“I am forced into print because men of journalism have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.” It’s a sign things are going awry when the walls start bleeding. Then, the voices start up, and the Gamecube spits up an error message saying the controller isn’t plugged in. And in the meantime, the monsters are closing in and it’s time to start questioning how much sanity you have left.
Chainsaws and gore pass for cutting-edge in gaming, but Silicon Knights’ Eternal Darkness takes the craft of horror further. A Call of Cthulhu-style Sanity system plunges characters into madness, but the game also reaches out into the life of the player as his character goes mad. Instead of zombies out of nowhere, there’s that cold chill in the pit of the stomach, that little shudder as the game announces 20 hours of gameplay has been deleted. There’s the unsettling feeling of realizing the bug crawling across the TV is on the inside.
I hunted down Denis Dyack, Producer and Director of Eternal Darkness and President of Silicon Knights, to get inside his head. “Doubt of the real facts, as I must reveal them, is inevitable; yet, if I suppressed what will seem extravagant and incredible, there would be nothing left.”
Eternal Darkness was “something that kind of came together. At that point, there had been a lot of horror games, specifically survival/horror. And we wanted to create something that was in the horror genre, but not categorized as survival/horror.” There was another reason, too, something less lofty, he says. “At the same time, and [this] still is ongoing, videogames were under fire for messing with people’s heads, and being accused of being murder simulators and stuff. So, we thought, wouldn’t it be a good idea to make something that really does mess with people’s heads?”
Combining the atmosphere of a Poe story – protagonist going mad, dealing with forces that may be entirely in his mind – with the themes of a Lovecraft story – protagonist going mad, dealing with forces that may be entirely in his mind and the ancient evil lurking on the edges of consciousness – Eternal Darkness is a different kind of horror game, almost literary in its storytelling. Not surprisingly, Denis cites the classics for inspiration. “All horror is steeped in Edgar Allen Poe, but Lovecraft is a staple of horror, and just about every major horror movie, almost every major horror writer, had to have some homage, and [we] stand on the shoulders of giants,” he says, adding, “The other one that’s a little more subtle in Eternal Darkness that a lot of people don’t pick up on is Michael Moorcock and the parallel universes, Eternal Champion kind of thing.”
He’s actually hesitant to talk about his influences at all, saying, “These are things that I like, that resonate personally. We hadn’t really looked at it and said, ‘Let’s do part of this and mix it all together.’ It’s just that these are the kinds of things, if I was to say, it was similar to. … [However], we try to create something original every time. … [In Eternal Darkness,] we talk about the history of the Ancients and them being imprisoned. [In] every major area in Eternal Darkness, there was a major catastrophe that occurred at some level.”
He cites an instance from Tamerlane‘s exploits as an example: “The Pillar of Flesh in the chapter with Abdul” – he’s speaking of a monument made out of people – “that’s historically accurate. That stuff really did happen,” he says, referring to Tamerlane’s habit of slaughtering the people of the cities he conquered. “So, we’ve basically gone through history and said, ‘What are these crazy, insane things that have happened?’ and then put a fantasy spin on it of, let’s say there’s an ancient influence on people to do these really bad things.” Somewhere, an ancient evil sleeping in a lost city stirs.
“Things like that were tied in or thrown in everywhere. That was kind of the guiding light,” and the research didn’t stop there. With crazy historical events in place, they began looking elsewhere. He tells me, “We did a lot of research into the occult [and] magic systems, and we really tried to pull it into something that would really make sense and be fun for people to play. At the same time, we tried to ground it in something that’s somewhat believable and doesn’t break the suspension of disbelief. And one of the things we really tried to do with the story that I personally am pretty happy with -” He pauses to ask if I’ve played through the game’s three different plots, and I confess that I have not, only half joking when I cite a weak heart. “If you actually play it through all three times, and it changes to a different god every time, the story actually explains how you could’ve played the game three times in parallel, and that’s the parallel universes,” he says.
That commitment to keeping things believable was something I was curious about. While the undead walk, ancient evils sleep and people travel through time, there is an internal consistency to the story that seems rooted in keeping it believable. I asked if it was intentional. “Yes!” he said, quite emphatically. “Yeah, I think whenever you create any kind of fiction, you have to set up your own ruleset, and if you break those rules, you’re going to upset the audience. We think that’s really important. When we create content, that’s one of the major rules. So, with every game we’ve created so far, it’s basically, here’s our set of rules. Here’s what we’re never going to break. With Eternal Darkness, it was, ‘Let’s be historically accurate.’ So, yeah, that is something I think improves the game and helps people appreciate it more and the content within.”
Without question, a hallmark of Silicon Knights’ games is a strong focus on history. Eternal Darkness hops across history, Too Human is rooted in Norse mythology and most of their other titles are set in the past or a dystopian dark fantasy that looks a lot like the past. I asked what significance history has for the team, and why it keeps popping up in their titles. “I was a History minor at university,” Denis answered. “I love history. I actually think that history is so rich, that there’s so much that can be learned from it.” He cites Conan, a series and movie he loves, as an example: “A lot of the philosophy was based on Genghis Khan. And a lot of the things that Conan would say would be straight from that. And it’s sort of, well, people don’t realize that, but it sounds really good, and they like it. I think by having that kind of foundation, we create something that’s enjoyable and entertaining. And in the end, that’s what we’re trying to do, is entertain people. If we have that grounding in history, god forbid people learn something. I think we do [learn something] through osmosis, and I think that’s a nice secondary goal.”
