Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Screen Culture: My video game revival!

(Note: An edited version of this post was previously submitted for my AFTRS Screen Culture course, Animation & Video Games Task, September 2010)

The ominous quote that opens the game

It wasn’t until my AFTRS Screen Culture course on Video Games that I realised how much I missed the form of entertainment that had occupied so much of my youth. An avid Nintendo fan from the Nes through to the Wii, exploring the worlds of Mario and Link, Samus and Donkey Kong was where I spent a large part of my teens. Offered the chance to review my favourite game of all time, I snapped up the opportunity to revisit an old passion. I immediately knew this review would only focus on 1 of 3 possible games: "Perfect Dark" for the Nintendo 64, "Jet Force Gemini" for the Nintendo 64 or "Eternal Darkness" for the Nintendo GameCube. I chose the latter as it more appropriately met the term of ‘complex game’ and is most notable for its wondrous storyline. 

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for the Nintendo GameCube. 

Released on November 7, 2002 in Australia, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (hereafter EDSR) was labelled a survival horror game but is much more than what that genre suggests. Operating more in the realm of Psychological Horror, it immediately began it's shelf life in a bad state by being released soon after the Resident Evil Remake (hereafter REmake) for the GameCube. This marked the beginning of it's long history of an underrated classic. Many potential buyers were left with the choice of buying one or the other, and the visual effects alone made REmake the front runner. Fortunately for me I am a completist and bought both. REmake was the disc I inserted first, Eternal Darkness was the game I kept coming back to. 

The Tome of Eternal Darkness

In a sign of the changing nature at Nintendo headquarters after the failure of the Nintendo 64 on the console front, Nintendo established a partnership in 1998 with Canadian based developer Silicon Knights. Silicon Knights would become a 2nd party developer for Nintendo in a partnership that lasted 7 years until 2004. EDSR was the 1st game published by Nintendo to be rated M. This was a major change for the previously private and youth themed Japanese entertainment giant, which had a policy during the 64's establishment of only allowing the most elite development companies access to its firmware. This was a major fault and had a drastic effect in the marketplace, as combined with the difficult programming system and cartridge memory format, 3rd party developers chose to make games for the Sony Playstation instead. Apart from English giant Rareware, most of the successful Nintendo 64 games came from Nintendo themselves. The decision to switch to discs (albeit miniDVDs) and establish partnerships with the likes of Silicon Knights would be the beginning off its turnaround, although these benefits would not emerge until the birth of the Nintendo Wii.

Silicon Knights

During this partnership Silicon Knights produced just 2 games for Nintendo, 1 was a remake of Metal Gear Solid, the other a redesigned port of a project called Eternal Darkness. EDSR had begun it's life on the Nintendo 64 but it's development soon edged towards the end of the consoles lifecycle, and both Nintendo and Silicon Knights decided to push the project over to Nintendo's 5th Generation console, the Nintendo GameCube (no its not Gamecube!). This affected its graphic style and in some areas it is not the best. Great magical lighting is featured though, and character faces were superb for the time. Overall it took advantage of the new platform but didn't push it as far as REmake did.

Footage from the unreleased N64 Prototype

EDSR is centered around a female protagonist named Alexandra Roivas who begins to investigate the mysterious death of her grandfather Edward Roivas. Venturing to her grandfathers mansion in Rhode Island, she discovers a secret room and an ancient book known as The Tome of Eternal Darkness. As Alexandra reads the chapters of the book she experiences scenes from the individual that the chapter focuses on. Thus as the gameplayer, we play through each chapter with a different character, after completing each returning to the mansion as Alexandra continues her investigation. After playing through numerous time periods and locations as 12 different characters, the mystery of the book and her grandfather is revealed.

  The Characters
The game is presented in a third-person action-adventure perspective. Each of the 12 characters have distinct abilities and weapons, positives and negatives. The 12 playable characters are:
  • Alexandra Roivas (2000 AD) - A student at a Washington university. 
  • Pious Augustus (26 BC) - A Roman Centurion at war in Ancient Persia.
  • Ellia (1150 AD) - A Cambodian slave girl and court dancer for Suryavarman II.
  • Anthony (814 AD) - A Frankish messenger for Charlemagne.
  • Karim (565 AD) - A Persian swordsman.
  • Dr. Maximillian Roivas (1760 AD) - A rich doctor in colonial Rhode Island.
  • Dr. Edwin Lindsey (1983 AD) - An archaeologist exploring Cambodian ruins.
  • Paul Luther (1485 AD) - A Franciscan monk on a pilgrimage.
  • Roberto Bianchi (1460 AD) - A traveling Venetian artist and architect, taken as a prisoner of war.
  • Peter Jacob (1916 AD) - A field reporter during World War I.
  • Edward Roivas (1952 AD) - A clinical psychologist, Alex's grandfather.
  • Michael Edwards (1991 AD) - A Canadian firefighter in Kuwait after the Gulf War
Pious Augustus

As the chapters are played through the time-lines bounce back and forth as certain story tidbits are revealed. One of the most intricate story-lines ever attempted in a video game, EDSR is a page turner. Seemingly unrelated characters begin to cross paths, locations are revisited centuries later and we learn about great Ancients and magical realms. The stories reference real life situations such as the Gulf War and quotes from the likes of Edgar Allen Poe. Endless betrayals and magic tricks make for an intriguing narrative. One such example includes the ingenious twist of a character you control, Pious Augustus, becoming the games main antagonist. The game won numerous awards for its storyline, including the award for "Outstanding Achievement in Character or Story Development" at the 6th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards, presented by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. It is still cherished today and is featured on many Top 10  lists.

