Amnesia: the Dark Descent
Developer: Frictional Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac OSX, Linux
Okay, I have a confession to make. Despite being a huge fan of horror films, horror games have always scared the living crap out of me. I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to play one right through to the end. There’s just something about them that affects me on a totally different level to their filmic counterparts.
…so what better review to write than that of Frictional Games’ Amnesia: the Dark Descent; which is considered by many to be one of the scariest games of all time?
Amnesia is a first-person survival horror that follows the story of a young man who awakens in the heart of a sprawling gothic castle, the only three things he is able to remember about himself is his name, his birthplace, and that something is hunting him. Not long afterwards, he finds a note written by his own hand explaining that he had deliberately purged his own memory clean in an attempt to forget what has befallen him, and that to truly escape the horrors that plague him he must journey to the Inner Sanctum of the castle and kill the baron of the castle, Alexander of Brennenberg.
Amnesia is very Lovecraftian in its setup; having no knowledge of the events which have transpired, Daniel must explore Castle Brennenberg, finding his own diary entries along the way in an attempt to establish the events leading up to his incarceration in the castle (of course, why he would go to the effort of leaving himself expository notes after deliberately destroying his own memory is beyond me. Maybe I haven’t played the game enough yet?). Aside from the diary entries, the narrative is also delivered through a number of brief flashbacks, in which the voices of Daniel, Alexander and a number of other characters can be heard. Whilst being an effective way of revealing the plot to the player, the choice to deliver the narrative through voiceovers alone emphasises the sheer loneliness that permeates the game.
…which brings me neatly on to what Amnesia does best. Atmosphere. Amnesia succeeds where many horror games fail (I’m looking at you, Dead Space.): it has a great sense of pacing. Whereas Dead Space pretty much drops you right into the centre of it all and lets you bomb around a spaceship from the get-go kicking many an alien arse, Amnesia opts to do the complete opposite. In fact, it was about a quarter of the way through the game before I saw my first monster. And even then it was from afar. Frictional Games have realised that horror games are most effective when they let your imagination run riot; in the same way that many horror movies often lead to disappointment after the antagonist is revealed (I’m looking at you, Jeepers Creepers.), others prove more effective by revelling in mystery. And boy does it work. The scares in Amnesia may consist largely of rather puerile things such as banging doors and spooky noises, but because it’s orchestrated so damned well – because everything, from the sound design, to the graphics, to the direction, work so cohesively – the whole thing becomes far greater than the sum of its parts. And to top it off, Daniel is completely helpless. There’s not a weapon to be seen. Which means, if something spots you, you’d better get out of there. Fast. Or else things won’t end well for poor, poor, crazy Daniel.
Whilst making Daniel helpless has the effect of making the player more cautious of their surroundings, it also has the secondary effect of making sure the monsters stay as much in our imagination as possible: if you’re walking down a corridor and suddenly a figure shambles out of a doorway up ahead, you don’t approach it guns blazing, because you can’t. You turn and run. You try and put as much distance between yourself and the figure as the game allows (and, if you’re anything like me, you try and put as much distance between yourself and the screen as your arms allow). Which means that all you’re left with as you’re throwing everything you can in its path is a memory of a silhouette, and that’s it. It’s then up to your imagination to fill in the blanks…in more ways than one, actually: as far as I can gather, the creatures seemingly appear and disappear almost at will, and you’re never quite sure whether you still have company or whether it’s the soundtrack playing tricks on you. I once spent about ten minutes skirting around the outside of a room, crouched as low as I possibly could, just because I thought I had heard a monster make an appearance. And of course, it hadn’t. Because fuck you, Amnesia. Even when you know you’ve been spotted and have leapt in the nearest dark corner to try and evade what would inevitably be a very messy end, you’re never truly sure of the moment the monster loses interest.
Speaking of running away, Frictional Games have implemented the same physics mechanic employed in their previous Penumbra games, allowing you to click on various objects to grab them – such as boxes, drawers, even the occasional limb – and then move the mouse to manipulate the object accordingly. Which means, if you do find a monster taking more of an interest in you than you might like, doors can be slammed shut and barricaded to ensure that the monster gets the hint.
Taking another page from the voluminous back-catalogue of Lovecraft, Amnesia employs what is effectively a sanity meter; draining whenever Daniel spends too long in the darkness, encounters an unsettling event or witnesses a monster, but recovers when progress within the game is made. Reduced sanity manifests through visual and auditory hallucinations, not to mention making Daniel more noticeable to the various things that are out to kill him. Littered moderately sparsely throughout the castle are tinderboxes that allow the player to ignite various candles and braziers; providing Daniel with the necessary light to keep him sane. However, one of the interesting things about this game is that contrary to games such as Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake, light doesn’t save you from the monsters. In fact, quite the opposite: it makes you more visible to them. Consequently, the player must strive to find the balance between lighting enough torches to keep Daniel sane, but not so many that he becomes visible to every creature within a hundred yard radius (did someone say hyperbole?). And of course, the more torches are lit, the more likely the player is to run out of tinderboxes and find themselves engulfed in darkness at a later point. It’s quite a clever little trick that makes the game just that bit more tense.
Adding greatly to the tension is the soundtrack. Occasionally music will be used to denote specific occurrences (such as being spotted by a monster), but largely it consists more of ambient noises; low strings, haunting metallic screeches, insectoid buzzing and the like. Fortunately the appearances of the various monsters within the game are signposted with a disturbing groan, so even if you haven’t spotted it yet you know you just have to run. Whilst all the voice work is great, special mention must be given to the voice of Alexander of Brennenberg; Sam A. Mowry. Giving a very impressive stab at an English accent (I was genuinely surprised when I found out he was American), Sam A. Mowry’s deep gravelly tones give the baron a wonderfully sinister, menacing quality that is perfect for his character.
Despite the graphics not being of the greatest quality, the castle itself is beautifully, hauntingly realised, from the sweeping archways of the stone hallways to the dark, dilapidated basements, to the strangely cosy living quarters; and the way the visuals wax and wane whilst the movements get deliberately more sluggish as Daniel’s sanity plummets is a nice – if not necessarily convenient – touch.
There are no two ways about it: Amnesia is a great game. It’s brave enough to do what many games (and films) aren’t; it doesn’t jump up and down waving its arms about, screaming ‘YOU SHOULD BE SCARED AT THIS POINT’. Oh no. It stands behind you, just out of sight, and simply waits. And waits.