Survival-horror games often cast players in the role of a protector—of a sort. It’s an added responsibility that adds tension to the experience. How can we protect another when we can barely protect ourselves? Silent Hill 2 tasked us with protecting Maria, then toyed with us as it forced us to fail over and over again. Silent Hill 4: The Room tasked us with escorting our battered neighbor through past levels. Resident Evil 2 showed us Claire protecting Shelly, and while that was more story than mechanics, it still cast the playable character as a protector and that status fueled much of Claire’s motivation.
AMY takes this trope further, casting both parties, woman and child, Lana and Amy, as both protector and victim. The resulting co-dependence forms the backbone of the game and makes AMY one of the most interesting horror games to come out in a long time.
Amy is just a scared child, and she acts like one. She can’t stand to be alone; leave her to her own devices for too long, and she’ll come looking for you. She responds to praise with childlike glee and to instructions with exaggerated nodding. She’ll naturally follow you, but she can’t run as fast as Lana, so you have to hold her hand for her to keep pace. In every way that matters mechanically, she’s a child that needs to be looked after.
Amy is also necessary for your own survival. The air is contaminated, but Amy is immune to that contamination. Thus, she keeps you immune as long as you’re in contact with her. In other words, holding Amy’s hand heals you. It’s a clever mechanic that encourages you to look after her as one would normally look after a child of that age.
We naturally play games selfishly—we want the best weapon, the best loadout, the best outcome, etc.—so tying our well being to Amy’s well being helps create a bond between ourselves and her, while maintaining our natural style of play. Some puzzles force you to leave Amy, to send her through a tiny vent, and then to take the long way around to meet up with her. It’s easy to worry about her in these situations because she is indeed helpless, but our worry is based on our own desire for survival because Amy is our protector. She’s a literal safe haven.
However, you can also use healing items to keep the poison at bay. This isn’t recommended since healing items are rare and Lana isn’t much stronger than Amy against the zombies, but this is an option. Amy isn’t absolutely necessary for healing, but she has other uses as well. When holding her hand, you can feel her heartbeat, and it gets faster when enemies are near. This works as an early warning system, as Amy indirectly tells us if there’s a zombie behind a wall or door.
Again, this mechanic has a practical purpose, but it also makes Amy more sympathetic. You’re feeling her fear. It’s very clearly that it is Amy who is afraid, not Lana, because if you let go of the girl’s hand, the early warning rumbling on the controller instantly stops. It’s a mechanic that portrays Amy as a frightened child, that casts us as her protector, and then that casts Amy as our protector. Unlike the normal one-way survival-horror relationship, both characters are helpless against the monsters, but both characters also protect each other from the monsters.
The penultimate level plays around with this relationship. You must navigate a maze of zombies, but before Amy can enter safely, you have to clear a path for her. You must let yourself get contaminated enough so that the zombies think that you’re one of them—only then can you move freely through the maze and create a path for Amy. Things get interesting when the path circles back on itself, bringing you close enough to Amy’s hiding spot to be healed even though you’re still surrounded by zombies. This is a great moment of horror because the game makes the player scared of the one thing that has protected him thus far. We’re scared of our protector, and now we can only count on ourselves. The game establishes a co-dependent relationship between Lana and Amy, and then at the climax, it tears that relationship apart.
If AMY were a more narratively sound game, I might praise it for commenting on (surrogate) mother/daughter or victim/savior relationships, but AMY is not a narratively sound game by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it has an interesting foundational mechanic that it twists in interesting ways. Hopefully some other developer takes inspiration from AMY and uses similar escort mechanics within a more coherent story to create some genuine emotional attachment rather than pure mechanical attachment. Still, AMY got half the formula right and that makes it better than most recent horror games.