 The loss of sanity

The game had a much sought after soundtrack with superb spacial sounds and atmospheric effects. These added greatly to the terror that you feel as a gameplayer. EDSR was one of the first  games published by Nintendo to feature character voices and superb character acting at that. This included Jennifer Hale (Samus from the Metroid Prime trilogy), Cam Clarke (Leonardo from TMNT) and William Hootkins (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The infamous 'Bathroom' scene

The most intriguing element of Eternal Darkness is the power bars that you must deal with. These include the traditional health and magic bars, but what really distinguishes it is the 'Sanity meter'. Patented by Nintendo, it is a bar that depletes when a character is injured or confronts an element of surprise. As the bar drops various elements begin to happen, from footsteps and shrieks of terror, to loosing control of a character or flashing back in time. More intense situations that break the 4th wall include receiving a memory card error message or disc load failure to fake television volume bars. The less known about such effects the better as they are more effective when they are not expected. Around 60 different sanity effects can occur and are a real treat to the eye, though not for the gamer! 

The ancients

EDSR features 3 separate game modes depending on the magical alignment chosen at the beginning of the game. These operate in a form of Rock, Paper, Scissors as each has an advantage over the other and a disadvantage to another. Xel'lotath, the green alignment that affects your Sanity bar and has power over Ulyaoth. Ulyaoth, the blue alignment that affects your Magic bar and has power over Chattur'gha. Chattur'gha, the red alignment that affects your Health bar and has power over Xel'lotath. These Ancients take the form of giant beings that existed before mankind but still exist in an alternate timeline. Playing through these different modes has a great affect on the gameplay, for instance I found the Chattur'gha mode the most difficult as enemies drained my life, while the most confusing was Xel'lotath as enemies drained my Sanity. EDSR remains the only game I have ever beaten 4 times, and it was these slight changes and further developed story that compelled me to do so. 

EDSR was a hit amongst critics and fans, but never quite became the big hit its developers and Nintendo had hoped. Trying to appeal to the older market that owned a Nintendo console, it failed slightly in this by being the equivalent of an Art House movie. (In an outstanding retrospective video below, Silicon Knights President Denis Dyack describes Eternal Darkness as a Foreign film). Slow paced story driven multiple character narrative with a female protagonist, it was too complex for the masses. It was the definition of a 'complex game' and has left a lasting legacy for those that were swept up by its underground world. 

IGN Retrospective with Denis Dyack of Silicon Knights

I cannot split my 3 favourite video games of all time, but Eternal Darkness is fitted tightly amongst the three.  Not only did it force me to ask my English teacher what 'Requiem' meant, its also a superb piece of screen content that features a story that endless gameplayers watch over and over again today on YouTube. The game even featured a storybook mode where you can watch just the cut scenes from the game, and if edited into a film this would be satisfying in its own right. A sequel has constantly been touted over the years, but when Silicon Knights aligned with Microsoft Game Studios this became less probable. A filmmaking contest was also held around the time of the games release, in which entrants submitted ideas for a short film that displayed the form of psychological horror featured in the game, with the winners getting funding to make the film. Again a step ahead of its time.

Eternal Darkness of the Spotless Mind

A former Tetris Worlds XBOX World Champion, video games were once a major passion of mine and a realm in which I wanted to explore storytelling. In 2003 I developed a game of my own, called TullyTetris, for my HSC and was aiming to pursue a career in the medium. Listed No.4 on  my university preferences, was a Bachelor’s of Computer Science (Games Technology) at Charles Sturt University. The first of its kind in NSW, if it hadn't been for the remote location of the course I may have followed a different career path and entered the realm of Computer and Video Game development. Now its been around 18 months since I have even played a video game. I am still amazed at their ability to draw people into a new world. 

 Fan Chan Pictures Artist Director Raelene Loong playing Pikmin 2

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is a fantastic piece of entertainment that I highly recommend getting your hands on. Anyone with a Wii has the ability to play it and you can probably find it in a bargain bin for $10, which will not go to waste. The sanity effects will delight you, the story will intrigue you and the world it creates will capture you. If "The Wire" is the Television equivalent of a book, then "Eternal Darkness" is it's video game counterpart. And now the sanity effect that would appear if EDSR was made today:

Newly design Sanity Effect


  1. Nintendo 64? Failure? Blasphemy Kieran! Greatest Console of our time.

  2. "Failure on the console front", referring to sales.

    Worldwide sales figures:
    1. PlayStation – 102.49 million
    2. Nintendo 64 – 32.93 million
    3. Sega Saturn – 9.5 million

    As you can see by 2 of my favourite 3 games of all time, that yes I love the N64

  3. I was too little when this came out to truly appreciate it. It sits comfortably in my collection so I might give it another spin. Thanks for this artice, it inspired me. :)