Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010)

Horror May Require a Responsible Audience

Horror requires of its audience a particular attitude, an attitude that I often lack.

It seems to me that of many conventionally understood narrative genres, horror is a genre that has some particular peculiarities in regard to the relationship between its audience and whatever form of media that horror takes, be it film, novels, or video games. What I want to describe, I could probably also connect to other genres as well, but I think that horror (and, perhaps, comedy as well) requires more of its audience in regard to the attitude with which that audience approaches its material to begin with. There is a kind of contract, perhaps, that horror seems to almost require its audience to sign off on, a responsibility towards the form, that often is not so explicitly asked of the audiences of other narrative genres.

What I mean by this is that horror is somewhat more easily “ruined” in some way if the audience chooses to take the wrong attitude towards the material of horror itself. The audience of a film or reader of a novel or player of a video game can potentially and quite deliberately wreck the mood and atmosphere that horror intends if they want to. If, for example, one approaches a work of horror with the idea that horror is in itself necessarily campy, it is pretty easy to break the mood intended by a slasher film. You can laugh off the situations the characters find themselves in (and allow themselves to get into), the gore, the grotesqueness, etc., etc. by simply taking the proper pose in relation to these elements of that subgenre. Frankly, simply throwing open the windows to let sunshine explode into the room while one plays a survival horror game can rend the atmosphere of a horror game apart rather readily.

And I am obviously not alone in thinking this.

I recently began my third foray into Frictional Games’s now cult classic Amnesia: The Dark Descent. On loading up the game, the game suggested that I should adjust the brightness in the game’s settings to create the maximum effect that the game wants to achieve. Even more interesting to me, though this is not the first time that I have seen such a thing in a horror game, the game suggested that I should play the game in the dark, preferably with head phones on in order to create the appropriate mood for horror, as if distrusting me to take the right attitude towards it or distrusting its own ability to create such an atmosphere.

Now, I do understand these seemingly obvious and also seeming meta-instructions for preparing one’s self for the experience of horror (though it would seem odd to me if a drama that clearly intends to be a tear-jerker would instruct me to place a box of Kleenex in easy reach in order to fully prepare myself for what is about to happen next). I suppose that a DVD of The Ring could make similar requests of its home viewing audience, but I think that cinema still assumes that its most important mode of consumption is its initial run at a movie house, and a movie house already enforces what is being asked for here through acts as simple as bringing the house lights down before the main feature begins. Video games, as a medium most often consumed by an audience that has control over the environment in which they play, has no such guarantees. Thus, once, again, I do feel like I understand, at least to some degree, where the idea of making such a request of its audience, as Amnesia does so very explicitly, is coming from.

As I mentioned earlier, this is my third foray into the world of Amnesia. My first two attempts to play this game and one of its predecessors, Frictional Games’s earlier effort at a similar kind of first-person horror experience, Penumbra, were failures. By failures, I am describing my own loss of interest in the games — my own failure in finishing them. I started out with that intention, but found myself losing interest, a loss of interest that I think might be a fault of my own. In other words, I think that, perhaps, all of my experiences with Frictional’s horrific universes come down to a failure on my part to fulfill my contract with the medium of horror by approaching them with the right attitude.

As a video game reviewer, I have played many horror games and have even argued that video games, through their overtly participatory nature, are kind of an ideal medium for a genre that depends on its audience feeling an authentic sense of vulnerability and, thus, fear. However, it is personally not my genre of choice. I thought that Silent Hill was a pretty creepy game when I played it many years ago and have praised it for its effectiveness in generating an eerie and even upsetting atmosphere, but I can’t say that I have especially sought out to engage with many of its sequels (I’ve started a few, but gotten distracted by other games. I haven’t played fully through any games in the series besides that first game.). I just don’t love horror. I usually find myself drawn to other fare.

I thoroughly enjoy watching my wife or my one of my daughters playing horror games, largely because they go in with the right attitude (I wrote about the pleasures of experiencing “Horror with Friends” a few years ago, for example). All four of the ladies in my life prepare to be scared when they sit down to such a game, and the gleeful screams of horror that ensue are amusing to listen to and that amusement is especially infectious when all of them are gathered around the same screen, watching one of the others freaking out over venturing down a darkened hallway (or simply refusing to do so altogether).

For whatever reason, though, I have a difficult time committing to this particular attitude myself when approaching a horror game. I find the request to adjust screen brightness in video games in general (horror or not) an annoying one because in the past it has tended to ruin my experience of game, limiting my own ability to assess situations during play, rather than enhancing my experience of play.

It may be that I simply often tend to view games of this sort in what I can best describe as a mechanistic sort of way. Enemies, grotesquely monstrous or not, are problems to be surmounted, problems to be solved, more than they are anything else to me in games with monsters or enemies that are essentially faceless (or lacking in characterization). Running over an old lady in Grand Theft Auto actually gives me pause, but being mauled by a monster for a few seconds? Not so much. Instead, I don’t panic in a firefight when playing Call of Duty, I don’t button mash in response to being spotted by a thug during a stealth mission in a Batman game, and I just don’t really freak out that much when I see the twisted monstrosity that haunts the ancient manor that is the setting of Amnesia lumbering towards me. I tend to assess the situation and figure out a way to deal with them or it. I may die trying, which may sour my mood, but my mood doesn’t change much in the heat of the moment, during play itself. Problems call for solutions, not panicked response.

I think that I may be halfway through Amnesia at this point, and I will finish the game this time (I promised to do so for a forthcoming podcast). I may yet be scared by the game, but I haven’t been so far. Like my first two attempts to play it, I find myself feeling more tedium than terror at the slow pace of the game, which is common to horror (in most horror games, especially ones with little combat and few enemies, most developers wait some time between especially scary moments — jump scares and the like — so that they don’t overplay their hand through overexposure of the monster), but this is also not especially conducive to me getting into the groove of the game.

Instead of feeling especially emotionally provoked by the game, my more analytical approach to games like this, those populated with faceless creatures, or my more analytical attitude towards games like this becomes a hindrance to experiencing it the way that I believe that it is intended be enjoyed. Playing through a number of levels has made it clear to me that the monster in Amnesia and the house itself might make a lot of noise throughout most sequences, but the monster actually rarely makes appearances. Thus, all of the atmosphere the game wants to generate by making me slowly crawl through hallways, conserving light sources, and only using my lantern when necessary is wasted on me. I tend to run through most levels, knowing that I can probably explore the house to my heart’s content until a significant event actually touches off a monster encounter. I have reduced an experience of horror to a mere game about horror. And frankly, no game about monsters is really horrible to me. After all, monsters are just something to be solved.