Game of the Month: Amnesia – The Dark Descent
April’s GotM is a masterpiece of atmosphere, where disturbing imagery, haunting sound effects, and an incredibly real sense of danger lurk around every corner. Amnesia – The Dark Descent offers some of the most pure survival horror gameplay ever brought to the genre. Developer Frictional Games has delivered a beautiful, immersive game that achieves great success in three major areas: emotional effect, environmental completeness, and narrative momentum.
For those who have not played it, Amnesia is a survival horror / puzzle game played from the first-person perspective. The vast majority of the gameplay consists of exploration and solving puzzles, with the occasional enemy, mostly in the form of twisted, horrible creatures that roam the castle where the game is set. Armed with nothing but a lantern, your only option for dealing with these unholy monsters is to hide from them until they pass. Light plays an interesting role in Amnesia; the darkness will keep you concealed from the horrors that seek you, but spending time in it will slowly erode your mind. Sanity is a resource that must be managed, and as it gets lower, camera movements, blur filters, and ambient sound effects all become more erratic and confused. Get too low, and the game will become very difficult to navigate. This sense of being somewhat out of control greatly adds to the feeling of fear the game attempts to foster. Hiding in a closet and listening to the sounds of a hellish creature search the room for you can be scary enough, but when your vision starts to blur, and you hear your breathing become heavier and your heart start to pound, the tension can almost be too much. It took me much longer to play this game than I expected mostly because, playing in the dark with my headphones on, I could only take so much at a time. Amnesia achieves a level of stress that is unlike anything else I’ve played. However, it doesn’t often feel like the game is unbalanced; in fact, most of the encounters and puzzles are fairly easy, and the stress comes from story elements. This is ideal for the horror genre, which has often driven players away with overly complex puzzles.
Amnesia’s environment, taking the form of a dilapidated 19th century castle, is well fleshed out, and feels very real. The vast majority of objects can be manipulated, from brooms and clothing to fallen beams and chunks of collapsed stone walls. Drawers in dressers and desks can be opened, books can be removed from bookshelves, and tables and chairs can be knocked over. Doors open with a mouse gesture, rather than just a click, lending weight to them and allowing for slow, partial opening to peek into the next area. All of these things give credibility to Amnesia’s setting, and add to the game’s immersion. The audio is equally well designed, ambient noises are subtle yet defined, and help to build a sense of isolation, when the sound of your footsteps seems deafening, and to then question that isolation, when you hear movement or a faint voice; is someone else here, or am I losing my mind? There is a bit of background music as well, and it complements, rather than detracts from, the experience. A nice pair of headphones will enhance this gaming experience tenfold.
The puzzles themselves don’t feel artificial, for the most part. They are mostly logical and spacial quandaries, such as moving objects to form ramps, combining chemicals to make acid, or simply exploring the environment closely to find a new way through. There is little in the way of arbitrary obstacles, in contrast to the genre’s most famous series, Resident Evil. In Amnesia, you will never need a rooster key. The use of obviously contrived puzzles in survival horror has always been a sticking point with me. Amnesia’s natural puzzles help to keep the player immersed, and make the experience feel more believable.
Amnesia’s protagonist, Daniel, has wiped his own mind clean to forget the horrors he’s witnessed, and we take control when he wakes up. Through notes and diary entries found throughout the game, Daniel’s former self fills in important back-story and helps to set the tone of the narrative. These bits are fully voiced monologues, and while the acting isn’t the best I’ve ever heard, it goes a long way to establish mood. The excerpts are well written, and help to slowly reveal the story to the player. Daniel also experiences brief flashbacks of his old memory, often to help point the player in the correct direction. The camera gently pulls toward whatever the player is meant to focus on, and we hear a voiceover of a conversation about the task the player must accomplish. This sort of direction is great, because it not only keeps the player focused and helps to cut down on frustration, but provides back-story and atmosphere. In puzzle games, it’s important to impart clues to the player, and as I’ve said before, using story elements accomplishes the goal of player guidance very well.
The game is well paced thanks to the need to ration your lantern’s oil. The “survival” portion of survival horror games has always been about managing resources and inventory space, and Amnesia doesn’t disappoint. Your lantern will often be running on fumes just before you find more oil, giving a hectic and panicky feeling whenever exploring new areas. The balance between the need for in-depth exploration and the sense of urgency imparted by your minimal oil supply is perfect, and pressures the player through the game.
While Amnesia – The Dark Descent does a lot of things right, there are a few glaring issues that bothered me while playing. First, the “Mementos”, the notes that appear in your journal whenever a task is presented, are a bit too obvious. Some, like “Find the key for the wine cellar” or “Must find a new way out of this area” are okay, but some, like “The rope won’t pull the hatch open. Something must be clogging the pulley” are way too specific, and take some of the fun of problem-solving away from the player. Games like Myst, back in the old days, expected you to take notes yourself. I still have a composition book somewhere with drawings of constellations and piano keys. I understand that it’s important for the player to not feel frustrated, but the diary entries, letters and flashbacks are enough; don’t assume the players can’t remember things they were just told, and please, don’t flash text on the screen. My only other complaint about this game is the use of the hand and tinderbox icons when you go to interact with something in the environment. LA Noire, during it’s investigation sequences, used a technique where hovering over an interactive object made the main character’s hand reach out towards the item. Something similar might have worked well here. We see Daniel’s hand holding the lantern, why not have him bring out the tinderbox when the mouse hovers over a light fixture, or have him reach out to pick up items? I understand that this may have been a technological limitation, as animating his interactions with everything in the environment might not have been feasible, but the little hand appearing in the middle of the screen, not to mention being able to apparently hold, spin and throw objects via telepathy, breaks my immersion.
Overall, Amnesia delivers what it promises, an intensely scary experience and absolutely pure survival horror gameplay, and it does it with a disturbing, powerful narrative and an incredibly rich, deep environment. Art, sound, and gameplay design all work together seamlessly to create an absolute jewel of a game in a genre that doesn’t often have the best representation. If you haven’t played Amnesia yet, go do so. It’s available on Steam for $20.