Wow. Been a while since I wrote one of these, eh? About a year, in fact. A year of game releases have come and gone, and I’m the first to admit it: I’m way behind. Not just behind on writing these reviews but behind on playing the games in question; the very same things that have kept me from blogging have kept me from completing new titles, with the added difficulty of a dead PS3 to top it all off.
Still, I’ve managed to tackle a few things since then — some new, some old — and there have been some stand-out moments worthy of checking out. Somewhere near the top of the list, if not at the top of the list, is the most frightening game I have ever played: Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
That is not an insignificant compliment, coming from the likes of me. I may not be that difficult to creep out — I have an extremely active imagination — but I’m a difficult gamer to shake off with canned scares, and horror games are, and always have been, something of a pet genre for me. How I made the transition from the little girl who had nightmares about a certain scene from the movie Enemy Mine, to the middle-schooler who couldn’t get enough creepy, psychological scares, might be difficult to precisely pinpoint. Movies like Psycho, Alien/Aliens, and director John Carpenter’s cinematic prominence during the eighties with the ubiquitous Freddy films and movies like The Thing probably had a hand in it…as did the emergence of a crystallized survival horror genre in the American re-release of a Japanese game called Biohazard…under the title Resident Evil.
I’ve already written at length about my love of the survival horror genre, so I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate. There have been a few games and series released recently that claim to be horror titles — continued releases from both Resident Evil and Silent Hill, as well as newer games like the F.E.A.R. and Dead Space series — but most have erred on the side of favoring survival over horror, gradually conceding ground to the trigger-happy console crowd by increasingly becoming frag-fests, and managing that transition with varying degrees of success (Dead Space 2 is turning out to be an enjoyably grotesque, smooth-playing sci-fi TPS, while Silent Hill: The Room featured combat sequences that were so painfully bad, I have a hard time remembering them without cringing involuntarily). The result is that few recent titles have been truly, deeply scary in the way I remember Silent Hill 2 or, say, the Fatal Frame games being scary…few titles until Amnesia, that is.
All of this begs the obvious question:
What creates a successful atmosphere of horror?
Fear is somewhat individualized, of course, and what scares me silly may not frighten you at all, but — setting aside the difference between ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ — I think there are some common denominators that we can all agree impact the majority:
-Suspense, a condition of sustained anxiety in anticipation of being scared, where the expectation of coming fear is the cause of fear itself;
-Surprise, shock, and panic; and
Recent games have offered up full banquets of the latter two for the entertainment of the masses, serving up titles chock full of gore, with jump-scare moments aplenty. One might reasonably argue that the period of time between one jump-scare and the next has to be considered ‘suspense’, and to some extent that may be true, but that suspense is qualified by a) the certain knowledge that a jump-scare is imminent, and b) the veritable arsenal of weaponry with which you can fight back…and your confidence, as a gamer, that you’ll win those fights. For those people who don’t like to be seriously frightened, these qualifications present no difficulty; somebody looking to just dip a toe into the pool of gaming’s creepier titles would be perfectly satisfied (and possibly then some) after just a few encounters with F.E.A.R.’s spectral antagonist, Alma.
For the rest of us?
Enter Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
What makes it so pants-shittingly frightening? If you can agree that the ability to defend oneself from threats significantly diminishes the suspense generated while said threats are still looming, then Amnesia is already off to a great start: in Amnesia, the only defense you have against the dangers you’ll face is your ability to run away and hide in the dark, crouching down, hoping and praying that whatever’s chasing you doesn’t see you, because if it does, you will die. Even that recourse isn’t unqualified; darkness has its own dangers. Spend too long in the dark and your protagonist begins to lose sanity, seeing and hearing things that aren’t there…which can cause him to breathe heavily, hallucinate, talk to himself, and fall to the ground…all acts which give away your position to whatever abomination is hunting you (which your protagonist can’t even so much as look at for more than a moment at a time, because even the sight of his pursuer is enough to seriously fracture his frail grasp of reality and self-control).
With that simple but revolutionary little detail out of the way, I can provide you with a more straightforward overview of the game’s set-up.
Things begin with your protagonist stumbling down a hallway in what appears to be a large stone manor, talking to himself, drugged. When he awakens he’s suffering from the game’s eponymous condition, with no memory of where he is or why he’s there, knowing only his own name — Daniel. It isn’t revealing anything beyond what you’d get from box copy to say that he shortly retrieves a note from himself, to himself, with simple instructions: get to the center of the creepy mansion and kill an old man. Navigating the mansion, Daniel will stumble over clues that begin to allude to a disturbing history within the mansion, and hints as to his own involvement in that history.
He’s hardly in the best shape for this undertaking. Daniel has apparently suffered enough trauma that he is — and I think you could probably agree it’s well-warranted — on the verge of cracking like a nut from the very get-go. He hears things that aren’t there, sees things that aren’t there, and is frothing-insane afraid of the dark. Unfortunately for poor Daniel, vast portions of the estate he’s exploring are dark…but it’s lucky for him that they are, as it turns out: he’ll need to hide in the dark to stay alive. Crouching and remaining still in pockets of deep darkness will allow him to avoid being detected by some of the horrors he’ll encounter, but staying there will steadily drain his sanity, which will pose its own problems. Returning to and spending time in lit areas will gradually restore sanity, while completing puzzles or making progress restores it fully. There are candles, sconces, and torches scattered around the mansion, which Daniel can light with tinderboxes he finds lying around in limited quantities…but he won’t find enough of them to light every candle, sconce or torch, and it’s important to preserve strategic areas of darkness in which to hide if necessary. He also has a lantern he can use, but oil burns quickly, and is also only discovered in limited quantities.
Saying more about the story would be too revealing. It’s Lovecraftian and interesting, foreboding without being wholly revealing, and enough to drive a frightened player to venture down that next hallway when every instinct is clear about the fact that it would be better not to, cringing all the way. The ending is, in my opinion, sort of pants…but the journey to get there is genuinely frightening.
It’s also quite short. Clocking in for me at around eleven hours of gameplay for a full run-through, the story is probably much shorter than that…but you’re going to spend a lot of time crouched and moving very slowly, exploring. That is as it should be. While it’s certainly possible to gird one’s self against the expertly crafted ambient soundtrack and simply plunge head-first into rooms and hallways, not caring whether or not one dies…that would be quite missing the point. This is a game best played in the dark, alone, with a pair of surround-sound headphones on (like the Logitech g930 7.1 wireless cans I’ve been using).
Shortness aside, there’s replay value to be had here. Not all of the ‘encounters’ occur in the same place, I understand, and furthermore Frictional has released the tools necessary for gamers to build and script their own custom stories for people to play through. The crew at Valve took advantage of this just prior to the release of Portal 2, offering a free ‘addon’ story with their Potato Sack promotional package (a kind of ARG in the spirit of the last post on this blog, with clues scattered across numerous other indie games that players could amass in order to hasten the Portal 2 release date).
So what’s the tl;dr?
If you like horror, if you like video games, if you like to combine the two…pick this title up. The studio needs support in order to continue producing horror games of this quality. If you’re skeptical as to whether or not it’ll actually frighten you — ha, ha — then Steam offers a free demo, which should be perfectly sufficient to convince you otherwise.