‘Flensed’ is the word which best describes Eternal Darkness. Not because of what it means – although we’ll get to that – but because the decision to use it in the game’s dialogue sent players scurrying for their dictionaries as surely as the scares had sent them diving behind their sofas. Games in general – particularly console games and especially particularly Nintendo games – aren’t supposed to be erudite. Eternal Darkness, however, wears its scholarship on its sleeve, from the opening quote from Edgar Allen Poe to the references to Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
Once players had tracked down ‘flensed’ in their dictionaries, they found that it was a word whose meaning matched the game perfectly. The fate of the woman who uses it seems much more macabre when you discover that she’s had her flesh stripped from her bones like the blubber from a whale. It sums up Eternal Darkness’ horror very well, full of understated violence and squeamish shlock. But there’s another aspect of the word which makes it a good way to sum up the game: it doesn’t quite work. Leaving aside the incongruity – why is a sixth century Persian princess using Danish whale-hunting slang? – its obscurity snags the player’s attention at a moment when they should be lost in the doomed, bitter romance of Karim and Chandra. ‘She was whatted by knives?’ you say. ‘Cleansed? Phlegmed?’ At least you did if you’d turned the subtitles off. It’s a tiny point, but one which runs right through the game. Silicon Knights had too many ideas for Eternal Darkness – some over-elaborate, some clunkily simplistic – and in the process they both created and hobbled a masterpiece.
The tale is certainly elaborate, and too much to be retold here, but its structure is flawless. Two millennia of desperate human struggle against the Darkness are revealed in brief, brutal flashes, dashing you from modern Indonesia to medieval Persia and back again. At first it’s frustrating as you body-hop from one bafflingly unrelated character to the other, but soon connecting strands start to reveal themselves, mostly though the familiar architecture of the places you explore. By sending different characters back to the same place at different points in time, Silicon Knights produced a narrative which should form a key chapter in The Big Book Of How Games Ought To Tell Stories. Rather than relying on dialogue or cut-scenes (although the game has plenty of both), it uses your familiarity with the varied locations to provide the context and the tone of each chapter of the story. Discovering the vast cathedral that has grown to absorb Amiens’ humble chapel is affecting only because you’re painstakingly familiar with the latter. Wandering around the Roivas mansion becomes systematically more fraught as you experience each moment of its bloody history. It’s also a kind of story-telling which ties directly onto the gameplay. Knowledge of the environment, and of secrets and items, gained from previous visits allows the puzzles to be more oblique than they would in lesser games.
The characters themselves are also unprecedentedly varied. Most game heroes are pulled together from the most basic of identikits – broad shoulders, big tits, tight pants, bigger guns. Eternal Darkness puts you into shoes filled by men who are fat and black and old. You might become frustrated at being forced to waddle around as a middle-aged architect or at a young reporter’s suicidal decision to join in World War One armed only with a camera flash, but these limitations mean you never lose the sense of these characters’ individuality. These are people with histories and personalities, whose adventures change them, leaving them sometimes wiser, sometimes deader.