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Friday, August 17, 2012

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I finally completed (I don't want to say "won" or "beat") Amnesia last night, and I'm torn between completely submerging myself in anything related I can find and trying as hard as I can to never, ever think about it again.

From Frictional Games, the studio that brought us the similar-in-concept-but-much-less-terrifying Penumbra series (still quite terrifying in its own right) comes Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a survival horror/adventure-style game that just has me so excited I don't really know where to start.

You play as Daniel, and awake in a dark castle with no memory of how you came to be there. Soon, you find a note explaining that you've erased your own memory, and giving a simple instruction: Go to the castle's inner sanctum and kill a man named Alexander.

Of course, Daniel couldn't be bothered to erase his memory on the far side of all the creepy dungeons between you and your target.
As you explore, you begin to fill in the blanks about what happened in this place, and about who Alexander and Daniel are. What results is a dark and horrifying story that investigates eldritch horror and unspeakable, unimaginable insanity at the edge of human knowledge, of the kind that H.P. Lovecraft made so famous in the early 1900s. That style is much imitated, and we've seen it in games ranging from the original Alone in the Dark to Eternal Darkness: Sanity's requiem, and though those games are frightening enough in their own right they miss what made Lovecraft's work so unsettling: that any writing or technology will always fall short of the sheer terror our own imaginations can produce. Amnesia nails this, and the review could almost end there: It is a terrifying game precisely because it doesn't want to reveal much about these horrors. We know that there is a darkness, a "shadow", following Daniel, slowly but deliberately, and that it will not stop until it has collected him. Unlike the indifferent and seemingly purposeless violence of Limbo, the evil in Amnesia is incredibly personal; if Limbo's nightmare is a grey world of arbitrary gore, Amnesia's nightmare is an unseen, inevitable horror, tailor-made to your worst fears, that seeks you and only you and will not rest until it claims you. The game gives you the sensation of being surrounded and pursued without ever tipping its hand and giving you a clear sense of what it is you're up against. Resident Evil and Eternal Darkness can have big scaries jumping out at you, and it's alarming, but being able to see them clearly, and to best them eventually, gives you back a power that Amnesia doesn't let you have. If you want to know what that's like, watch the teaser:

Not only does Amnesia deny you the ability to fight back - you have no weapons and there is no way to kill any of the monsters roaming the castle's corridors and dungeons - but it denies you even the knowledge of the monsters that would make them less frightening. Daniel, like most people, has a limit as to how much horrific, unnatural, and unholy abominations he can witness before he either has to go stand in the light for awhile or have a lie-down wherever he happens to be at the moment. Staying in the dark or witnessing something unsettling starts to cause Daniel to hallucinate, usually in the form of visual or auditory distortions. When he steps into the light, or solves a puzzle, he recovers some of that sanity. If his sanity drops too low, he begins to stagger and can fall down, leaving him helpless until he composes himself. Because seeing a monster drains sanity rapidly, you can never safely get a clear look at them. You'll spend more than a little playtime hiding in the corner, facing inwards so you don't see anything horrifying. Since that's my emotional inclination anyway, it's great that the game rewards that behavior. You'll come to be afraid just of seeing the monsters, let alone being forced to flee from one.

The puzzles you solve in the game are usually confined to small areas and often quite simple, though there are a few that are frustrating to figure out. The tension comes in trying to carry out your tasks without alerting the monsters, which may or may not even be nearby. Puzzle-wise, the game is nowhere near as mind-bending as something like Myst or Braid, but they're involved enough to give you a sense of accomplishment, and they give you a reason to explore the creepy environments and give those environments further context, adding their own sometimes gruesome flavor to the story.

But what makes Amnesia so successful as a horror game is that it goes far beyond the supernatural to find the player's fear. Monsters are scary, but they're unreal, and we know logically, even if not emotionally, that we'll never be in danger from them. But when the game starts to explore the psychologies of its characters, it finds a darkness in the human soul that is all too believable.
I waited a long time but this guy never got out of the bath. Awfully rude.
The game's supernatural elements act as extreme motivators for the characters, but their responses seem all too believable. The breadth of emotion on display here - curiosity, anger, hatred, self-loathing, cold calculation, fear - plumbs the depths of human experience. Like I mentioned in my player-avatar connection post, the bond formed between you and Daniel - made the stronger because the two of you begin on equal footing, both with no idea who you are or what's going on - serves to amplify the emotions you feel. The notes, diaries, and flashbacks throughout the game detail the events that led up to your current situation, and they all contribute to a miasma of disgust, doubt, guilt, and above all terror that dogs you, like the shadow hunting Daniel, until the end. 

Also, pigs!
Which is why I love it. It's hard to describe how I felt while playing the game, because I wouldn't say it was "fun" - a lot of the time, what I felt was quite unpleasant - but the experience was so exact and so successful that it was hard not to be in love with the game for its craftsmanship alone. Like with Dear Esther, the voice acting sometimes dips a little in quality, and in some places the writing feels overwrought or the puzzles a little contrived, and those are serious marks against Amnesia because it's so dependent upon maintaining its atmosphere. But it's appropriately creepy where it needs to be, and even if it doesn't always work perfectly, the places where it does work are vivid and memorable. Should you play it? If you can't deal with horror, or violence, or gore, it may not be for you. But for me, the discomfort I felt with it - at first I couldn't play more than 15 minutes at a time - was a critical part of the experience, and even if I was genuinely upset by it at times, I was simply too engrossed in the story and feel of the game to let it go. The emotions this game elicits, though sometimes horribly uncomfortable, have a power and magnitude almost unmatched in the medium. Only a handful of other games have offered the same emotional intensity as Amnesia, and the acute desperation and fear it evokes is, as far as I've experienced in games, without equal.

Also: Dear Esther's thechineseroom is teaming up with Frictional to make another game in the same universe, titled Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. I will be following it (from a safe distance) and report as more becomes clear.


  1. Do you have any advice for "getting into" Amnesia? The one time I played my experience oscillated between mild fear and utter boredom, and didn't feel very satisfying

  2. That makes me so sad to hear! The people who made the game recommend playing at night, with the lights off, and using headphones. They also recommend not playing to win. I'd add to that that you should not play with other people around, should take a break if it stops being scary, and should try to get in to the story as it presents itself. I'll admit that by the end I wasn't as interested in the scares and mostly just wanted the story to play out.