I recently completed Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a PC-only horror title released by Frictional Games. While it's been out for a couple of years (in fact, the sequel drops next month, but more about that in a minute), I only got the chance to play it this summer. Many gamers and horror fans alike were praising its creepy environments, haunting music, and Lovecraftian story nods, so I waited until it went on sale and jumped right in.
Now I can't sleep.
When it comes to video games, horror protagonists aren't the victimized targets you usually come across in most movies and TV shows. No, our pixelated heroes are armed to the teeth from the start, making most of the "terror" rather anti-climactic. Sure, they may work in a decent jump scare or two, but the sense of dread doesn't last when I can just unload every machine gun round I have into the guy's/monster's/demon's face. This is the way of things because a game, any game, has to have a sense of fun and control for the player (not to mention many of them are "watered down" for the snot-nosed brats who con their folks into buying Mature-rated games). Most developers want to ensure an enjoyable and exciting experience for each person who picks up the controller, so gameplay can often surge ahead of story and/or any chance of lasting fright.
Frictional Games looked at the state of things and said "Fun? Enjoyment? Control? Screw that!" In Amnesia, you have two options in every hostile encounter: Run and hide, or die. That's it. And that's not the worst part.
The game begins with your character, Daniel, oozing in and out of consciousness. He's desperately trying to remember very basic information, like his name and his location. When you finally come to, all you know for certain is that you're in a large, seemingly deserted castle, and that there's a weird, fleshy, harmful mucus covering the walls and floor. It isn't long before you find a note from your past self, which solidifies two things: one, that you gave yourself amnesia for a very specific reason, and two, that there is a man named Alexander who needs a good old-fashioned murderin'. And so the story begins.
The environments in TDD are superb. There's an unnatural darkness that covers many of the areas, forcing you to bring out your lantern (which has a finite amount of oil) or light candles and torches with tinderboxes, which are hard to come by. Staying in the dark drains your sanity, which can cause you to hear and see things that aren't really there. And here's where that "worst part" comes in: the castle, as you've probably guessed, isn't deserted. There are... things in the darkness, and they are not friendly. So it becomes a matter of staying in the light to keep your head and risk being discovered by the grotesques, or cower in the gloom and pray the beast leaves the area before you pass out. The unique control scheme adds to the immersion: when you want to open a door, you have to click and hold with the mouse then pull it the direction the door opens. If there's a monster right behind you and you push when you should have pulled... well damn.
|And this is one of the SAFE zones.|
Where the game really excels, though, is in its sound design. Amnesia MUST be played in a dark room, with headphones. The ambient noise is extremely well done, making the player question if they actually heard something in the game or if they imagined it. There are all manner of floorboard creaks, growls, distant screams, gusts of wind, and whispered voices that serve to put Daniel on edge, which is where things get even more interesting. When Daniel's in the dark a bit too long, he'll start whimpering, muttering, and eventually grind his teeth, an effect that forced me to stop playing more than once because of how incredibly unnerving it is. The music is also good, capably manipulating the player's emotions and ratcheting up the terror when it needs to.
Amnesia is also an easily modded title, meaning that many folks are creating custom stories and making them available for download free of charge. Most are simply alright, but a handful of modders have crafted stories nearly as long, and as terrifying, as the original game. This gives TDD a high replayability factor.
It's not for everyone, but Amnesia is the first horror video game I've played that left me with serious creeps after I turned it off. It dredges up all those classic childhood fears we share, that vibe that there's something just beyond our reach of vision, and that it means us harm. The sense of helplessness from non-combat coupled with the character's unsteady mind gave me a consistent feeling of dread, and there are few things more effectively frightening than running from a hideous creature, hopping into an empty cabinet, closing the door, and hearing him thrash around the room, praying he doesn't find you. The sequel, enigmatically titled Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, releases next month. Set 60 years after the first game and considered "same universe, different story" by the developers, AMFP will feature outdoor and industrial environments in the grimy streets of London. Here's the trailer:
If you are a PC gamer who's tired of all these survival horror titles that aren't really delivering, pick up Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Just don't get upset with me for giving you insomnia.