Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
This game is 10 years old, but it’s a friggin’ gem. Seriously, if you have a Wii, go out and buy this immediately (remember to pick up a Gamecube controller). Eternal Darkness is an epic story that spans centuries and takes place all over the world. The modern day frame story introduces Alexandra Roivas, a woman whose grandfather just died a grisly death in his creepy old New England mansion. She begins examining his stuff for clues to his untimely demise, and of course ends up reading an ancient tome bound in human skin. How anyone can hold a book that’s covered with stretched dead person long enough to actually crack it open and read a chapter is beyond me.
If my mom’s story exists, it’s probably in that book.
Anyway, the book is how she (you) relives the experiences of 12 other people who’ve come in contact with it, stretching across time and distance. So, apart from the normal scares that video games inject directly into my chest (with great musical underscoring, good sound effects, etc.), the deep and complex story serves to pull me even further into my identification with my onscreen avatars. It doesn’t hurt that it cribs quite a bit from Lovecraft, either.
But the thing that most terrifies me about this game is its sanity meter. In addition to your typical health meter, you also have a sanity meter that becomes depleted the longer you see monsters (kill ‘em quick!), and in response to certain story elements. When the meter comes down far enough, crazy stuff goes down in the game. Sometimes you collect ammo that isn’t really there. Sometimes the camera angle skews so it’s difficult to maneuver. Sometimes your character shoots him/herself in the guts. And sometimes, the game actually leaves your character alone so it can get to screwing with YOU. You may get a screen that says all your save files have been deleted, that your controller is not connected, that your inventory is empty, or various other psychological tricks that mess with you, the actual gamer.
One time the game lowered its own volume while displaying a dwindling green volume bar so it looked like my TV was possessed and controlling itself. And well, I don’t really want to talk any more about that.
Me, when that happened.
This might be my favorite entry on the list. The Path is available for both PC and Mac (not consoles), and is at heart a simple retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. This time there are 6 different Reds of varying ages, and you’ll have to play them all. Once you’ve selected your chosen iteration (there’s no prescribed order), you’re placed on a path with the simple instruction to go to grandma’s house and stay on the path. And you can do that. Once you get safely to granny’s house, however, you’re returned to the character select screen without any progress being made in the game.
And here’s where the game started getting profound for me. I stayed on the path and went straight to grandma’s house more than once. More than three times, even. I got frustrated, not understanding why I was failing. And then it hit me. You have to go off the path. (“Duh,” says hindsight.)
And once you go off the path, you have to meet the wolf. Each of the girls has her own version of the wolf, and each interaction speaks to larger themes about growing up and exploring sexuality, creativity, and independence. The game isn’t filled with the kind of jump-out-at-you scares that are the norm for most horror games, but the sense of unease that permeates the proceedings is really hard to shake. Especially considering the way the screen blacks out once you meet the wolf, leaving you in the literal dark about what happens between the two characters. You do see yourself immediately afterward, and some of the resulting implications are less-than-pleasant.
I can’t help but wonder what a guy’s perspective on this game would be, since much of the fear being explored is inherently feminine. The game verges on pretension, but if you approach it with an open mind and allow yourself to be emotionally vulnerable, at least a little bit, I think it proves to be an experience that stays with you.
I did read a review that said if you’re not usually down for a little David Lynch, you probably won’t want to get down with The Path. As you can see, they were on to something.
This article ended up longer than I expected, so I omitted two entries from my initial list. Extremely honorable mentions go to the Penumbra series and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. They were all developed by Frictional Games, and they’re notable for emphasizing stealth over combat, despite being presented in the familiar first-person shooter perspective. Amnesia also features a sanity meter, and y’all know how much I hate love those!
Here’s a screenshot from Amnesia:
Aaaaaand, I’m out.