combining objects and placing them in the corresponding location, fairly similar to those found in Resident Evil game. Combat is primarily using melee weapons, though several characters will also have firearms at their disposal, such as Maximilian Roivas, who is equipped with flintlock pistols as he investigates the Rhode Island estate amid the 18th Century. Over the course of the game players would also learn how to cast a number of spells which, depending on the incantation, could do anything from enchant items and weapons to restore health – example: a sword may require a specific enchantment before it can be inserted into a lock opening a door sealed by magick. Each spell is comprised of a specific set of runes, which can eventually be strengthened by finding additional rune pieces across subsequent chapters.
One gameplay mechanic in which Eternal Darkness differed from other third-person horror games was the ability to highlight at attack specific parts of an enemy’s body – head, torso, or arms. Decapitating an enemy would cause it to lose track of your location and resort to flailing its arms wildly and attacking its arms would prevent (most)enemies from being able to attack as you make your way through the area.
The other element in which Eternal Darkness differentiated itself from other horror games of the era is one of its most memorable – the sanity meter. On the left side of the screen is a green status bar, which indicates the current character’s mental state. Coming across any of the horrific creatures throughout the game will cause the character’s sanity meter to decrease – a central theme of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories in which its characters would be driven to madness by mere interaction with the eldritch gods; taking damage from, as well as any extended exposure to such creatures will cause the player’s sanity meter to decrease further. Once an enemy has taken enough damage it will collapse to the ground, with the player then being able to perform an execution move, which restores a small amount of one’s sanity. Once the sanity meter is depleted, the player’s health will then begin to drain slowly before resulting in a game over screen.
“The body cannot live without the mind”.Morpheus(The Matrix)
Another in-game effect of one’s metal state deteriorating is a multitude of different “sanity effects” that can happen when the meter has begun to drop(with a few occurrences being scripted). These can range from smaller annoyances such as the controls being suddenly inverted or the game screen beginning to flicker, to bigger fourth wall-breaking effects such as getting a blue error screen informing you the game has crashed or the character will be surrounded by enemies while a message would appear instructing you to reconnect your controller as the player is suddenly attacked. Of all the sanity effects, the most (in)famous may be the ‘Delete All Saved Games?’ screen which could occur after saving your progress, with the game “erasing” the save file regardless of selecting yes or no as the player likely screams in horror thinking they’ve just lost hours of progress – precisely what I did the first time it happened to me. These moments may have only lasted a few brief seconds, but the memory remains in current games whenever I see the save icon freeze for just that split second…
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was released on June 24, 2002 and received critical acclaim for the way it weaved gameplay, story and atmosphere together into something truly terrifying. The game also has the distinction of being the first game directly published by Nintendo to be given an “M” rating, which sat in slight contrast to their traditionally family-friendly image. It was also the first game released under the late Satoru Iwata as President/CEO of Nintendo. Despite the near-universal praise for the game, it never managed to reach a half million copies sold – not even enough to crack the top 50 GameCube games in terms of sales. Some of this can surely be attributed to the GameCube’s generally poor sales numbers compared to the much more successful PlayStation 2 and Xbox – note: the PS5 has already sold 20 million units in less than two years versus the GameCube’s 21.7 million over 6 years.
I thought the game looked cool when I first read about it in Nintendo Power magazines when it was still scheduled as an N64 game. By the time I finally got my hands on a copy of Eternal Darkness that day in the mall, I was beyond excited to check it out. I still remember the hours spent sitting in my room playing the game, completely captivated by what I was seeing in front of me. I had never played anything like it. I played the game so much that, at one point I’d even memorized the Ancient runes and several of the spells(Chattur’gha, Narokath, Santak!) and would attempt to…I guess…impress(?) classmates and coworkers. To this day, I still consider Eternal Darkness one of my favorite GameCube games(of which there’s many) and absolutely encourage anyone with the chance to play the game to give it a try. It even inspired me to pick up a book or two and read the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe…not sure how many other games I can say that about!
Since its release in 2002, Eternal Darkness has gone on to achieve cult status among gamers who were undoubtedly as impressed and freaked out by it as I was. Silicon Knights was rumored to have been working on a successor to the game back in 2011, fueled by the fact Nintendo had once again trademarked the IP. This was not to be, however, as Silicon Knights closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy. Nintendo continued to renew the trademark in the following years but nothing ever materialized and as of 2020 the trademark was considered all but lost. Denis Dyack has also initiated a number of Kickstarter campaigns with the goal of developing a sequel to Eternal Darkness, most recently under the title Shadow of the Eternals, but each of those has failed to meet the required funding.
Despite its cult status among fans, Eternal Darkness(as a singular title or potential series) may very well remain stranded on the island of GameCube exclusivity before being lost entirely to the sands of time. In recent years Nintendo has actually acknowledged the game when it added Alexandra as a Spirit Board character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. So what does this mean for Eternal Darkness and its frightening legacy? I hold out but a shred of hope to see the day when the game rises from the dark depths, though I fear that flame may eventually be extinguished as well…
“In this abandoned studio, a cult classic waits dreaming.”