‘Amnesia’: The Psychological Toll of Horror

Everyone has their limit in terms of what what they can tolerate in the horror genre. There is only so long that a person can play in a world defined by horror before the atmosphere begins to wear on them. Sometimes, the “creepiness factor” is just turned up passed someone’s personal threshold. For others, it is the type of horror that tests their tolerance. For one who can’t stand the site of blood, shlocky slaughter fests are more than they can, though others may find them fairly tame or even uninteresting. For that matter, for some members of an audience the simple inclusion of spiders may be enough for a movie or game to go unfinished.

It’s odd how much power in the moment that the fictional can have over our physical being. We know what is being represented isn’t real. We know that for a fact. We are holding the controller or mouse & keyboard in our hands. We are looking at a screen with borders. The graphics, no matter how realistic, we can see isn’t like the real world. Yet, there comes a point when a person just has to stop. Their limit has been surpassed. Maybe they stop for good or merely to regain their composure. Interestingly, this is the recognition of this need is a dynamic that Amnesia: The Dark Descent adopts in its design.

Sanity systems have been featured before in horror games, like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, The Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Clock Tower 3. The act of screwing with input and output, the very things that a player relies on to play a game, is a very effective way to disorient that player. However, Amnesia doesn’t make sanity into a mechanic. It made it into a dynamic.

In Amnesia, you start off sane. Well, relatively speaking. You have a clear mind. and you understand the world to be subject to certain rules of logic and order despite not having any memory of it. Should the unknown creep into that worldview, that’s where reality itself for the player begins to break down. Strange or sudden occurrences, from the unstable castle shaking to doors flying open due to a strong wind to catching a glimpse of monsters, cause your sanity to suffer a blow. Staying in darkness for too long will grind on you as well. First, the screen will start to shimmer and distort Daniel’s vision, then his breathing will become more erratic. Should you really push it, a constant skittering noise will fill your ears (a danger since you have to rely very heavily on hearing danger more than on seeing it). Then bugs will start crawling across your vision (obscuring your already blurry view of the world). And should all this go on for too long and Daniel’s mind become terribly weak, you collapse to the ground unable to move until you’ve spent sometime to recover.

Entering lighted spaces will get rid of these effects or rather they will reverse them. The longer that they’ve taken over your senses, the longer it will be before things return to normal. But, standing in the light means the monsters can see you, if they are there. They might be there. Just take it as a given that they are always there. This solution, though, allows you to get rid of these distortions of your senses, but the big hits to your mind that will cause headaches or constant pounding won’t go away by looking into the candlelight. Solving the basic puzzles and progressing are the keys to healing your mind. You are restoring some amount of order to the world. Light reveals the world as it is and solving puzzles means there are some laws of reality that still function.

Thanks to this system darkness becomes safety, yet distorts the world, and light becomes danger, yet reasserts a world that can be reasonably perceived. As you move through the dark corners of the game’s castle, you have to go as long as possible staying hidden as you go mad. You don’t know what is around each corner, and you don’t want to give whatever is there any clues as to your location. You want to live. But there is still only so much you can take in when left in this state. The player finds him- or herself closing a room off simply to turn on a lantern, so that a few seconds of light can restore the status quo. There are a few safe places where light streams in from windows and holes in the ceiling. The player takes a minute to recover as does Daniel. But whereas Daniel’s sanity oscillates between this world and the next, ours is challenged through a constant state of tension. The unknown is a powerful stimulant for fear, and a system in which you are actively rewarded for staying in the figurative (as well as the literal) dark keeps the player on edge.

I’m of the tendency to game in marathon sessions — for as long as I have time set aside to play a game. Should a game hook me, I want to stay with it, and if it isn’t hooking me, well, then why am I playing it? Amnesia: The Dark Descent seems to provoke a different response in me. A little over the first hour in and I have to save and quit. As one should when playing horror, I was playing at night in the complete dark, and for all intents and purposes, alone and completely cut off from the world around me. The game got to me in a way that games like Silent Hill 2 never fully could. Silent Hill 2 is scary and oppressive, but the one being handed the psychological jumper cables to attach to himself wasn’t me, but that game’s protagonist, James Sunderland. Amnesia removes the middleman in that arrangement. By crafting a dynamic to incentivize certain behaviors, the player ends up the one attaching the electrodes to him- or herself. At the same time having closed the game, I still flipped on every light in my room and went straight to the comedy section of Netflix. The same thing happened the next night. I lasted longer, two hours this time, but ended the session with my hands shaking despite myself. I went and got ice cream.

And all of this despite knowing it isn’t real. No matter what tricks we use to help us cope — from breathing exercises to repeating the mantra “I’m looking at a screen” — some horror pushes past the logical centers of our brain and grips us at our basest emotional core. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to witness in oneself. It’s what we laugh about afterwards. We aren’t in that situation. We are able to come back to the light and reassert reality. Sometimes we push past our limit for terror. We pull back, recoup, before delving back in. We are Daniel in more ways than one.