Eternal Darkness is not the most frightening game I’ve ever played. It is, however, the best attempt I’ve ever seen to have a gameplay mechanic mess with the player’s perception of what’s going on in the game world.
Here’s an anecdote which I frequently relate when attempting to explain the game’s “sanity effects” to people: One night in college, after a long night out on campus carousing, I decided that rather than try and sleep, I’d pop in Eternal Darkness and play one of the game’s chapters. I was still energized by the night’s partying, and it was October, so horror games were definitely on the docket.
My good friend Bob, who had been out carousing with me, plunked himself down on the bed across from the television and watched. Bob, it is to be admitted, may have been carousing a little harder than I had, and so his normally keen senses were a trifle dulled. As I maneuvered my unlucky protagonist through the decrepit hallways of an ancient and blasphemous temple in the heart of the unexplored jungles of southeast Asia, the tension grew as I was assaulted by monsters and booby-traps. It seemed as though from around each corner might spring the nameless terror which would slaughter and devour my unfortunate avatar.
Soon, though my health and sanity were dwindling and I was reaching the climax of the chapter, Bob had to rouse himself from the bed and use the restroom–the alcohol in his system had gotten the better of him. Quietly, so as not to disturb my concentration, Bob slipped off the bed and stepped toward the door, just as I entered a room which contained not one but two enormous abominations, which roared at me in throaty rage.
The sound on the television cut out. In neon green block letters, at the top right of the screen, the word “MUTE” appeared.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Bob blurted, looking frantically about the floor below him in the dim glow of the television. “Did I step on the remote?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “My character’s just going insane, that’s all.” I’d encountered this particular sanity effect before. On the television, the abominations lurched toward me silently.
I don’t remember whether I survived that particular encounter. What I do remember is the expression on poor Bob’s face: stricken, terrified, as though the game was somehow deliberately making him question the nature of his reality. Bob and I were both a little tipsy from our evening’s adventures, of course, but the game’s intended effect was spot on. I could see writ large on Bob’s features the same cry that any one of the game’s protagonists is wont to shout when faced with such madness: “This… isn’t… really… happening!“