[This article originally appeared on the Destructoid Community Blogs]
Having already written about one of the scariest movies from my childhood, Dougal & The Blue Cat, I thought I would take the opportunity, at the turn of midnight on Halloween 2011, to also write about one of the scariest video games ever made and what makes it so damn terrifying. Eternal Darkness begins with a monologue about how little we are aware of the consequences of our decisions. The narrator, Edward Roivas (recently deceased), might as well be passing a more specific judgment on game design rather than humanity in general. Games rarely force players to deal with consequences in any meaningful way, no matter how elaborate the action.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that no narrative medium explores consequences in any great depth – action heroes don't have to do gaol sentences for all the death and destruction they were responsible for – unless it can be tied into the central plotline somehow. But because gaming stories are by necessity padded out more than those of books and film, where the users' experience of time is controlled by the author rather than themselves, they are prone to including a greater number of throwaway events - boss battles, isolated action sequences - that are forgotten the instant they're over.
Originating on the N64, the game is unique in many ways, but arguably none moreso than the importance it places on making players feel the consequences of their actions. This is a factor of the game that goes largely overlooked, even by those lauding it and its myriad qualities.
The sanity effects are brought up most often, referring to instances when the player's character has tussled with too many monsters without respite and apparently starts to lose their mind, resulting in such meta-horror as the player being shown a message on-screen that their controller has been unplugged, or their save file is being deleted when it's supposed to be saving. Yet these broad strokes are more amusing than terrifying, even irritating after recurring once too often. They're inventive for sure, but rely too much on players being scared as players outside the game than as the character in the midst of the narrative. There are a handful which work well – the hammering on doors as you approach never fails to be a little unnerving – but the likely truth is that they're remembered more as being one of the game's most distinctive features, even if its more subtle tricks are far more effective.
Having put some playtime into the game in anticipation of this article, the emphasis on making players live out the consequences of their actions seems to me the real reason behind its success as a horror game. It's easy to roll your eyes at statements that building strong characters is key to drawing the most powerful emotional reactions out of players or viewers, but finding that discernable streak of individuality in the person through whom you'll be experiencing the story does make you feel like you know them and have a stake in their future. No-one has ever been scared in a Legend of Zelda game because Link is designed to be anonymous. This approach has its benefits in blurring the line between the gamer and their avatar's actions on-screen, but makes it far more difficult for the developer to draw tension or fear without that empathetic connection.
Eternal Darkness has a (relatively) enormous list of playable characters occurring throughout various points in history. The slightly hokey framing for this is that Alex Roivas, the game's official protagonist, discovers a secret office in her murdered grandfather's mansion where he was studying the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a collection of knowledge accumulated by damned individuals throughout human history. As Alex reads their stories, we flashback with her.
In visual design alone, these characters are so far removed from the traditional gaming heroes - a Roman centurion, an 18th century nobleman, a monk - that they immediately feel more real by differentiation from what we're used to. Developers Silicon Knights don't make these differences purely aesthetic: each character has a health and sanity bar unique to them (among other invisible attributes, like running speed and posture), which reflects the physical strength of their appearance and the mental strength of someone in their situation. The centurion and the fireman, for example, are more resilient to losing sanity than a monk or Cambodian dancer.
Despite the clunky animation no doubt leftover from the game's early days on the N64, even the characters' finishing moves seem strangely appropriate to each of them. Even though we interact with them no differently than we do any number of identikit game protagonists elsewhere, it's in these fine details that the player is first drawn into a world rich enough for the fantasy, no matter how outlandish, to attain that all important grip of credibility on our minds.
With distinctive characters anchoring the drama and its world, Silicon Knights proceed to relentlessly punish players for their sympathies. After giving you people to care about, the game starts destroying them in front of your eyes, all while you're in control of them and still powerless to change their fate no matter how many spells you cast or monsters you defeat. Since we believe in these characters and want to see them survive, this gives the world a real sense of danger and foreboding. In almost any other game, forcing the player into these cycles of predestined defeat would be blasphemous to the accepted rules of design – players get their kicks from feeling like champions, after all.
Yet by spanning the narrative across history, Silicon Knights makes every small victory along the path feel that much more important and rewarding. Discovering a new spell adds it to the Tome, which may not be enough to save the character presently in your control, but will make the journey easier for whomever is next in line to pick it up. Among a cast of vulnerable, human individuals facing a supernatural threat of divine magnitude, these tiny successes escalate until, when the time comes for Alex Roivas to make her stand, she's empowered enough to do so.
It's this sense of collaborative effort, enduring terrible suffering so that humanity will one day be able to stand its ground when the threat rises to the surface, that gives the game its emotional weight. Finding the corpse of a character who had been at your control in a past period in history becomes an unsettling reminder both of your previous failure as a player but also the reasons you choose to persist in the long struggle. This is a game with a real sense of passing time, where the consequences of tiny struggles can be felt echoing thousands of years into future where, as Alex continues to turn the pages of the Tome in her dead grandfather's office, the monsters beneath the surface are closing in on the present day.
This is a story where the efforts of the weakest person can have an impact felt far deeper and longer than any number of heavily-armed space marines. When the game talks about destiny, it's not just empty self-aggrandising. Edward Roivas is damning of humanity for choosing to remain ignorant of the consequences of its decisions. Enlightening us might well be Eternal Darkness' most terrifying trick.
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