Amnesia: The Dark Descent: Unforgettable
There are few games with such a reputation as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Once we strip away all the Youtubers overreacting at the slightest gust of wind. We still have a game that is considered one of the scariest in the genre. But is it still worthy of that hallowed reputation now, in a post RE7 world of game design? Was Amnesia: The Dark Descent a terrifying ordeal that left me stressed and shaking?
Of course, it bloody was!
You are Daniel, that’s all you remember. You are Daniel, you are in a seemingly abandoned castle. The only instruction you have is from your previous self, to kill Baron Alexander of Brennenburg. As you try to figure out what is happening, you piece together the terrible past that brought you to the point of murder. You are also not alone in the castle. The narrative is surprisingly deep and complex. Even though it tends to be forgotten when it has to travel alongside a well-earned reputation. I hope I can discuss it with the analytical lens it deserves.
Desperate measures call for desperate times
Like any horror story featuring a British person in the 19th century, the story begins in Africa. During an excavation in the Tin Hinan Tomb, a young man named Daniel stumbles upon a strange orb artifact. After studying it with the help of some friends, he discovers that some sort of shadow is stalking him, killing everyone who comes into contact with him. It's going to kill Daniel sooner or later and he understandably doesn't want to die. Alexander swoops in with promises of rituals to keep the shadow away.
All he has to do is torture and kill not innocent people. Amnesia shows us the depths to which the human animal is willing to go to survive, what little compromises he makes to justify his actions until that fateful time he murders an innocent in cold blood. Amnesia, for all it’s jump scares and supernatural horrors lurking in the dark. It tells a story of dehumanization through the primal need for survival. Daniel is driven to committing unspeakable acts under the thinnest moral justification that he's punishing murderers and rapists. I would encourage you to read Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men for further information on the matter (not a pleasant read please be warned). But Frictional Games does an awesome job of examining the process as to how ordinary people become monsters.
The nature of guilt
Guilt is a theme that drives Daniel’s motivation for all the major story stages. The survivor’s guilt at losing his friends and family to the shadow, which drives him to seek out the Baron, to be taken advantage of and eventually turned into a monster. The guilt of realizing what he had become sets Daniel on the path of redemption, his willingness to redeem himself by committing one final person. He cripples himself with amnesia lets go of the crippling guilt (temporarily) to redeem himself. Guilt is both the destroyer and the redeemer.
What horror game wouldn't be without a sanity meter? As questionable as it might be from a mechanical point of view, it is undoubtedly effective at making you and Daniel feel as helpless as humanly possible. From a narrative perceptive it makes sense that Daniel is a little mentally unstable. He is at the whims of some unworldly entity, Amnesia taps into the hallowed Lovecraftian tropes of infectious madness and forbidden knowledge that either causes the madness or the death of brought about by said knowledge.
In Amnesia it’s a bit complicated, the forbidden knowledge (as personified by the Orb)doesn't technically drive Daniel mad, but it creates the environment for the madness to thrive. The orb as a personification of the unknown and the malicious hate towards the insignificant is there. But it could have been explored a little more in the narrative, but as a constant threat to Daniel and all those around him, it works pretty well. Keeps the stakes raised and reminds you constantly that you are not safe.
The gameplay is mostly focused on puzzle solving, exploring, and sneaking past/running away from the scary monster. None of these mechanics are new, it’s also worth noting that Amnesia didn’t popularise this sort of design either. Pewdiepie however was instrumental in its success, overreacting to the gusts of wind, drawing his growing audience into the game while inspiring others to overreact at the wind. This in turn encouraged other indie game designers to capture the indie market, with such successes as Outlast, Slender: The Eight Pages, Daylight (and also Walden and the Werewolf). One could say that Amnesia might have indirectly popularised this form of design, more so in the indie market than the AAA market. One shouldn't downplay Amnesia’s influence on culture and video games as a whole. It has influenced games that should be celebrated, ideally by screaming at a door opening.
Staying in the light keeps you sane, staying in the dark causes your sanity to drain. Light brings attention to your enemies, the dark doesn't. Considering your limited supply of Tinder boxes and oil, you cannot avoid the dark the game's entire runtime. This can be tricky when you have to sneak around monsters in the dark, while also trying to not react to the various audio and visual hallucinations.
Most of the time you are not entirely sure where the monster is placed or where it patrolling, the music and the monsters growls are often all you have going. One such example would be in the choir, where the map is huge, dark, and filled with mist. You are not sure where the monster is but you know that it is somewhere. This clever bit of level, sound design as well as monster placement, successfully makes the player scare. Frictional turns the player's imagination against them and it is brilliant!
Running away from the scary monster
There is nothing like a good run away from the scary to get your cardio done in the morning. At least that’s what I always told the kids. But enough about my personal life, back to the game. If for whatever reason you are spotted by a monster you have no choice but to run. But running in of itself is not enough, oh no! You have to close the doors, pile boxes, and then hide for the monster to go away. All of this is stressful enough in itself. So much so that after that bloody water level (one of the scariest levels in video games period) I had to stop and play something else to calm down.
The simplicity of the mechanics gives rise to the more complicated tasks of thinking clearly in high-stress situations. The terror of trying to not panic when the monster is bearing down on you can make even the hardest horror veteran cry and shake (which I most certainly didn't do). Amnesia shines in this regard. Every chase sequence is masterfully crafted to scare the player through the threat of failure, audiovisual design, and impromptu physics puzzles to make the player feel as weak and scared as humanly possible.
Point and click
The puzzles themselves are rather basic, mostly revolving around exploring the rooms and picking up anything that is being placed into the inventory. Sometimes you will have to influence the environment by timing doors or jumping over boxes to avoid the monster. Physics are also a puzzle element in of themselves. As you might be forced to clear the rubble under time pressure. You have to jump in and out of the water to prevent the monster from getting to you.
The pressure of doing something as simple as manipulating rocks with the threat of death is highly effective at scaring the player without doing much. The only way to restore Daniel’s crumbling sanity is by solving puzzles. A useful means of rewarding the player, considering how often the game batters the player with spooky audiovisual hallucinations. Frictional did well in their rewards, granting the player temporary relief from the scares.
Art style and Graphics:
Considering that Amnesia is ten years old, it will look a little underwhelming. But the use of lighting and color is well used. The monsters are horrific, rife with body horror and skin-crawling groans. The shadow's presence is delightfully disgusting and reminds you of the constant looming Lovecraftian nightmare following Daniel.
Some minor stuttering on occasion but asides from that:
Amnesia: The Dark Descent might not get made today, even as effective as it is in scaring the player. The design is outdated. But that doesn’t stop the fact that Frictional Games made one of the scariest games periods. A perfect something for Halloween, I look forward to Amnesia: Rebirth releasing on the 20th (no sponsorship sadly).
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