Breathing New Life into Death: Amnesia: The Dark Descent
When I was first talking to Less and Peter about how I wanted to write about Horror in video games, I deliberately planned out my approach as a timeline, because I wanted to try to plot a trajectory of how I think the genre has progressed. The most difficult part of doing things that way, however, was arriving at the period roughly encompassing the mid-late 2000s.
In private conversation with them, I confessed: "I'm trying to figure out a way to talk about the latter 2000's without simply saying "everything sucked." Will come back to it."
Having come back to it now, I'm not sure I can think of a better way to summarize my feelings.
Somehow, not longer after the turn of the millenium, the genre seemed to slide into dull repetitiveness. I've talked a little bit about this already in my review of Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, and how big franchises seemed to take over the mainstream gaming scene. But more than that, gameplay-wise, the shooter took over as the new face of horror.
If you've followed my reviews, you'll notice a conspicuous absence of shooters (with one or two exceptions). Why? Because in my opinion, shooters are not very good horror. Shooters distance you from the horror, literally and figuratively. Literally because popping enemies from a distance with large-calibre weaponry smacks of safety. Figuratively because by virtue of the interface, you are making your player aware of the mortality of the horror around him.
Horror is at its most successful and frightening when not everything is explainable or quantifiable. It's fear of the unknown that drives all our other basic fears. The phobias we experience in daily life (arachnophobia, claustrophobia, even dare I say homophobia) all derive from a confusion or ignorance of our surroundings. Faced with a void we do not comprehend, we fill that void with our invented nightmares: spiders will poison us while we sleep, small spaces will suffocate us, the gays will destroy the fabric of our society.
The majority of "horror" games of the 2000s failed to understand us. They solidified the fear by letting us shoot at it. And so they lost touch with their scary side.
Luckily, while pretenders to terror like Dead Space or The Darkness or Manhunt were revelling in their ability to showcase all new ways of destroying a human body (none of which elicited much of a response me aside from a dull yawn), there were studios quietly working in the background, trying to capture just an ounce of the magic of the classics.
One such studio was Frictional Games.
By now, you'll almost definitely have heard of these folks. Their first title, Penumbra: Overture, came out in 2007, and was a modest venture for a company getting its feet wet. A sci-fi horror with isolation and paranoia elements reminiscent of The Thing (the movie, not the execrable video game), Penumbra also featured its own take on combat: a strange, click-and-drag system that required players to manually swing equipped weapons. It did not work well.
Aside from this setback, however, the game was reasonably well-received and fairly well-distributed via the Humble Indie Bundle. The results encouraged Frictional, and they released two followup expansions: Black Plague and Requiem. Black Plague, the first expansion, reduced combat significantly, to the point where it was almost extraneous as a game mechanic. It was also more well received. They were on to something here...
Two years later, Frictional Games released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And the internet hasn't been the same since.
And Now, the Game
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a first person puzzle/adventure game that takes place in the mid 19th century, in a Prussian castle. You are Daniel, but aside from that the plot is unknown to you because, as you may have deduced, you have amnesia. You awaken in the upper floors of the aforementioned castle, a trail of blood your only clue to how you got there. As you traverse the empty hallways, you find a note, supposedly from yourself, telling you to kill the master of the castle, Alexander. How and why you must do this is pieced together by recovery of further notes, including pages from a diary you kept of your experiences on an archaeological dig in North Africa.
The puzzles of the game crop up as you try to work your way down to the Inner Sanctum of the castle, where Alexander resides. The castle is in massive disrepair, and several areas are caved-in, flooded, or blocked by various devices and traps that Alexander installed to keep his secrets safe.
In order to overcome these obstacles, you either make use of the environment around you in first-person perspective - pulling switches, moving rocks, etc. - or you recover inventory items that allow you to remove / alter the obstacle blocking your way. As such, like all adventure games, it implements an inventory screen, which is where you may also view your collected notes, journal pages, and mementos (or objectives). It is also where you may view your current state physical and mental health.
