S01E03 Show Notes: The Art of Scaring Players Directly in Eternal Darkness

Welcome to the show notes to the 3rd episode of the Disruptive Video Game Podcast.


Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a 2002 Action Adventure/Survival Horror Game for the Nintendo GameCube, developed Silicon Knights and published by Nintendo. In this episode, I examine the disruptive mechanics of this 4th wall breaking game to find disruptive patterns that other game developers can use to make their games stand out.

Thanks for joining me for the show! Please, if you have any questions, comments, or feedback let me know! Also, please review the podcast if you have a moment. Thanks!

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Welcome back to the Disruptive Video Game Podcast.  This week, we’re talking about:

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is a 2002 Action Adventure/Survival Horror Game for the Nintendo GameCube, developed Silicon Knights and published by Nintendo.  This is a game that was considered a financial failure by Nintendo, but nevertheless made a big impact with reviewers and the players that experienced the game.  Over time, it has grown to become a cult classic, largely due to the use of disruptive game mechanics.  I’ll talk about that and sum up the top 5 lessons I learned from Eternal Darkness, today on the Disruptive Video Game Podcast.

Welcome back disruptive gamers & developers!  This is a show where I take a look at how a specific video game managed to stand out from the crowd.  I’m don’t claim to be an expert, but rather just a curious game developer who wants to know why and how these games managed to rise above the noise.

With hundreds of video games being released every day, game developers today have to work hard to get their game noticed in the crowd of new games.

Whether it’s a unique game mechanic, trope twist or a controversial marketing campaign, each week I take a peek behind the development of some of the most disruptive video games in history. I do this with the hopes of learning the secrets of these disruptive titles, so that I can apply these lessons to my own game development and marketing.  I also hope to provide you with an entertaining look at some fascinating games, as well as interview other developers and have an occasional deep dive episode here and there.

My name is Jay and I’m the owner of BLACK LODGE GAMES, LLC.  Follow along on Twitter @BlackLodgeGames for podcast updates and other free gamedev tools, assets and game releases.  Stick around until the end of the episode to learn more about this week’s freebie.  If you want to read a transcript of this episode, browse the show notes or download any of our free gamedev tools or assets, just head on over to BlackLodgeGames.com or DisruptiveVideoGame.com

Turning back to Eternal Darkness.  Today I am going to try to answer 5 questions in 5 segments.


SEGMENT 1: DISRUPTORS:What was so disruptive about ETERNAL DARKNESS that made it stand out from the crowd?

Eternal Darkness is a psychological horror game that borrows its basic game mechanics from Resident Evil.  However, an emphasis needs to be put on the “psychological horror” aspects of the game, as Eternal Darkness really innovated and pushed horror games forward with its disruptive mechanics.

While anyone who recently played the original Resident Evil game will find the controls and basic mechanics very similar, this game is definitely not a Resident Evil clone and stands up on its own merits.  Like most Nintendo published games, Eternal Darkness is polished and full of complete game systems, including the real topic of today’s discussion: the sanity meter and the resulting “sanity effects.”

Starting out, you play chapter after chapter, each one as a different character.  In Chapter 2 and onwards, as your character explores the environment, they now need to avoid enemy detection.  Otherwise, when an enemy spots them, their sanity meter decreases.  As the sanity meter runs low, one of 40 different sanity effects will start to occur.  The sanity effects are supposed to clearly illustrate that your characters are losing their grip on reality.

These sanity effects include some unsurprising horror tropes like tilting the camera, blood coming out of the walls, and creepy in-game phone calls.  However, they don’t stop there, and in fact, many of them begin to target the player instead of the in-game characters.  For instance, there are sanity effects which appear to crash the game with the Blue Screen of Death, that mute or change the volume of your TV, or even claim to delete all your save files!

Now some of these sanity effects haven’t aged well, particular the ones that pretend to be your TV.  The reason for that is that old TVs usually had green blocky text for things like the MUTE or Volume indicators, so that is what the developers of Eternal Darkness used.  But on a modern television, those on-screen indicators look wildly out of place.

But I digress!  The sanity effects are the disruptive game mechanic that made Eternal Darkness a cult classic.

So, to answer our question of “What was so disruptive about ETERNAL DARKNESS that made it stand out from the crowd?” well the answer is that:

Eternal Darkness disrupts by breaking the 4th wall and targeting the television, console and even the player directly, with it’s sanity effects.