Mythology is another big feature of Silicon Knights games, be it the Norse mythology of Too Human, the vampire lore of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_Omen:_Legacy_of_Kain” title=”Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain” target=”_blank”>Kane, or the Lovecraft-style mythology of Eternal Darkness. I asked what motivated that. “I think … [mythoi] really are rich, involved and deep, and I think it’s just a love for that stuff. I don’t know if you’ve seen our blogs, but I was a big Ray Harryhausen fan. And, to me, when you look at the Cyclops or the statue of Kali, when you start looking into those mythologies, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool stuff,’ and then you look at the interpretation, and the interpretation adds so much more.
“Really, art is a perspective, and you take these mythologies and [say], ‘Let’s spin a perspective on them and see what people think.'” Too Human takes Norse mythology and adds cybernetics, and explains that twist thusly: “‘Let’s take the Norse mythologies and let’s put these perspectives on them, and see what people think.’ And you’ll find it’ll be extremely consistent and very well-researched.”
Getting into the specifics of the game, I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t ask the guy named on the insanity patent about Eternal Darkness‘ Sanity system. Voices, horrible visions, bugs crawling across the screen, the game spitting up fake error messages and worse effects happen as the player characters go insane. It’s possible to confront the monsters and madness of Eternal Darkness‘ world, but it always comes with a price, be it a character seeing things or the game shifting the volume up and down for the sake of creepiness.
“We really wanted to create something that messed with people’s heads,” Denis said. “So we had these ideas, and hallucinations had been done before. And so, the whole idea that we could make it so that as you saw things you slowly lose your Sanity, it would change the way the game would play, [that] was something that we thought people would really enjoy.” Lovecraft’s name comes up again as he says, “If you look at Lovecraft or the Call of Cthulhu games, in their sort of mythos, when you lost your sanity, it was really bad, and it usually meant you would die. Eternal Darkness is the opposite. It’s actually really fun. And we found, in focus testing, that people would want to go insane. And so, there’s things like that, just exploring the fascination.” Citing gaming as a form of escapism, he brings up a rhetorical question. What if you could go insane for fun?
He’s eager to mention the Sanity effect where the game says your memory card has been wiped out. “It’s funny; these are the worries that people have,” he says. “We tried to play upon the things that people worry about when they play videogames, or when they’re investing time into a product. The whole crash screen coming up, erasing all the time you’ve spent on the game, and having the bug crawl across the screen is annoying at first, but then you realize it’s this big bug and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God.'”
Even the creator isn’t immune to the machinations, to hear him tell it. “The one that still fools me once in a while is when the volume gets turned down. It depends on your TV. We did it with some of the TVs that we had here, and if it actually matches the TV that you have, it is completely nuts. We had focus testing. We had people in the background, we’d be playing, and they’d say, ‘Turn it up.’ We’d say, ‘We didn’t touch anything.’ And they’d say, ‘Ooh, that was awesome.” Perhaps ironically, the game itself was playing with minds before it even shipped. “It was pretty scary getting that through testing, as well, because Nintendo is a hardware manufacturer. They would look at it and go, ‘How many calls are we going to get about this game?'”
Though I’d been told he was tired of sequel questions, I tried a nudge, asking which stories he’d really like to tell, and as I expected, I was rebuffed. Almost. “Ooh,” he says, laughing like a man who just parried an unexpected strike. “I don’t think I can go into that. Secrets for the future. But one of the things we lightly touched upon, and some people have discovered, there actually is a fifth Old One in the game that’s really alluded to, which is the proponent of yellow magic. And explaining that stuff and the mythos, there’s a lot more to tell, [like] why have the Ancients been imprisoned, those kinds of things. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, where we need to expand the universe and stuff. There’s a lot more to tell.”
One word that keeps coming up is “story,” and I suspect I’ve found a member of the Games Need More Story Club. After talking about books for a few minutes, we get into a discussion of why many games shy away from story. “Why do people shy away from stories? I think it’s just because our industry is immature. And if you look at the movie industry when it first started, there were no stories in movies then either,” he answered, leaving me to wonder if viewers of Train Coming Out Of A Station pined for something more engaging. “It’s basically similar, but it was all about technology. Once the technology matured to the point where everyone had the right tools, and it started being about content … the content won. The people who could tell the best stories won. You’re starting to see that more and more. You’re starting to see gamers say, ‘Do I like the story?’ more now, starting to rate how good the story of Half-Life 2 was compared to Half-Life. People never used to do that.
“I wish there were more of us. But there’s more coming, and I’m starting to see it. And it’s funny, because Eternal Darkness is one of those games where you have a lot of people in the industry come up to you and say, ‘I want to make a game like that.’ And the response we always have is ‘Can’t wait. We’d love to play it.'” Wouldn’t we all?
In 1972, Shannon Drake was sent to prison by a military court for a crime he didn’t commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.