[23 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a well designed survival horror game. Eternal Darkness, Silent Hill, and the previous Penumbra games are all present in one form or another here. It readily borrows their ideas and adapts them while dispensing with their flaws. For longtime fans of horror games, it is a breath of fresh air in a genre that is now more about thrills than genuine fear. For newcomers, it will set a standard that few titles come close to.
Survival-horror games at the design level are about resources. The player never quite has enough of something that is essential to progressing in the game. Monsters are scattered around a large area and the player has to get through them, usually by fighting. In Resident Evil, the resource will be ammunition. In the Silent Hill games, it’s more about health. In Amnesia, it’s light. The castle that you are exploring is a very dark place. When you’re in the dark, your sanity meter drops and your vision distorts. You walk more slowly and the soundscape fills with strange noises. You can’t see even the little bit that you can in the dark. To handle this issue, you’re given a lantern with limited oil and tinder boxes for lighting various torches and candles. You get more of these as you progress, and in turn, you use them up as you go. This element generates tension in the player, which also compliments the scares and dread that comes from playing.
The reason that Amnesia surpasses most other survival-horror games is that your relationship with darkness is complicated by the monsters in the castle. You can’t fight in the game, only run. You have very little health; it only takes a hit or two before you’re dead in the game. To hide from a monster you have to be in the dark. While one might think that the best strategy is to light every single room as you progress, this will leave you with no hiding places should you run into trouble. The problem becomes more pronounced as you progress through the game and you juggle limited supplies with constant worry about where to use them. It forces you to keep fumbling around in the dark even if you’ve got a match, and thus, you can never relax. The game’s tension remains consistent throughout.
The game delivers its narrative via a classic combination of written texts scattered about, flashbacks, and visual details. You wake up in a mysterious castle with amnesia and slowly piece together the unpleasant story of how you ended up there. It’s all very H.P. Lovecraft and never gets particularly complicated. The game is more concerned with location by making each room gruesome and unpleasant. A grisly laboratory full of experiments, a dark cellar where soldiers were massacred, and the long dungeon full of bloody chains are just a few examples. The darkness makes observing these places ominous and unsettling because you can never quite see everything. You flash your lantern across a pool of blood but can’t quite make out the body that created it. You see a chart with human anatomy on it, but it’s gone the moment you put out your lantern. In this way, the idea of the place takes root in your imagination rather than being totally locked onto the screen, allowing for greater scares and dread as you struggle through the game.
The simplicity of the game does start to work against itself because you can only see so many mutilated corpses before you start to get desensitized. Most survival-horror games will change gears at the midway point by making the plot more interesting as in Silent Hill 2 or ramping up the action as in Resident Evil. This never really happens in Amnesia, which makes me a little unsure of how to judge it. The design works consistently throughout, but the content doesn’t keep up. You’ll be fixing broken plumbing and machinery throughout the game. Typically the parts will be scattered around a large cluster of rooms and you’ve got to go digging in the dark for them. There are several brilliant puzzles about evading monsters that I won’t spoil, but generally the game doesn’t vary much from the “Find Broken Thingy, Collect Parts, Fix it, then Proceed” formula. The result is that you start to get impatient with the game’s puzzles rather than curious.
This issue is compounded by the game’s combination of an excellent interface where you can manipulate objects and an adventure game mentality towards the puzzles. You can pick up anything in the game and throw it or drop it. What’s frustrating is that the game never really lets you use any of these objects. If something will go into your inventory, it’s highlighted in blue. Otherwise, it’s just something that you throw. There are a lot of moments where it doesn’t really make sense that you can’t keep an item. In a game where you can pick up almost anything, you can never pick up a candle. The worst moment is a puzzle involving a chisel and the game’s insistence that you use one specific hammer with it. There are hammers throughout the game, but it has to be this particular hammer.
It’s tough to really consider these criticisms deal breakers though. In many ways survival horror games must ask the player to tolerate quite a bit for the sake of a suspension of disbelief. Why doesn’t this person just leave the spooky mansion? Why are they still in the creepy town? Why not ask for help? In film or literature, you can always think up an excuse. In video games, the issue of agency renders this moot. For a good scare, you have to let yourself be deprived. Taking away the player’s senses and awareness is the method that Amnesia uses, and it is one of the most effective that I’ve seen in a horror game. As the creators explain in the introduction, “Amnesia should not be played to win.”