Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Don't Forget to Play Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Amnesia: The Dark Descent, by Frictional Games (they of the Penumbra series), may be the scariest game ever. So scary that I've forgotten my own name. Fortunately for me, it's printed at the bottom of each of these articles, so I can easily solve the mystery of my forgotten identity. But the rest of you will have to do it the hard way by risking your sanity in the dark abyss. 

Amnesia is an intelligent game that has a firm grasp of what makes horror scary. Making the player defenseless gives you reason to be anxious about your environment; the less you see of a monster, the more your imagination takes over; climactic moments work best with a slow and steady build-up. On top of the well-crafted horror, Amnesia boasts intelligent puzzles, interesting scenery, and a fairly intriguing story. 

Seriously, this is one of those games that comes along and changes everything. You may forget your own name, but don't forget to play this game. 

The year is 1839. You play as Daniel, a young man who wakes up in a dark castle with no memory of his own past. Stumbling around the castle, Daniel finds a letter that he wrote to himself, explaining that he'd purposely wiped his own memory, and that he must reach the inner sanctum of the castle and kill Baron Alexander.

Amnesia plays like a first-person adventure game. With horror, of course, but I'll get to that later. A large part of the gameplay is navigating a 19th century castle, collecting inventory items, and solving puzzles in the environment. For the most part, these puzzles boil down to your typical "pathway is blocked, find a clever way through or around it" kind of situation, and yet they always manage to feel fun and creative.

The puzzles are engaging because, unlike in a lot of adventure games, you're not just collecting elaborate, improvised keys; you're physically interacting with and manipulating the environment. When a doorway is blocked by a fleshy fungus, you have to mix acid to dissolve it. But instead of just finding four chemicals and combining them in your inventory, you put them onto burners, turn on the fire, open the gas valves, and pour the concoction into a new container. 

When the elevator's broken, you have to 1) find gears and physically carry them around, placing them right on the spokes, 2) physically move chunks of coal into a burner, close the compartment door, and throw the lever, 3) find three control rods and put them into the corresponding slots, and 4) manually set the pressure of the steam by cranking the right levers. Step 3 requires you to go on branching paths to find the rods, and setting them correctly requires you to "solve" a riddle. Setting the steam pressure is another puzzle/riddle on its own.

The elevator example may sound like a long-winded exercise in tedium, but it's really not. It manages to be rewarding because it gives you a lot of freedom to explore and figure things out on your own, while also being pretty clear about what you eventually have to accomplish. And there's always lots of reinforcing feedback to let you know that you're on the right track.

The other fun aspect of the puzzles is how logical and straight-forward they are. When you're presented with a problem, the most realistic solution---the first thing you think to do, and the one thing you'd be doing in real life---tends to actually work. A pulley system has a hunk of wood jamming it, so you stand on a barrel to pull it out or throw a rock and dislodge it. A flight of stairs breaks down, and so you grab planks of wood and just make a ramp out of them. It's little moments like this that I sat there in disbelief going "Wow, the game actually let me do the simplest, most logical thing," and felt a rush of euphoria. 

So the game's got some good physics that let you solve puzzles in somewhat creative ways (although not as sophisticated as in Half-Life 2, since the physics in Amnesia are a little more scripted), but it also adds tremendously to the atmosphere and immersion. When your character is physically doing all of these manual tasks, you feel more involved in the experience because you're doing more specific actions to make things happen. 

Opening a door, for instance, requires you to click and drag the mouse, either towards you or away from you. Same for opening drawers, pulling levers, cranking valves, and so forth. These are ultimately very simple tasks, but they work extremely well at immersing you. Much more than motion controls, for example. But it also makes things even more tense when you're running away from a monster and need to frantically crank a valve or open a door, only to find that it opens a different direction than you thought.

Speaking of frantically running away from monsters, let's talk about the horror. It works pretty well, and most modern "horror" games (any that came out after Resident Evil 4, which turned survival-horror into action games) would do well to take a few lessons from it. Because having a lot of action in a horror game tends to make it much, much less scary. Enemies cease to be scary when you're a walking arsenal that can kill anything in sight, and they become familiar and mundane when you're constantly bombarded with them.

But in Amnesia you're completely defenseless. It's not the first game to do this, mind you, but it's been a while since I've played a game that pulled this element off successfully. Being defenseless makes you feel vulnerable, because your only options are to run or hide. When you're out exploring, you don't have a shotgun to keep you safe. If something jumps out at you, you're completely screwed, either forced to take a lot of damage to your health (or sanity), or to be brutally slaughtered. So when you start hearing footsteps coming towards you, you panic. 

