Eternal Darkness is a 2002 GameCube game featuring an epically dark story that takes place over thousands of years. It’s a series of interconnected tales, almost like a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, that weave together myth, occultism, and some of the dark chapters in religion. While most people associate the horrors of Eternal Darkness with the unnerving events that happen when your insanity meter dwindles, the most disturbing aspect of the game is the grand arc based on historical elements and the ensuing reign of terror that victimizes multiple generations of characters.
This piece originally appeared 10/28/16.
Eternal Darkness’s literary style gives it a distinctive feel, somewhat like an old text adventure. The main protagonist, Alexandra, is slowly uncovering the mysteries of a book, The Tome of Eternal Darkness, that she finds in the house of her late grandfather, Edward Roivas. Edward narrates from the book between the chapters of each tale, and his narration perfectly sets the somber mood. His literary allusions also give gravitas to the story; they include The Golden Bough, Poe’s “The Raven,” and the theories of Jung and Freud. This isn’t an ordinary book, either—it’s bound by human skin and actual bones. “We’re overwhelmed by a very human need to weave a web of meaning where there may be none,” Edward Roivas speculates.
The whole narrative begins with a Roman centurion named Pious Augustus who gets corrupted by the ancients and turned into a zombie-like liche. He orchestrates a series of evils throughout the centuries. The developer, Silicon Knights, pays attention to numerous little details, like the fact that his name is “Pious” and he is likewise devout to whichever god he is stricken by. Or that whenever you jump to a new era, characters actually begin speaking in the appropriate language, though, through the power of the Eternal Darkness (or Roivas’ translation on the page), it transitions into English.
The Tome’s mix of history and fiction make the stories within Eternal Darkness compelling. For instance, the game touches on WWI’s Battle of the Somme, in which a million people were wounded and killed. Eternal Darkness hints at a more insidious cause than human folly: an ancient, Lovecraftian war between three godlike forces. The factual background intensifies the realization that the historical horrors are even more terrible than the fictional ones. Even the cult that uses the war to harvest bodies for the unholy trinity of ancients seems like child’s play considering that the Battle of the Somme is the bloodiest battle in all history. Does humanity even need help entering into an interminable night?
There are very few happy endings in the game, and these bleak stories are reminiscent of horror shows like Tales From the Crypt and the scarier episodes of Twilight Zone. Characters become zombies, get locked up in sanitariums for trying to warn the world about impending evils, and are buried alive. Hopeless endings are commonplace; when one playable character, Dr. Edwin Lindsey, actually survives without further repercussions, it’s a refreshingly jarring anomaly. Very few escape the Eternal Darkness unscathed.
In literary fashion, Eternal Darkness broke barriers and the 4th wall, bringing horror directly to your console and television. At about midpoint in the game, I was saving when the game suddenly started deleting all my save files. I freaked out. Would I have to play through it all over again? This was followed by a flash. “This can’t be happening!” my character screamed. It was an insanity effect. As your sanity decreases, the world starts to crumble around you.
All of a sudden, my character’s head exploded. My screen was covered by flies. I got a blue screen error message. The screen changed, causing me to think I’d accidentally hit the “Video” button on my remote control, and I heard the sounds of someone being eaten. In another scene, the camera shifted madly, and the game crashed to a loading screen. It reset to a quote by Poe: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering... fearing... doubting...” Even though I was aware of the insanity effects, I still panicked, thinking I’d screwed something up.
When I was first playing Eternal Darkness years ago, I turned the game off and went to sleep on the sofa. I accidentally hit my remote control while sleeping and the power turned on. I jumped up in fear, wondering what in the world was going on, only to realize my mistake. The game had gotten under my skin. I couldn’t even sleep right. No horror film or book had made me scared of my own furniture. Eternal Darkness made me feel like even reality wasn’t safe.
The final confrontation of Eternal Darkness is an emotionally satisfying bout against Pious. It’s a generational fight where you channel the spirits of many of the Tome Bearers, each striking a vicious blow. Given their horrifying deaths, these strikes felt redemptive, even in such a bleak game.
Eventually, the darkness gets vanquished. But it isn’t one person to the rescue. Rather, many lives were sacrificed so that Alexandra could get her shot. In Eternal Darkness, evil is so monumental that it takes generations to defeat. The most powerful weapon in the game, the Enchanted Gladius, has a history, but it isn’t relegated to some obscure scroll. Rather, through death after death, you earn it.
Those who came before you don’t fit the bill of the traditional hero, but they step up to the plate, not knowing how they fit in, just doing whatever they can to help. There is meaning in the meaninglessness of their existence, even if they don’t know it as they pay the ultimate price. Light seems as eternal as the darkness they battle against, and wonder, fear, and doubt become powerful weapons in defeating Pious.
That’s until you discover there are two other Ancients to vanquish, and even after you defeat them, the final corpse god, Mantorok, remains “plotting.” You’ve destroyed three lesser evils for an even greater evil who’d puppeteered their deaths in the first place, and the darkness remains eternal to the end.