Games

'Amnesia' and the Topography of Fear

Amnesia: The Dark Descent effectively engenders terror by demanding that players create their own topographies of fear.

Among the finalists for this year’s Independent Game Festival Seumas McNally Grand Prize is Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a horror game by Frictional Games, the creators of the much loved and feared, Penumbra. Players control Daniel, an amnesia stricken Londoner who awakens in the mysterious and foreboding Brennenburg Castle. The environment has all the trappings required of an unsettling gothic castle -- creaky wooden doors, archaic torches, ornate and grotesque statues, and generally dubious safety standards. While the castle’s atmosphere evokes deeply uncomfortable feelings, Amnesia effectively engenders terror by demanding that players create their own topographies of fear.

Throughout Amnesia, hideous creatures lurk the halls of castle Brennenburg, threatening players who explore the haunting corridors too liberally. Players cannot fight these monsters. Instead, players must behave like frightened children and simply run and hide. But there is a catch. In addition to a health status, players struggle with their own sanity. Primarily, sanity depletes while standing in darkness. As the players’ sanity drains, their environment becomes distorted, blurring and hazing the already ominous passages. Sanity can only be regained by standing near a light source.

Unfortunately for Daniel and any easily scared players, light is an expendable and limited resource. Darkness is everywhere, flooding nearly all the rooms and hallways, inhabiting the spaces between dim candles. Players push away the darkness by lighting torches and candles throughout the castle and carrying their own lantern. In order to light a torch or candle, players expend an ever dwindling supply of tinderboxes. Likewise, wielding the lantern uses up precious oil supplies. Oil spigots and vials can renew player resources, but only slightly -- the lantern is seldom full.

Although light keeps players sane, it also reveals their presence to any wandering enemies. Once spotted, players can break line of sight and hide in the darkness or in a closet, perhaps. Yet staying hidden in crepuscular sanctuaries too long will drive players insane. The result is a constant struggle between staying sane and staying safe, between darkness and light. Players must navigate this balance themselves, constructing their own topographies, their own sources of both fear and respite.

By choosing where and when to create a light source, players create their own unsettling aesthetic, which lays out a permanent map of their behavior and emotions. When first playing Amnesia, I found myself lighting a candle in every room or every time I felt unsafe. I would carry my lantern whenever I spent more than a few seconds in darkness. Soon, I began running out of oil, often suddenly and without warning, even when I needed it most. My tinderboxes also ran low. I began sprinting through darkness, leapfrogging between candles and open windows, regretting all the luminance that I had so eagerly discarded.

Amnesia demands a more methodical and thoughtful approach. The game encourages players to take risks, venturing a little further into darkness before lighting a torch. Because darkness provides some safety from monsters, players must also create a pathway that offers an escape route. Yet being too bold will decay one’s sanity. If players want time to think over a puzzle or to even safely peak around a corner, a source of light will help them maintain their acumen. Unlike anything else, horror in Amnesia is considerably self-created. Feeling oppressed by the inky blackness? Nowhere to hide from an imminent threat? A sea of darkness between yourself and safety? You sealed your own fate in the construction of your own topography.

Frictional Games recreates this phenomenon whenever players interact with the environment. Leaving doors and closets open allows players to make a speedy getaway if necessary. Boxes, stones, and chairs can be thrown about, blocking a door in hopes of slowing down an enemy, while also forming a player obstacle. The lurker, an invisible creature that stalks the castle’s flooded halls, also fosters self-made moments of anxiety. Stepping into the water alerts the lurker to a player’s presence, causing it to attack. Players must jump from box to box, avoiding the water at all costs. Tossing some conveniently located severed body parts will distract the lurker temporarily. How far a player throws and how quietly they enter the water determines how much time that players have to touch the water. Again, how players interact with the physical environment shapes how Amnesia evokes fear and anxiety.

Successfully avoiding monsters requires paying the utmost attention to the environment and available light sources. Peaking around a corner could reveal a monster but more likely the deformed creatures will appear suddenly. Likewise, staring too long at a monster depletes sanity. Remembering what rooms have closets, what rooms have candles or torches, and which are lit increases a player’s chances of overcoming a terrifying chase sequence. Like the deeply unsettling works of H.P. Lovecraft, Amnesia evokes the fear of the unknown, creating spine tingling moments when you spot a creature out of the corner of your eye before it disappears, into an adjacent room perhaps, or into the darkness itself.

Creating zones of safety and specifically choosing to keep certain rooms and hallways unlit is the only sense of comfort available. The environmental make up of light and dark is heavily controlled by the player, making momentary calm that much more rewarding. Players create the map topography as they play, hopping between light sources and darkness. Amnesia allows players to map their own play history while also setting the stage for another horrifying encounter with nightmarish creatures. The environmental mechanics of Amnesia: Dark Descent allows players to scare themselves, a fascinating and innovative approach to horror. When the light fails you and the castle walls begin to distort into madness, the terror is all your own.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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