Thursday, 3 March 2011

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

I am, basically, pony when it comes to survival horror games - the reasons for which I intend to delineate properly in a future post when I have a bit more time - but Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem I feel counts as a special case and so I shall approach it separately.

For a start it is the first survival horror game I played properly myself. As a teenager I played a few hours of Resident Evil and the demo of Silent Hill on my friend's Playstation, but I only had a SNES myself and wasn't really a very heavy gamer. Additionally, I wouldn't really count Eternal Darkness as a true survival horror game - it plays much more like an adventure game but with an understanding of (or rather a bludgeoning insistence that it knows about) horror tropes.

I was really excited about this use of horror tropes, though. I had recently gone through my Lovecraft phase, and had been reading huge numbers of his stories, and the idea that someone might be translating this into an actual playable game seemed brilliant. This was before I quite realised how much ordinary gaming already owes to Lovecraft, and how pointless Eternal Darkness' sanity mechanic would prove to be anyway.

A digression: sanity mechanics in video games seem a rather interesting idea that is almost universally badly executed. Sometimes they work ok but overall they are so reductive - and usually express 'insanity' entirely as 'hallucination' - that they end up amounting to little more than set dressing, and at worst an annoying distraction from the actual game element of the game. The best examples I've seen have actually been at the lower-tech end of the scale, text adventures (which necessarily have more control over the way information is presented as well as being able to invoke a more literary style) and indie games which make the oddness into a feature of the actual play mechanic.

I suppose, also, that in some way I should be put out by the video game industry's depictions of insanity - having lived with mental illness in various guises for most of my life - but frankly, if I had the energy to take issue with the video game industry's depictions of most things I'd have stopped playing them years ago.

Back to Eternal Darkness.

So, it's an adventure game - a series of linear levels that consist of puzzles, traps, puzzle traps and a bit of light fighting. The usual survival horror trope of limited ammo, limited health and increasing waves of enemies doesn't really apply, as each level is self-contained with nothing carried over. So I shouldn't have found it an insurmountable problem. However, the game was seriously bloody hard. The damage levels were punishing and enemies, when they came, were completely nails. In the end, about two levels from the final sequence, I just gave up - sick of seeing the same death animation - and traded in the game for something else.

It wasn't until much, much later that I realised I had been playing it on the hardest level. Early on in the game it asks you to choose between three elder gods - ostensibly a decision about what sort of magic you will learn. At no point does it suggest (and I suppose this is the game attempting to keep you immersed in the game world - shame they ruined it by making insanity effects that just distort the picture a little, thus reinforcing the fact that you are watching a screen) that this is you selecting the difficulty, but it is. Yeah great. Thanks.

Notes on insanity:

Interactive fiction - check out Photopia, amongst others, on this page.

Indie games - the TIGSource Commonplace Book Competition produced a lot of interesting games, and a lot of genereic games. My favourite, and the best use of, shall we say the unreliable narrator in a computer game I've found, being Eversion (don't read the comments on that page until you've played the game - seriously).

Any more suggestions as comments would be welcome.

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