How a Video Game Shaped “At the Hands of Madness”
by Kevin Holton
“To think that once I could not see beyond the veil of our reality… to see those who dwell behind. My life now has purpose, for I have learned the frailty of flesh and bone… I was once a fool.”
There’s a chance some of you are horror readers as well as gamers, and there’s a chance you already know what game I’ll be talking about. There aren’t any others like it. For those of you who’ve never played Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, let me assure you, the title isn’t the only bizarre part of the experience, and this is one that, once you go through it, you never really leave it behind.
I was a kid, probably twelve, when I first picked this up. It stuck out to me from the shelf at a local GameStop. Not literally, mind you, but as I walked along, trailing my gaze down the row of used discs, I just… stopped. Dead in my tracks, staring at this one case, as if I’d been put on this Earth to play it. What followed fueled an ongoing obsession with abnormal psychology, and a life-long obsession with metaphysics.
Even for back then, the graphics weren’t great. The combat was predictable and simple, the enemies easy to work around, and even the final boss never posed too much of a threat. This game was never about being a game, though. This was the closest thing the early 2000’s would get to a fully immersive, augmented reality experience.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is deeply rooted in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. You play as Alex Roivas, who ventures to her ancestral home upon her grandfather is found beheaded. Shortly thereafter, you find something tucked away in his belongings: The Tome of Eternal Darkness, which is exactly as world-ending as it sounds. Through it, you relive the short, awful lives of those who read it before you, acquiring the magic they learned along the way—at the expense of your sanity.
That’s where this game thrived. Like many supernatural adventure games, you got a health bar and a magic bar. The sanity meter is what set it apart. As it began dipping, spells would backfire, causing you to explode, then you’d reappear in the previous room, unharmed. Massive enemies you have no hope of killing would overwhelm you, then disappear. Statues would turn their heads to watch you as you pass. Books would fly from the shelves, rearranging as they saw fit.
But, the developers didn’t stop at merely screwing with the character. The game also begins to screw with you. I’d examine a bathtub, and see Alex lying dead with her wrists slit. I tried to save, and the game pretended to delete my saves. The volume would spontaneously lower to nothing, or flash the Gamecube start screen, as if I’d hit reset. At one point, my character screamed, “Stop following me!” and shot the screen.
The character tried to kill me.
Not for real, of course—it’s a simple program, not Skynet—and it couldn’t even if it had artificial intelligence, but that moment! That broke the fourth wall. In the process, it broke open a barrier in my head. What could books really do? Why simply tell a tale, when I could create a whole reality, then thrust it upon this one?
That’s what I’ve strived for ever since. Writing a story, designing my characters, plot, tension, in ways that could go beyond tension and actively disturb the reader’s sense of the what the universe really is. I thrive on ambiguity and suggestion, relishing the moments where I can insert little bits that remind the reader, This story isn’t static. It can affect you.
This game impacted a number of my stories, not just my recent release, At the Hands of Madness, a novel that draws obvious influence from Lovecraft as well. Medraka, the kaiju in my novel, was inspired by Xel’lotath for sure—both are four-armed, psychic, sanity-ending beast (albeit with far different powers and origins). Another upcoming novel of mine, These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream is rooted in the chaos of overlapping dimensions. Would I have ever had such thoughts if I’d never witnessed this game’s three gods kill each other, separately yet simultaneously, in overlapping realities? What would my life have been like, had I not, as the player, orchestrated the way they died, in a manner that proved time and space are illusions?
I’m honestly not sure. People knock video games as mindless or violent, but that one, this single game, opened up a galaxy in my head, with each new idea a glittering star, ready to burn.
Writers know their inspiration can come from many sources, but Eternal Darkness, I know, with its strange plot, subtle terrors, and unrestrained attack on the psyche—on the very definition of reality—make this a title that deserves a remake. Like the Silent Hill and Resident Evil franchises, this has a place in any horror enthusiasts’ library. Expensive to get at this point, but if you’re dedicated, you’ll find a way. It taught me how to make stories that don’t end—or begin—on the page.
So, try not to think about breathing, ignore how your tongue feels in your mouth, and go check out At the Hands of Madness.
Kevin Holton is the author of At the Hands of Madness, as well as the forthcoming titles The Nightmare King and These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream. He also co-wrote the short film Human Report 85616, and his short work has appeared in dozens of anthologies.