The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. — H.P. Lovecraft – Supernatural Horror in Literature
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a survival horror/adventure game from Frictional Games. However, unlike most “survival horror” you do not spend time fighting the creatures you encounter. In fact, you are not even capable of fighting them. All you can do is run and this, combined with the unsettling aspects of the world you find yourself in, creates a horror game that is truly about horror as opposed to being just another shooter with a handful of disturbing moments.
Starting the Descent
I commit these words to paper as I fear that neither I nor my sanity will survive this night, yet I am more afraid that my story will perish with me. Know that I have, for purely selfish reasons, committed many crimes against both man and nature. But also know that I am now attempting to set right a chain of circumstances started by myself through my own fear and ignorance. May the blind gods have mercy on me.
In Amnesia you take on the role of Daniel, a man suffering from the amnesia of the title. While the concept of the amnesiac protagonist has been (over)used time and time again, Amnesia manages to introduce a new twist by revealing quite early on that you induced the amnesia in yourself deliberately. You discover this quite early on in a note you have left for yourself. The note also tells you that you need to kill a particular person while giving no explanation other than the fact that you have reason to hate him. Thus the game becomes a journey to not only reach this person but to find out what happened to you that was so terrible that you deliberately erased all memory of it.
Not Alone in the Dark
The weight of the darkness presses in on me and I can feel its tendrils reaching into my mind, attempting to fill the spaces there that have been left my my forgotten memories. I yearn for the light, but I dare not waste what remains of my precious lantern oil until I have reached my destination. Thus, I press on through this near-Stygian blackness towards a goal that I know exists but cannot remember.
Your main enemies in Amnesia are not the creatures you avoid but the darkness that fills the hallways through which you explore. Your mental health is more important than your physical; encountering mysterious or supernatural events or simply spending too much time in the darkness damages your sanity. As your sanity drops it starts affecting the game world around you. Things start becoming more difficult to see or you start seeing things that are not there and your control over Daniel becomes more difficult. There are no “magic potions” or anything like that in the game which will restore your sanity either; you only regain sanity by solving puzzles and exploring new areas of the mansion. In this way the game encourages you to move forward. Spending too much time waiting slowly saps your mental strength. Progress is the game’s version of a heath kit.
The darkness mechanic deserves a mention. Much of the mansion you are exploring is dark. You do have a tinderbox that can be used to light the candles and torches around the mansion and early on you find an oil lantern that you can carry with you but the number of tinderboxes and the amount of oil you have for the lantern is limited. You can find more, but this limitation means that you must always balance your need for light at the moment against a possible need later. Should you light this corridor so you can pass along it safely or should you save your tinderboxes for the next room you need to search? It can be extremely difficult if not impossible to find some clues or items you will need to progress without light and this need will always be in your mind as you find yourself facing another darkened corridor.
What Lurks in the Darkness
Once again I have managed to evade the nightmare which stalks me though these halls. I caught but a glimpse of it this time but that one brief look was enough to nearly cause me to faint dead away. Gods! There are no words to describe the appearance of the thing. If the greater bulk of humanity were to know of the existence of such a thing then surely they would go mad simply knowing that we share a world with creatures such as this!
Amnesia is full of spooky moments. Mysterious winds blow through the hallways. Doorways open and close on their own. And every now and then you… WHAT THE FRAK WAS THAT!?
There is another enemy you face in Amnesia and that is the “nightmare” which is stalking you. As I said earlier, you cannot fight this creature. You can’t even look directly at it without destroying your sanity. When you hear the creature (and you will almost always hear it) all you can do is find a place to hide and hope it leaves before it finds you. Unfortunately, safe hiding places are almost always dark.
Not being able to clearly see the creature makes it far more frightening than anything that the designers could possibly have come up with; imagination is always far more horrifying than reality. Someone (I think I’ve heard this attributed to Stephen King) once said that the worst thing a story could do is to show the monster because whatever the author or designer shows would always be less than what the reader or player could come up with. They used as an example the movie Jaws saying “Oh, it’s just a shark. At least it wasn’t a ninja shark with lasers on it’s head!”
By not showing the monster clearly, your imagination can run free. And it does.
Ghosts in the Machines
I have found myself halted in my progress my a machine of unknown purpose or providence. There are levers that appear as if they can be manipulated, but I fear that the wrong set of inputs will have deleterious effects beyond continuing to block my forward progress. I must determine the meaning of the mysterious signs on the machine before I attempt its operation.
At its core Amnesia is an adventure game which means there are clues to find and puzzles to solve. Most of this is accomplished through manipulating the environment by using the mouse as an extension of the player’s hand. The player grabs objects using the mouse button them moves them around my moving the mouse more-or-less like it was their arm and hand. For example, instead of just clicking on a door to open it, the player clicks to grab the door then drags the mouse to open it as if they were really opening a door. This can be immersive but can also be a bit frustrating; especially if a creature is chasing you down the hall and you have to open a door quickly in order to get away.
Beyond that the gameplay is pretty standard adventure game fare. Find notes and diaries to read to learn what happened and collect objects and solve puzzles to advance through the mansion. The creature continues to stalk you as you do this. You must steadily advance forward to keep your sanity up so you can’t take too much time. Fortunately, none of the puzzles are that obscure.
Plotwise the game has a quite good Lovecraftian storyline. There were a few more bits of the background that I wish had been better explained but that is a minor complaint. There are several possible endings and some of them do allow for possible further games in the series. The game is quite atmospheric and genuinely creepy in more than a few places.
Overall, Amnesia is an excellent horror adventure game. Fans of both should check this one out.