A Touch of Madness
In novelist Brenda Walker’s 2010 memoir, she describes the enduring allure of Gothic horror as such: “Characters must contend with the dead, with active hauntings or with hallucinations of hauntings, as well as whatever other trying circumstances they might find themselves in: orphanhood, lunacy, imprisonment, inheritances that go astray, troubling romantic situations.”
“Gothic stories,” she says, “linger especially in the mind.”
2002’s Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, developed by Denis Dyack’s now-defunct Silicon Knights, is a horror title spun from the long and looming shadow of the Gothic tradition, and linger it does. Dyack’s love song to pulpy hysteria and emotionally wrought adventure novels, Darkness pulls part and parcel from all the greats – Lovecraft, Radcliffe, Shelley, & Walpole – and makes a horror canon recorded in centuries of novels work for a brand new medium where the scares can, and will, get far more personal.
Once Upon a Midnight Dreary
You play first as Alex Roivas, stereotypical Final Girl, who’s summoned back to her ancestral estate after the grisly murder of her grandfather. Wandering around the crumbling mansion reveals a hidden study, complete with a skin-bound book chock a block with seemingly true tales of vicious elder gods. Each chapter of the book (neatly, the Tome of Eternal Darkness) outlines the struggle of a different key player in the centuries-long fight to keep these ancients asleep and their demented Roman summoner from shredding the fabric of the universe in his latest power grab.
If it sounds hokey, that’s because it is. Part of the appeal of Eternal Darkness comes from its in-game ability to lovingly retool tired tropes in a way that gives them meaning and context. As you’re yawning through the intro of the pretty blonde running around the spooky mansion, the tome cracks opens and you’re instead jettisoned into the story of a Roman commander in ancient Persia, or an Indiana Jones look-a-like in Angkor Thom, or a Franciscan monk in Amiens. Both a history lesson and a world tour, the low poly blonde we’ve all come to expect as any horror game’s Virgil is instead background noise for the complex dramas of a more diverse cast of characters.
The game gives you little time to make friends these mini-protagonists, but provides just enough familiarity to shock you with real disappointment when they each meet their less-than-cheery fates. No one can single handedly save the day here; Instead, each pawn in this cosmic game of twelve dimensional chess can only move the needle a little bit further, and pass the baton on to the next generation who, in turn, must do the same. This structural strategy is a breath of fresh air blown against a narrative cliché: elder gods prove to be appropriately intimidating forces in this game, ones that wipe out whole swaths of real people instead of the typical “end of the world” hand waving.
“There is Something At Work in my Soul, Which I Do Not Understand”
With its cosmic horrors, idyllic New England setting, and fixation on the ever-fluctuating state of one’s sanity, it’s almost too easy to draw a parallel between Eternal Darkness and Lovecraftian fiction, but if Lovecraft is the set dressing, then Gothic is the game laid bare. The cold open of every boot up finds a quote from The Raven by Poe – albeit out of context – and all of the prerequisite components of American Gothic are played up, then baked down to their bones: The “haunted” Roivas house, passed down like a generational hot potato but full of secrets all its own. Alex’s grandfather Edward role plays the trope of the aged scholar, pouring over books too arcane for the rest of us, while his sins of the past loom like a curse over the present. We find faraway places, insidious monks, a virginal maiden, and the plotting of a powerful tyrant, dealt out like a deck of Gothic horror’s greatest hits.
And, lest we forget, we find madness. A rock-paper-scissors magic system neatly balances out your three core stats of health, magic, and sanity, and enemies come in all three Neapolitan flavors. These obviously macabre baddies are almost tacky, and deliciously so: eyeballs plopped in grinning skulls, skeletons stretched thin with muscle, sinew, gristle. A big baddie in Roman plate mail, green glowing eyes, speaking Latin-esque pronouncements of Thou and Whomst in that way that only super villains and high school productions of Shakespeare can muster without irony.
Staring at any one ghoul for too long will dent your sanity, implying their horrific incomprehension with another wink towards Lovecraft, and if your sanity drops too low the world knocks into a Dutch angle & the whispers and whining of the unseen strike a fever pitch. Then, what’s real and what isn’t is up for interpretation: limbs fall off, enemies shrink and grow, rooms appear upside down, and the world slips into a tessellating acid bath nightmare.
The descent into madness, true to form, is subtle at first – so slight that it’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Out of the corner of your eye walls begin to bleed delicate trickles and footsteps will ominously pad on long after you’ve stopped walking. Eternal Darkness isn’t interested in scares just for the sake of checking a few boxes in the horror canon; What makes it a mind-bending classic – the kind of game where friends at dinner parties will still desperately shove a copy at you with a firm “play this” – is its post-modern approach to fear. It’s a game developed with an uncanny awareness of both what it is (namely, a video game to be purchased then played) and who you are (an omnipotent purchaser and player, and presumably one who knows her way around horror titles). Its grift isn’t to spook you with the pop of a jump scare or the grisliness of viscera and ooze. Worse, it wants you to feel exactly what your protagonists are feeling: like the tangible fabric of reality is shredding around you.
Trying to save your game will coyly threaten to delete all of your data instead. Then, for a tense moment, it actually will. Horrors will croon at you, then the audio will drop out and a neon green “MUTE” will appear in the upper right of the screen, a UI relic of all CRT TV’s in the early 2000’s. Or, a fly will land on your screen, and frustrated shooing will leave you bashfully swiping at nothing. Eternal Darkness may be narratively preoccupied with Victorian conceptions of hysteria and nerves, but it uses the prescient medium of video games to toy with your paranoia in a precisely post-modern way. When you know you’re safe in your living room, a glass screen between you and the gooey nightmares plaguing your protagonist, what could be more horrifying than threatening the very structure of the game itself?
“We Are Unfashioned Creatures, Half Made Up“
The more capital-H Horror is cherry picked for unsuspecting moments and used wisely: approaching a bathtub will trigger a hair-thin flash of a woman’s suicide, her screams and split wrists, and the second you realize it’s your suicide the room whiplashes back to normal. Loading a new room will suddenly toss you into a confined area – a padded cell, you realize – and the exact moment where you begin to panic about whether you were in this sanitarium the whole time is when the room reloads and you’re in whatever room you expected.
Despite such creative thrills, ultimately Eternal Darkness is still a horror title, with all of the goopy villains and crawling baddies that come with the turf. It’s these meta moments, though, of gleefully hacking at the fourth wall that work double time to elevate it above the others in the canon of early aughts gaming. Dyack didn’t simply breeze over the tropes from the genre he was building on, but dug into them and gave them point and purpose within a brand new medium, and a brand new era. Horror, like all good stories, needs to prey on the fears of the time. When we’ve just begun to rely on computers for everything, what could be scarier than their acknowledgement of us as players, and then active rebellion against us?