What other factors played a critical role in ETERNAL DARKNESS’ success, apart from the disruption?

Eternal Darkness was reportedly considered by Nintendo to be a commercial failure, with the game reportedly moving less than half a million copies.  The game was a critical success though, winning multiple awards and getting favorably reviewed, resulting in a 92 rating on Metacritic.  This positivity was also reflected by players, which helped Eternal Darkness earn its place as a cult classic.

Eternal Darkness came out in 2002, a time when video games rarely, if ever, broke the 4th wall and addressed or targeted the player.  This was so disruptive, so unexpected, that players and reviewers alike were delighted to feel surprised, shocked, confused or even angry at the sanity effect’s tricks.  So rarely can any game draw out real emotions from us, but Eternal Darkness succeeded with its disruptive game mechanics.

So, while the game wasn’t a commercial success in the eyes of Nintendo, they did appear to recognize its value as a critical darling.  Apparently, there were multiple efforts to create a sequel, but in the end various roadblocks stopped Eternal Darkness 2 from happening.

I’m not sure why Eternal Darkness only sold up to 500,000 copies, but to venture a guess, I’d assume there were many factors. It was an unknown title. I could also see it being difficult to effectively communicate the disruptive game mechanics in print or television ads.  I know that I personally found it through word of mouth recommendation, with my friends telling me it was a must-play game for the GameCube.  After playing it a few times, it was clear to me that my friends were right! 

But to answer the question of “what other factors played a critical role in ETERNAL DARKNESS’ success, apart from the disruption?” Well, my answer would be that it was a competent action-survival game for its era, but honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to Eternal Darkness’ success aside from its disruptive sanity effects.  Don’t get me wrong, it has great humor, lore, art, sound and level design, all which are critical roles, but the core experience of this game remains the sanity effects.


What other games used similar disruptive techniques to stand apart?

Well, Nintendo thought the sanity effects were so revolutionary, that they actually patented them.  The patent describes using a sanity meter in an RPG to effect gameplay.

Now before moving on, I want to express my personal distaste of patenting game mechanics and loops.  While I don’t blame the game creators or Nintendo for wanting to protect their unique ideas and individuality, I do think that all software patents, including game patents, stifle innovation and healthy competition.

So, I am opposed to game mechanic patents like that, because they don’t make sense to me.  I mean, should Activision have patented side-scrolling platformer mechanics with Pitfall?  Should ID Software have patented first person shooter mechanics with Wolfenstein and DOOM?  Should From Software have patented their Dark Souls mechanics?  What about Game Freak, should they have patented Pokemon game mechanics to prevent games like Pocket Morty from existing?

New games grow off of the defining games from the past.  New genres are born when new game mechanics are introduced or old mechanics are refined.  The idea of copyrighting things like a sanity meter or loading screen mini-games is self defeating. 

But if you really want a reason to re-examine game mechanics patents, let’s take a few moments to talk about U.S. Patent 5,718,632.

From 1998 to 2015, this patent gave Namco the exclusive right to make mini-games that you play while the main game loads.  I’m not a fan of this, because those were some of the prime years of slow loading times!  To think we could have had mini-games during loading screens, but were blocked from this by Namco holding a patent for 17 years?  Of course, now that the patent has expired, we’ve barely seen any games take advantage of their new found freedom to include loading screen mini-games, but the few who have implemented this definitely have the best loading screens.

Okay, with that rant over, I do want to point out some games that use similar mechanics.  First of all, the game is survival horror, so the Resident Evil games do have a lot in common with Eternal Darkness.  But we’re looking for games that used similar disruptive techniques.

The game that immediately jumps into my head is Darkest Dungeon.  Luckily for the developers, they didn’t use a Sanity Meter to effect gameplay, but instead used Stress as the stat.  Now Darkest Dungeon doesn’t actually mess with the player directly, like Eternal Darkness, but stress does negatively impact your characters and can drive them insane.  It’s a game of managing your character’s stress, while trying to push them to their limits.

However, I must confess, that although they both have similar mechanics regarding sanity and stress, the fact that Darkest Dungeon doesn’t break the 4th wall, does mean that it doesn’t really share the same disruptive mechanics as Eternal Darkness.  In fact, I’d say Pony Island does a better job of directly shocking the player when it breaks the 4th wall.  Pony Island is more of a puzzle game, but it does a good job of subverting player expectations and breaking the 4th wall in a fun, narratively satisfying way.  Both of these games are unique and disruptive enough to warrant their own episodes, but for now we’ll move on.

