Worth Playing – Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Amnesia Provides Fresh, Scary Take on Horror Games
By Taryn Haas
Knowing very little of the game, I bought Amnesia: the Dark Descent on a whim when it was offered by Steam, whose summer sales are far too irresistible. Upon further investigation, I realized it is a horror game with of some renown. I played the game just enough to get a sense of how often I would be terrorized and then stopped immediately after; I am easily scared. However, recent circumstances have brought me to reopen the .exe and remember how horrific a simple, unknown threat can be.
So began my dark descent: past a starting menu depicting a stone archway leading to a shadowy hall that I was hesitant to enter. But enter I did, to the detriment of my sleeping habits. I awoke in in a castle circa 1839 as an unknown male character, one seemingly as disoriented as I. After wandering for a bit and found a letter written from myself for myself. This seemed a bit cliché to me, but after reading it I realized how mistaken I was. My character, Daniel, had erased his memory for a purpose that you begin to understand as you continue through the game. Daniel now had a goal: to kill the madman that had brought him to this horrible place.
So I went on, through the labyrinthine Brennenburg Castle that contained abominations I would have preferred to relegate to my subconscious mind. There are numerous original aspects of this game and I shall attempt to illuminate the most intense and unique of these here.
Traditionally, as the hero of the game, the player has some special ability or power to combat the trials ahead: maybe an arsenal of weaponry at their fingertips, or even superior martial art skills. This game follows a different philosophy by giving you one simple tool, a lamp.
You may be asking yourself at this point “what good is a lamp?” Well, a lamp will keep you sane, which is one of the two “health” bars in the game, the other being, well, health. Only the rare individual enjoys sitting in the dark with disturbing noises around them, and Daniel is not one of these individuals. Coincidentally, neither am I. Your lamp enables you to figure out where you are going and, if something has been chasing after you, to light up whatever room you may find yourself. You also get tinderboxes, which allow you to light a wide array of light-giving sources, such as torches or candles. Essentially, light is good.
All of this is probably followed with a variation of the question “But how am I supposed to fight the bad guys?” Well, there is a simple answer: you aren’t. What you are supposed to do is run behind the nearest object that will block your frame and hide whenever a monster is spotted. Run there and do not try to look at whatever is chasing you. Remember that sanity bar I mentioned? It goes down if you see anything disturbing, monsters included. This means you shouldn’t even peek around the corner at them – these things are literally so frightening that you will lose your mind. Your sanity bar goes from “a slight headache” to “head is pounding and hands are shaking” to “…” So while you have a tiny bit of leeway, you have to keep in mind that when you look at monsters, they sense it. Meaning they’ll come after you. I suppose that if you at least want to see what kills you then, by all means, look before you die.
Honestly, this seems very realistic – much more so than that Resident Evil stuff. I know if I were actually in this game, I would be doing exactly what Daniel does: hiding until the scary monster goes away. While it’s not a very empowering situation, it’s scarier than any other game I’ve played. This game literally makes you feel helpless. It makes me feel like I’m actually in a horror movie.
When you aren’t fleeing, the game mostly consists of puzzles. It is not quite on the Portal level, as I find that most of the puzzles easy. Generally, it feels like they’re just difficult enough that they don’t detract from the rest of the game while giving you some sense of progress. It helps that they take you all over a pretty expansive castle that offers a lot of different scenery.
Brennenburg Castle – Visuals
One of the main characters in Amnesia is the location itself, Brennenburg Castle. There are enough paintings and statues to fill an art museum. Half of the terror comes from the winding, decrepit, and suspenseful environment. I traveled through studies, sewers, and prisons through the course of the game, all dimly lit and clearly maltreated. This castle is exactly what someone would expect down to every detail. And when I say that it is detailed, I mean detailed. Not only are the paintings distinct and not what you would expect, but each room is full of intricacies to make them unique: books, tools, and other household goods. Furthermore, every object has full physics meaning chairs, boxes, chemistry equipment, etc. can all be moved, or, better yet, used to barricade yourself in rooms. If you’re at all like me, you’ll find this very enjoyable as a small respite from the shadows in the hall.
The game promotes a thorough eye by placing many helpful items in unexpected places. Once I learned of their penchant for hiding things, much like ferrets, I opened every drawer I found and jumped to view the top of each bookshelf. My motto became “waste not, want not” as I hunted for every tinderbox and jar of oil, using each of those sparingly after having died a few times in the beginning from lack of light.
It amazes me how fantastic the graphics are on top of all of this. If you turn the lights out and put your headphones on, you honestly feel as if you’re traversing this hulking stone creation yourself. However, if you submit yourself to those conditions, you’re likely to go insane along with Daniel.
Soundtracks have become one of the more important aspects of games; a fact that I’ve realized post-Sims. This game is no exception, with music that changes frequently and provides the perfect ambiance to accompany you in your demented travels. The music sticks to the background, providing a creepy air without being obtrusive. These discordant tones thrive to give me an accurate sense of unease.
But then, as insistent and terrifying as a war drum, comes the bass. It implies the worst possible thing: something is close to me and if I am not careful, I will most likely die. This is not to say that it’s a precursor to every encounter. I can’t tell you how many times I stumbled upon something I wanted nothing to do with and the music was there to reassure me that I was correct in running away as quickly as possible.
To get it out there, I’m not the type of person to pay attention to the plot in the game. I like to get where I’m going and get there in some crazy, hacking manner. This game provided an awakening for me because of this; it relies heavily on the story to give you a sense of what exactly you’re seeing around you and how horrific it is. Besides the main story line, which is projected via memories that are sometimes sparked by entering a room or with journal entries you’ll find, there are other, random letters laying around that give a background on where you may be standing. It’s interesting to piece these together in an intricate story-map, though I was frequently baffled by what was going on. Once I began to understand the full spectrum, it continued Amnesia’s incredible propensity for immersion.
Lovecraft would have felt right at home in this place with how much of the unknown is growing from the walls. Not only are very few of the experiments explained in a detailed manner, but other-worldly descriptions abound. Mentions of geometry unknown to our planet and paradoxes of texture and composition left me with a distinct feeling of terror that I knew from having read a book of Lovecraft’s stories not long ago. Supplying foreign objects and ideas is a very unique way to approach a story that will give the player a deep sense of unease.
This game is scary, so you should probably turn the lights out and start playing.