‘The Dark Descent’ and the Limits of Psychological Horror

Amnesia: The Dark Descent experiments with the limits of psychological horror, but it can't find a way around them.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is still a good horror game. Playing it for the first time six years after its initial release, it does feel a little dated, and it certainly doesn’t live up to it’s reputation as a horror masterpiece. However, it still largely succeeds in what it sets out to do. Even by today’s standards it’s an ambitious game, evoking psychological horror through a Lovecraftian story and mechanics of insanity, while also evoking physical horror through the threat of otherworldly monsters and limited survival resources. It wants to make you fear for your life and fear for your soul. It succeeds on both fronts, but ironically those success actually undermine the game as a whole.

The central hook of The Dark Descent is the monster that hunts you through certain sections of the game. When people describe Amnesia as one of the scariest games of all time, they often cite these hunting scenes as the reason why. They’re relatively simple scenes, though. Basically, we’re tasked with exploring a dark environment while trying to stay hidden from a dangerous creature, a Gatherer.

There’s a catch, naturally — a few of them. We can’t look directly at the Gatherer or we’ll lose our sanity, making it difficult to keep track of its location. We’ll also lose our sanity if we stay in the dark. Every move that we make thus becomes a compromise. Risk death by lighting a torch and basking in the light or risk insanity by staying in the safety of darkness.

These hunts are meant to scare us both physically and psychologically. Regarding the former, there’s the very obvious threat of physical harm. Regarding the latter, there’s our complete inability to fight back. Both antagonists (the Gatherer and the darkness) evoke both types of fear, because both can hurt us and we’re helpless on both fronts. Since we can’t really protect ourselves, all we can do is mitigate the harm, and that’s a powerfully disturbing no-win scenario. Perfect for a horror game.

However, the game plays this card too many times. We face this exact scenario several times throughout the game, and that repetition allows us to get past the visceral emotional reaction to our helpless. By the sixth time that we encounter the Gatherer, we know the drill, and because we know the drill, we can prepare for it. By preparing for it, we allow logic to overtake emotion. We start treating the horror scenario like a puzzle, and that’s no good for The Dark Descent because how we resolve the puzzle of physical threats undercuts any psychological threat.

The Gatherer represents a direct physical danger, so avoiding that danger is the central issue for this horror puzzle. Since the Gatherer is part of a video game, its behavior can be broken down into logic loops, and understanding those loops is the best way to avoid danger. This methodical approach to resolving this physical threat is natural, but it conflicts with the game’s attempts to instill psychological fear. The Gatherer has power over us when we believe it to be hiding around any corner. This anticipation is the core of our fear. In other words, it’s the waiting that’s the scary part, not the running or the hiding or the dying. Once we can predict its movements and appearances, that waiting is — obviously — no longer scary. The creature is still very much a physical threat, but it has lost its psychological power over us.

For example: I once walked up a set of stairs and found the Gatherer at the top, just around a corner, coming towards me before it even knew I was there. Naturally, it killed me. I respawned at the bottom of the stairs and went up again, more slowly this time, and just as I crested the top, the creature rounded the corner and killed me. I started at the bottom again, but this time I went straight for a shadowy corner and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Eventually I crept up the stairs, and the creature was nowhere to be seen.

For a moment, I was confused. Restarting essentially rewinds time, yet the Gatherer wasn’t following its same script. But I know how this works. The game was predicting where I’d be moving and spawned the creature in just such a way as to evoke a good scare. It’s typical haunted house design, but more dynamic since it’s based on my movements.

Upon having this revelation, I no longer felt hunted by the Gatherer. Instead, I felt escorted. It wasn’t a threat so much as a guide through this virtual haunted house. My sense of helplessness faded, and the game lost its psychological threat. In trying to resolve the physical horror, I undercut the psychological horror.

Personally, I think the scariest parts of the game are not these infamous hunting scenarios with the Gatherer, but rather our encounters with an invisible water creature, the Kaernk.

These water scenarios are far less common, and they revolve around a tense game of cat and mouse. This Kaernk may be invisible, but since we always encounter it in flooded hallways, we can see it when it moves by following the splashing water. However, when it’s still it could be anywhere. The trick here is to toss books and stones and bones and skulls into the water to distract the creature. We watch it splash away and then jump in, making a beeline for the nearest crate, something to climb on to get us out of the water, to safety.

These parts succeed in being scary because they don’t try to hide the mechanical, systematized nature of the encounter. We’re supposed to understand how the Kaernk works, and then manipulate it to our advantage. Since this is intentional, the scenarios are designed around us having this knowledge. We may know how to trick the creature, but the developers know we know how to trick the creature. As a result, they design levels that force us into the water anyway.

In terms of horror, the Kaernk is never meant to scare us psychologically. From our first encounter, we know we’re smarter than it. We have that innate advantage over it. The challenge and horror of it lies in its strength. If we mess up, we’re dead. It’s a purely physical threat and only a physical threat, but it’s a damn effective one that never wavers.

Horror loses its power when we’re able to “get one over” on the things that scare us. We’re never meant to predict the movement of the Gatherer, it’s supposed to scare us with its random spawns, so when we are able to predict its movements, it loses its frightening edge. We’re always meant to predict the movement of the Kaernk, so when we are able to predict its movements, it doesn’t lose its frightening edge. The Gatherer fails as a physical threat because it’s too easily defeated when we treat it as a puzzle. The Kaernk succeeds as a physical threat because it’s always meant to be treated as a puzzle.

Psychological horror works best when it manifests in ways that aren’t physical, when it’s based on atmosphere or story. It’s why Lovecraft’s stories remain so effective even decades later: There’s always an intangible quality to the antagonist. It’s also why Cthulhu has become more of a meme in modern times: When we can draw it, we make it a concrete idea, and it loses its intangible psychological horror. For as much as I would like to see a movie of At the Mountain of Madness, I’m also happy for it to remain a short story with its creatures relegated to the shapeless and formless shadows of my limited imagination. They still have power there.

The Dark Descent still succeeds on this front with a story that examines the depths of human depravity and the excuses that we use to justify ourselves. The story is consistently scary because it argues that our instinct for self-preservation is a flaw in our species, not a benefit. We are so inclined to protect ourselves that we will gladly sacrifice the world in our stead.

The Gatherer would work if it were more unpredictable — more unfair. However, that would also make the game less… “fun” is not the right word for a horror game… less engaging. The Dark Descent is limited in what it can do because it’s still a game that wants to tell a story, which means it wants the player to progress. Ultimately, the game wants us to survive, so it has to hold itself back somewhat.

Psychological horror can’t be expressed through mechanics unless the player is allowed to feel the full brunt of failure. Homesick is a good example of this: The serial killer appears at random, and you likely won’t escape from him once he appears. You die and then start the entire game over. Death is truly random and unfair and frustrating, and that makes Homesick uniquely scary. But it’s also a free indie game that takes five minutes to beat if you do get lucky. At that price and length, it can be as mean and as nihilistic as it wants.

The Dark Descent makes a valiant attempt at evoking psychological horror through game mechanics, and it works for a while. Hwoever, when gamers are faced with the same mechanics over and over again, we eventually learn how to manipulate them. When that happens in a horror game, the horror disappears. The Dark Descent is still a scary game, its story is disturbing, and the Kaernk encounters are tense as hell. However, the hype around the Gatherer is overblown. The Dark Descent experiments with the limits of psychological horror, but it can’t find a way around them.

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