Sanity is usually just a meter to keep an eye on in Horror games, but Eternal Darkness took it to a new level that modern studios could learn from.
When a horror game has a Sanity meter or some other type of Sanity check, players generally know what gimmicks to expect. Things get a little spookier, maybe a little darker and harder to see, and it’s generally handled in a generic way. But there was one game that did handle it differently, and in a way that hasn’t been done since. Eternal Darkness took Sanity to a new level by breaking the fourth wall and messing with the player, causing a different kind of distress. It’s something modern horror titles, no matter the budget, could learn from.
Eternal Darkness was first released back in June 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube and is still regarded as a great horror title today. While the main story is about a woman investigating her grandfather’s murder by exploring his estate, there are several other stories across time periods that tie into a supernatural occurrence. It’s these occurrences and encounters which trigger the Sanity weirdness.
In Eternal Darkness, weird things would happen to mess with the player in a variety of ways. The character may have a fake death animation making the player think they did something wrong. Environments in the game may load upside down, statues may turn to follow the character or doors may temporarily become locked. However, the best effects are ones that break the fourth wall and make players think there was something wrong with their electronics. They don’t work as well now because technology has changed, but for the time it was effective. The game’s volume would lower while a volume bar appeared on screen making people think something was going on with their TV. When saving the game players may get a message about deleting all saves or the game may even pretend to reset. It really messed with players.
It was a fantastic way to go about showing a character losing their sanity, one which seems to have been abandoned today. Instead, most games take a much more basic approach. The Amnesia series for example, simply makes the screen darker and pulsate. Phasmophobia makes it a key mechanic during ghost hunting, but all it really does is make more haunted house effects and ghosts be more aggressive. These things are typical and expected when this mechanic is present in a game. Horror games have advanced quite a bit and gotten creative with storytelling and execution, particularly in Indie titles, but for some reason, this area hasn’t really changed. Eternal Darkness proved there is a lot of potential, but few developers have run with it.
Nintendo actually patented Eternal Darkness’ Sanity effects, but that doesn’t mean other developers can’t come up with other ways to break the fourth wall or mess with players in-game better. Fake glitches, messing with save spots or loading or doing something more with the environment, like Layers of Fear did, than just making it darker are all great ways to cause more panic. There’s so much room for improvement and creativity in this area of horror games to make it more than just another bar to pay attention to.
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