Instead of thinking "I need to kill this stupid thing," you think "I need to get out of here." Instead of wondering "how do I kill that," you wonder "is it still out there?" Instead of looking for the next living thing to deal with, you're hiding in a corner wetting your pants. To put it simply, playing Amnesia puts you in a different mindset than what you get from playing other games. So if you're not convinced of how effective Amnesia is as a horror game, let's enjoy some good scary moments with some folks playing Amnesia. 

Now, I've got nerves of steel, so I wasn't nearly as scared as this guy, but I did experience some moments of genuine terror and panic in Amnesia, which is something that I can't say of many other so-called horror games. There were times when I literally had to stop playing just because I needed a break from the tension, and I was almost always wary of advancing the plot or venturing into new areas because I was concerned about monsters spawning and coming after me.

One of the more brilliant aspects of Amnesia is that the enemies are only ever scarcely seen. Looking at enemies causes your sanity meter to deplete, which blurs and distorts your vision, triggers extra horror cues, and causes your controls to lag and act up. If you're already scared by the situation, looking at an enemy will make it even worse, and could get you killed if you're frantically trying to run away. So it's wise not to look at the monsters too much, which helps maintain their element of mystery, and that keeps them creepy. 

The scariest enemy is invisible. It's scary precisely because you cannot see it. You have no idea what it is, other than that it wants to kill you and everything you do only pisses it off even more. The monsters are scarier when you don't get to see them a lot because your imagination fills in the details, it makes you internalize the game more---the experience becomes more vivid.

Maintaining your sanity is bit of a catch-22 that adds some good depth to the gameplay. You need to look at the enemies to see where they are so that you can get away, but doing so will lower your sanity. Enemies can see you in the light, so you have to hide in darkness to avoid detection, but being in the dark lowers your sanity. You're constantly balancing your instinct to survive with your desire to stay sane. You want to light torches in hallways and rooms so that you can see better, but you still want to have darkness so that you can hide.

But then there's also a fun level of resource management that plays into the light and sanity thing. Your only ways to light up a room are to use your lamp, which consumes oil and casts a radiating glow around you, or to light candles with single-use tinderboxes. The game is ultimately way too dark for you to stay in the light constantly, especially since you have a very limited supply of these items. Basically your options are either to play in the dark and conserve your items for when you think you'll need them, or to use them often and run out quickly. And there proves to be a fun level of strategy with using these items effectively.

Another thing that Frictional Games understands well is that trial-and-error can ruin a good horror game. Repeating the same sequence multiple times completely ruins the scariness of the situation and makes you frustrated with the gameplay. When you die in Amnesia, you typically won't have to repeat the sequence again. Instead you'll just respawn in a nearby location and continue on with the story as if nothing happened. It might not be realistic, but it keeps the game moving forward and keeps each scare unique.

As you explore the castle Brennenburg, you find more scattered pages from your diary (and other notes you'd written to yourself) that reveal the backstory of your erased memory. As Daniel learns more about his past, he even starts to have visions of events that occured within the castle walls. The pieces progressively come together as you learn what Daniel was doing, how he got to the castle, what all transpired at the castle, and why he has to kill Alexander.

The story is fairly straightforward and not especially remarkable, but that's not to say it's bad or uninteresting. It's actually pretty good, but it's just not the main emphasis of the game. In the very beginning you probably won't care much about Daniel and will just take the story as it comes to you (since it's primarily meant to provide a structure for the gameplay), but there are some nice twists along the way that will grab your interest and bring some unexpected depth to the experience. Especially with a couple of different endings, depending on your final decisions.

In short, Amnesia is a solid game in basically every way. There are very few things for me to nitpick, and if I had to criticize anything, it would merely be that the story could be told in a slightly more interactive way than just reading journal entries. But that doesn't detract from the experience at all, and the rest of the game, from the adventure elements to the puzzles and the horror, are just so well-crafted that it's very easy to recommend Amnesia. Unless you don't like scary games, in which case you'd probably want to skip this one.

Even then, you should just man-up and play it anyway.


  1. You forgot to mention how AWESOME Alexander's voice is. It's easily the best thing about Amnesia.

    The rest of the game is pretty good too, though.

  2. I remember picking up Amnesia and hating it because it was a bit too 'mechanical' and not horror enough in the beginning. As of now, I cannot even complete the game because I am too afraid to face the dreading water splasher invisible ghost again!