Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I played “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”, a horror adventure released in 2010 by an indie game company called Frictional Games. It’s an amazing game and a definite recommendation – even if you’re as easily scared as I am. In the dozen hours of gameplay, cowardly stretched over roughly as many days, I gasped, squeaked, jumped and screamed; at several points it got so scary I honestly considered just giving it up, and near the end some of the imagery got genuinely sickening. In a good way, though.

The video illustrates some of the game’s most important features. The one that sets it apart from other games in the genre, and from the experience I expected prior to playing, is the fact that there’s no combat. When in danger, all you can do is run and hide. Although this might seem as something shrug-worthy, it’s by far the most memorable aspect of the game. By robbing you of the ability to take a stand and fight, Amnesia makes you feel helpless, vulnerable, and ultimately inadequate for the tasks it sets for you. It makes you feel very human. You’re not special; you’re neither exceptionally strong nor smart, nor very courageous. You’re just a guy trying to find a way out of a nightmare.

Related to the fear that your avatar visibly and audibly feels together with you on your dark journey, is another non-standard aspect of the game: the sanity meter. Your sanity drains when you witness disturbing events and when you stay in the dark for too long. It goes through the stages of something equivalent to ‘fine’, over ‘a slight headache’, ‘hands shaking and heart pounding’ down to the very evocative ‘…’, at which point you’re in danger of losing it. This manifests as being unable to move (and thus, run and hide), see clearly, and usually results in dying. But the intermediate stages are interesting too. As you get more and more scared, your vision gets distorted, your perceptions become inaccurate (pay attention to the paintings on the walls…), and you may suffer hallucinations that include bugs, rats and worms (that aren’t really there) crawling in front or over you. Some sanity can be restored by waiting in a safe, well-lit place, but the only way to get it all back, is to make progress by finding useful items and solving puzzles.

The puzzles aren’t difficult, and are, to my satisfaction, mostly solvable by applying common sense. Some require acrobatics – jumping over gaps and the like – but nothing too demanding or out of place. They get a little strange near the end, together with everything else; like in so many games, there’s a downwards trend in terms of quality, going as far as to render the ending itself utterly forgettable. This is not a game to play for story, character and voice acting; it’s a game to make you scared of the dark, and that it does most excellently.

The dark plays a significant role not only in building the atmosphere, but also as an ingenious part of the gameplay. In Amnesia, dark places are really fucking dark and really fucking creepy. Like in real life, you don’t want to find yourself in a windowless basement and have your candle suddenly go out in a draft when a squeaky door is opened somewhere by something. Apart from the sanity penalties, it’s practically impossible to get around most locations without a light source. You have an oil lamp with you, but the oil supplies are limited at best, so you don’t want to spend them unless really desperate. There are candles, lamps and torches around, but these you can’t carry; you can light them, though, using matches. Oil and matches are the two most important resources; you always want to keep an eye on how many you have in the inventory, and keep another out for hidden stashes in each area you explore.

Exploration of the beautifully (and logically) designed levels would be a pleasure if not for constant fear that something horrible is waiting behind every door you open, in every pool of water, in rooms dark and rooms well-lit, when you feel safe and when you feel threatened. Amnesia is almost too good at keeping you on your toes. As soon as you conclude that there will be no disturbing events to witness in bright light, something disturbs the hell out of you in the best-lit room ever. As soon as you conclude that the central level locations, where you come back after exploring one isolated part or another, are safe, something makes you run and cower in a wardrobe. No locations are safe, and if you find yourself feeling relaxed, it probably means you’ll soon be jumping out of your skin.

Dying is done well too. To prevent the player from loading a save a dozen times until they survive, the game will take some of the aggravating circumstances  out of the equation after, say, two unsuccessful attempts, saving you the frustration, and adding an element of randomness that’s neither good nor bad, but certainly refreshing.

Not everything in Amnesia is great, of course. I already said that the story isn’t much. It’s not horrible, but it has its share of face-palm (and worse) moments. One of the things I liked the most in the beginning was that I couldn’t tell if the things my avatar is seeing and hearing are real, or just a part of his own madness. This gets spelled out about half way into the game, whereas I wish it remained ambiguous till the end. Also the method of delivery of the story felt clumsy and unnatural: you find parts of your own journal, written before you lost your memory, scattered over random locations, which makes no sense whatsoever. A few times I was annoyed by ‘optional’ puzzles, of sort, which were neither a rule nor an exception; for example, traversing a particularly nasty section of a dungeon to get a drill which lets you open a locked door – and finding nothing but a few oil canisters behind.

Overall, the ratio of excellent to jarring was impressive. But the thing that I’ll remember Amnesia for is giving me a lot to think about. The nature of fear, I mean, and how one reacts to it, even when one knows it’s entirely synthetic. The nature of helplessness, and being hunted down and molested by something you can’t hope to defeat. The nature of frustration and anger at the injustice of it. Normally gaming makes me look outside – dream of other worlds, of being someone else; Amnesia made me look inside, and try to face what I am. I don’t claim that was what its authors were after, or what you’ll find in it, unless your internal processes are suspiciously similar to mine. I do, however, urge you to try it out and see what it can do for you – if you have the nerve.

Just remember: keep out of the water.

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