So, to answer the question What other games used similar disruptive techniques to stand apart?  My answer is Darkest Dungeon and Pony Island.  While neither of them directly or fully copies Eternal Darkness, together they each come close to capturing a spark of the disruptive mechanics of Eternal Darkness.



What patterns can we take away and try to apply to our own game projects as developers?

Since we can’t directly use a sanity meter, lest we violate Nintendo’s patent, we can at least look at the underlying pattern that Eternal Darkness presents.

Now the pattern I see is that the in-game characters experience an emotion, and the more extreme the emotional level the more it breaks the 4th wall. 

You assign a numeric value that represents the emotional attribute.  Think your standard RPG attributes like Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Endurance, etc. except emotions so Fear, Happiness, Tiredness, or other meters.

Finally, when that meter reaches a threshold, engage the player directly with feedback to make them immersed into the game.

Let’s explore some examples with that pattern.  I’ll start, by picking a human emotion or trait. 

Let’s go with greed.  In this hypothetical game, let’s call it “Greed” you play with an in-game currency against other players.   The player who wins, gets all the money, while players who lose also lose their money.  The longer a player wins, the more money they can win, but also the risk of losing the money is increased. If we apply this pattern, then the greedier the character is in the game, the more real life cash the player gets, synchronizing and escalating their greed together.  Hmm, that’s a pretty terrible game idea.  While it kind of follows the pattern, it’s not quite right.


Segment 5: GAME OVER:

What does ETERNAL DARKNESS look like if we take away it’s disruptive qualities?

Eternal Darkness, without the mechanical subversion, becomes a Residential Evil clone with no real stand out attributes to make it memorable.  Don’t get me wrong, the game is complete and component in every way, but the disruptive sanity effects are the star of the show.  Without them, you’re left with a hollow shell of a game that was really all built around and leading into the sanity effects.

We’ve reached the end of our discussion on the disruptive video game: Eternal Darkness.

Before I wrap up this episode of the Disruptive Video Game Podcast, it’s time for the FREEBIE of the week.


Segment 6: FREEBIE of the week.

The FREEBIE of the week this week is:

a collection of arena combat announcer samples. These audio clips include all the classic phrases you’ll need to create a first person arena combat experience, and are presented in high quality lossless audio formats.  I wrote and performed this pack last month. Here is a sample from this free sample pack:

<Play samples here>

To download this FREEBIE for use in your next project, video or video game, just head over to BlackLodgeGames.com and click on the Podcast menu, or you can head over to DisruptiveVideoGame.com – Either way, scroll down until you see the Freebies tab, click it and you’ll find all our latest free gamedev resources which you can download and use for free, royalty free, in all your projects.

If you need a specific audio sample, resource, texture, 3d model, song or other custom game development related work, please feel free to reach out to me.

I created the Disruptive Video Game Podcast so I could learn from the most successful and disruptive video games, so that I can hopefully use the lessons I learn to make better games myself.  I’m not an expert, just an over ambitious game developer seeking to master the art and craft of game creation and marketing.

Speaking of game projects, if you like classic RPGs and sci-fi space operas, then please go judge my massive RPG called DAATH ORIGINS on Steam Early Access.  DAATH ORIGINS is a complete game with 11 different endings.  It features classic turn-based RPG gameplay combined with a dark interdimensional space opera… Come, join the temporal war to save or destroy the multiverse. Dᴀᴀᴛʜ Oʀɪɢɪɴѕ is giant game featuring all original art, gameplay, story and a 31 song original soundtrack… created by me, one single person.  If you want to support this show then please pick up my game on Steam which you can purchase on BlackLodgeGames.com

Just as I write the music for my games, I also did the music featured in this show.  If you need custom music in virtually any style, I’m happy to help!  Just let me know.

Once again, my name is Jay from BLACK LODGE GAMES, LLC.  Please follow along on Twitter @BlackLodgeGames for podcast updates and other gamedev tools, assets and resources.

Feel free to reach out to me with any comments, questions, or concerns.

Next week, we’ll be talking about Super Hot, a game that explains everything you need to know in one sentence: time moves when you move.

So, I hope you’ll join me on Episode 4 of the Disruptive Video Game Podcast, now I’m going to play the outro, so hey, there’s that.  Thanks again, see you in the next one.

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