|We've come a long way|
During the month of October, if I'm not watching some campy gore-fest, I'm likely diving into a video game geared at scaring poop into my pants. As a result, I decided to finally dive headlong into one of my tragically overlooked Gamecube titles, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem.
(Pauses to let the boos die down)
Eternal Darkness launched back in 2002. While I certainly enjoyed my time with the game, it also brought to light several changes in the gaming landscape that, until now, I've taken for granted.
Following are my lessons learned from battling madness to save the world in a game that's a decade old.
It was not uncommon to play a game back in the day that lacked anything resembling a checkpoint system. This is the case in Eternal Darkness. While I only perished a handful of times throughout the campaign, I can't tell you how frustrating it was to know that I would have to start at my most recent save point (I'll get to those in a minute) rather than respawn a room or two back. I learned this the hard way upon my first death, which happened to occur at the very end of a level following nearly two hours of progress. Thankfully, pretty much every game these days comes with a checkpoint system. Some might not be ample enough or poorly placed, but at least dying no longer means getting kicked back to the main menu in order to load that last save file.
Hey, so, you guys remember memory cards? After five years of hardly ever dealing with the things, I pretty much forgot how the whole system worked. After that first death that cost me two hours of progress in Eternal Darkness, I started getting better about reminding myself to save. As survival got a bit trickier late in the game, opening the menu and heading to the save tab was done on an almost compulsive basis. Worse is the fact that Eternal Darkness doesn't even use a save point system, so it was all up to me to remember to make saving a regular part of gameplay.
For my money, survival horror is at its best when the camera is fixed. Newer titles in the genre allow the player to spin the camera to their heart's content, giving them a perfect view of whatever happens to catch their attention. In Eternal Darkness, camera location is deliberate. This adds to the tension in a number of ways. For one, you only see what the developers want you to see and when they want you to see it. Secondly, there are few things scarier than hearing something lurking in a corner, but not having a camera that gives you a good view of said corner. And finally, a strategically pulled back camera leaves the character further away than the player is used to. When the character is under attack in those situations, the distance adds to that feeling of helplessness.
Most games these days feature some sort of an integrated tutorial system. While some are dropped in a bit more seamlessly (like suit calibrations or obstacle courses in shooters), older games tended to rely on a more jarring text box. In Eternal Darkness, boxes pop up early on to let me know how certain things operate. Or, worse for a certain someone who couldn't find the manual that came with the game, the developers just assumed I had the good sense to read the instructions before booting the game up. I've heard complaints recently about how out of place integrated tutorials feel in modern games. Trust me, it's far better than the alternatives.
While Eternal Darkness dropped a few hints during some of the trickier moments, I can't tell you how many times I had to consult a FAQ in order to figure out that a ladder I needed to climb was just barely out of view or that the only way to progress was to use a very specific spell in a very specific instance. I consider myself a crack puzzle solver in most cases, but older games had a nasty habit of leaving the player hanging with little to no direction. On the opposite side of the spectrum, modern games tend to be a bit too liberal with the hints. I can't tell you how many times I've seen the solution to a problem, decided to explore a room a bit more before solving said problem, only to have the answer blasted across the screen or repeated time and time again by some NPC.
To be fair, subsequent playthroughs of Eternal Darkness will allow you to skip a cutscene. Your first time through, though, you're stuck with the things. That's not a problem if I only have to watch the scene once; but when I die, have to load a save and watch that scene a second or third time, I'm about ready to throw the controller across the room. Again, this is something modern games tend to get right. I don't know why you would want to skip a scene on your first playthrough, but most developers these days seem to understand that there's good reason to give players that option anyway.
I'm a completionist by nature, but something occurred to me while playing Eternal Darkness concerning the Achievements and Trophis made famous by the current generation of game consoles. After a death, I found myself investigating areas and items a second time, even though I already knew what I'd find or what the text would say. I found this behavior a bit odd, and then it hit me: I was worried about Achievements in a game that didn't have them. I didn't want to miss a single item, I wanted to kill every monster and I wanted to click on every shiny object because, in the back of my mind, I expected to hear that familiar "bling" signaling that I had killed 50 zombies or discovered all hidden items in a given chapter. Realizing this, I was able to continue the game like a sane person, likely saving myself a couple hours of unnecessary redundancies.