Yes, Amnesia sees the return of the sanity meter, a mechanic that I enthused about when it appeared in Eternal Darkness and will gladly enthuse about here. Like Eternal Darkness, the effects of low sanity in Amnesia are felt in the of strange sounds and sights. The first and most obvious difference between these two games, however, is that Amnesia is first-person. Secondly, however, is the manner in which sanity decreases. In Eternal Darkness, each monster you fight has a fixed value that it reduces from your sanity when you first start fighting it. You can regain that sanity by beating the shit out of the monster while it lies on the ground writhing. In Amnesia, your sanity is falling any time you are in the dark, and any time you even LOOK at a monster. And with a subtitle like The Dark Descent, you can bet you're in the dark a great deal.
Which leads me to my final point about gameplay in Amnesia, before I move on to the nitty-gritty of my personal opinions. Survival. It seems like any time a game is "horror" these days, critics and gamers alike feel the need to slap the label "survival" on it as well, as though the two are inseparable. Well, it's hokum. Sure, there may be limited ammunition or machetes in a game like Dead Island, but you know, I know, we all know that they parcel it out enough that you really don't ever feel pressured by the constraints of resources.
In Amnesia, you are limited in two BIG ways.
First, in lighting. As I mentioned, your sanity dwindles in darkness, and as such you are encouraged to stay in lit areas. This is done either by use of a portable lantern with a (very) limited supply of oil, which can be turned on or off at will, or by use of tinderboxes, which are used on fixed pieces of the environment such as candles and torches.
Second, you are completely, utterly defenceless.
Oh, there are monsters in Amnesia. Horrible, unsightly beings whose origins are terrifying to read about. And your only option when confronted with these nightmare beings is to cower and hide and pray they don't find you.
OK, but is it Scary?
If you've played through Amnesia, you may have noticed that all of my screenshots for this review come from roughly the first two hours of gameplay. There is a reason for this.
I did not want to have to play through this entire game again. Not because I didn't like it, not because I was too busy. Because I was terrified.
I didn't want to have to go through the anxiety of crawling through the Prison, simultaneously peeling my ears for the telltale groans of an approaching monster while plugging my ears and humming loudly to keep the terror at bay. I didn't want to have to sprint through the flooded Transept, frantically raising a metal gate with a wheel that turns oh so slowly while the invisible Kaernk screeched its fury and splashed towards me. I didn't want to, I didn't want to, I didn't want to.
Yet, as the game observes in one death sequence, "you have to carry on..."
Aside from being one of the most terrifying THINGS I have ever experienced (that crosses all media: video games, movies, books, whatever), Amnesia is also one of the most well-written. The story is compelling and interesting, the surprises and twists both logical and unexpected. There is a huge amount of flavour thrown in in the form of brief passages that appear during Load Screens, strange snippets that both raise questions and answer them.
The atmosphere of the game is oppressive, dark, and unrelenting. Your sense of helplessness in the face of the monsters you encounter is exacerbated not only by the lack of combat, but by your character's sheer inability to comprehend the ghoulish terrors. As I mentioned briefly, your sanity is depleted not only by the darkness, but by looking at the monsters as well. In fact, looking at a monster so rapidly depletes your sanity that the screen blurs and shakes to the point that you can't even really make out just what it is you're seeing. This. Is. Genius.
I made a point of explaining the nature of fear and the unknown, because to me Amnesia knocks it out of the park. It knows that the best way to keep a monster scary is to show as little of it as possible (a lesson both learned wonderfully by the first hour and a half of Signs and then unlearned just as tragically in the last twenty minutes). And if the sanity meter is insufficient encouragement to keep you away from the shambling Cthulu spawn, then the audio cues that play when you're spotted will surely help: screeching, off-key music played at deafening volume. Just what the Lovecraft ordered.
I rate Amnesia as one of my favourite games of all time, not just for being awesome but for breathing new life into a genre that I had relegated to the back shelf of my library. Amnesia showed us how to make horror scary again in video games, and one need only look at subsequent indie releases like Slender or Outlast to see its influence. But, if you need further proof of how this game blew the market up...this is without question the game that made Pewdiepie (which, regardless of how you feel about the world's most famous Youtuber, says a lot).
Amnesia: The Dark Descent isn't perfect. It's a bit short, the level design is fairly static (due in large part to its indie origins), and the puzzles are incredibly simplistic. But what it does right is fear, a lesson that all subsequent horror games should strive to emulate. Fear comes first. Everything else is meaningless.