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'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.

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