Since Silent Hill Downpour failed miserably to scratch my survival horror itch, I’ve been looking for something else to fill that niche. I picked up Amnesia: the Dark Descent on a Steam sale for pocket change, and am very glad that I did.
Mainstream game companies don’t seem particularly interested in releasing good survival horror games. It’s a very niche market and difficult to find mass-market appeal. Modern horror games mostly ape off of Resident Evil 4 by being designed as an action shooter first, and survival horror game second (if at all). The genre is dominated by fast-paced "boo"-scare games like Dead Space and F.E.A.R., and gone are the days of the deliberately-slow-paced psychological games like Silent Hill 2 and Fatal Frame. The "survival" element has mostly fallen away since resource management is widely regarded as too tedious, and the "horror" is usually just represented with difficult combat.
But where mega-publishers and AAA developers have dropped the ball, the Indie market filled in the gap 3 years ago (Sept 2010) with Amnesia: the Dark Descent.
Who am I? And what am I doing?
The basic premise of the game is that your character, Daniel, wakes up in a macabre European castle with amnesia (go figure) after being a participant in a black magic ritual of some sort. Shortly after waking up, you find a note left by your former self telling you that there is a man named Alexander who you need to find and kill. Doing so will require that you travel through a pseudo-steampunk, Lovecraftian castle to find Alexander, and along the way, you'll contend with otherworldly creatures, progress-blocking puzzles, and your own mental condition.
Backstory will be revealed as you progress.
During your exploration, you’ll uncover notes detailing the preparation, execution, and purpose of the ritual, as well as backstory about your own character. It’s all very morbid and kind of depressing, but nothing is very surprising. The game’s story isn’t its strong point. We’re playing for the horror and atmosphere.
A "survival horror" game in the truest sense
Amnesia goes to the opposite extreme as Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space. This game is not an action game.
Not an action game!
In fact, "action" in Amnesia consists exclusively of running into a room and locking yourself in a cabinet or hiding behind a corner, peeking out every so often to make sure that the thing chasing you is gone. Your character is helpless and defenseless, and the monsters are fast and efficient killers. This same sort of thing was tried in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but it's much better executed in this game! A lot of the fear of Shattered Memories was deferred throughout most of the game because monsters could only appear in the "otherworld" chase sequences. But those sequences weren't very scary because they were always just mad dashes to the finish line that you had to redo over and over until you learned the optimal path. If you were ever scared in Shattered Memories, it was probably fear that another otherworld chase sequence was approaching, since you would know that frustration and annoyance is right around the corner.
In Amnesia, the monsters can appear at any time, anywhere. Here, the door-peeking mechanic that was introduced in Shattered Memories is actually useful! Unfortunately, though, if you need to go into a room, then you still have to go through the door, whether there's a monster there or not.
This game's idea of "action" is hiding and peeking through cracked doors for signs of a monster.
And that's a good thing!
Killing enemies is not an option. Your only concern is with survival.
Exploration and sanity
The majority of the game is spent exploring a Lovecraftian castle and solving puzzles. Exploration is slow and deliberate, as you’ll need to peek behind doors and around corners before entering a new area to make sure there aren’t any threats there. The only real tool at your disposal is a lantern, which has to be restocked with oil. Run out of oil, and you’ll find yourself stuck in the darkness.
And when you do get stuck in the darkness, you’ll be dealing with your character’s mental state. Encountering monsters or other frightening phenomenon (including darkness) will drain your sanity. The effects of lost sanity is pretty standard for this sort of game: the screen gets all blurry, and maybe you hallucinate something. If you were lucky enough to play Eternal Darkness on the GameCube (and if you didn’t play it, then you had GameCube for the wrong reason!) then there shouldn’t be anything surprising here. You can restore your sanity by keeping yourself in a well-lit and safe place, which isn’t hard to do, so I really didn’t notice much of an impact of the sanity effect.
[LEFT] The most common effect of low sanity is blurred vision. It might make navigating and puzzle-solving a bit more difficult, but it's really not that big of a deal.
[RIGHT] Most puzzles are simple tasks like environmental manipulation. Here, I must stack boxes in order to access a trap door on the ceiling. Although, finding that damned trap door took me longer than I'd care to admit!
Puzzles vary wildly from obvious item-collection puzzles and environmental-manipulation, to trickier valve-turning and lever-pulling puzzles, to very esoteric puzzles in which you have to use some mundane item in a weird or nonintuitive way. One puzzle requires the player to jam a gear on a machine by throwing an object into the gear, but you need a specific object because all the things lying around next to the machine are "too small". I wasted several minutes throwing hammers, books, small statues, and broken gears into the machine to no avail before finally looking up on the internet that the only object that actually works is a rock taken from a pile of debris in the preceeding room. Sigh. Other puzzles can be frustrating because even if you know what you're supposed to do, you might be foiled because you clicked on the wrong pixel of the item that you're supposed to activate. This might lead you to spend hours looking for some other solution, when you were right all along. Fortunately, there were only a handful of times when something like this happened. Most puzzles are so simple and obvious that they barely qualify as "puzzles".
Pacing and atmosphere
The dark and gloomy castle provides little light. Too bad you can't open the curtains to let moonlight in.
Since you are defenseless, you’re only recourse against the monsters is to run and hide. Because of this, monster encounters are fairly rare. When it happens, it sends the player into a panic. You run away, desperately searching for a place to hide, hoping the creature won’t hear your character’s labored breathing. Such encounters are spaced far enough apart that they never become routine.
Since most of your time is spent running away from the monster at the first sign of its presence, you hardly ever get a good look at it. If you do happen to stick around long enough to catch a good glimpse, you probably get very dead as your reward. The sparing use of the creature allows the player’s imagination to wander and do most of the work of creating the fear early in the game. You might spend several minutes crouched behind a desk thinking the ambient music is the footsteps of the creature pacing back and forth, but when you finally work up the courage to venture out and peek around the corner, you find that it’s perfectly safe.
There’s also an invisible creature that patrols flooded-out areas of the castle. The only signs of its presence are the ominous sounds of it splashing about. These sections of the game turn into platforming challenges in which you have to jump onto floating objects in order to stay above the water and out of the reach of the creature. Either that, or make a mad sprint to the exit! The platform jumping handles surprisingly well for a game that uses it as infrequently as in Amnesia. I never overjumped or fell off of a platform unless I got sloppy.
Flooded-out areas of the castle will be stalked by an invisible water creature.
One of the more clever game mechanics involves the sanity system. If you lollygag in one place for too long, then your sanity will start to fall. This - combined with the limited supply of lamp oil and tinderboxes - pushes you to make progress, even if you don’t want to.
Put simply: as long as you don’t get stuck running around in circles trying to figure out the solution to a puzzle, there is never a lull in the game’s action (refer again to the definition of "action", above). You’re always going somewhere new, learning more about your circumstances, or facing down death. Assuming you’re not one of the lowest-of-the-low brow gamers who can’t go 20 seconds without a "killstreak", Amnesia should keep you engaged – unless you’re one of the faint of heart.
Sadly, Amnesia isn’t free of horror-killing modern game conventions
The horror of Amnesia is not perfect, however. The developers misstepped in a few areas either because of a pressure to conform to modern game conventions or for technical reasons.
Enemies are limited by level zoning
For one thing, the game is divided up into small "levels". Instead of the entire castle being streamed, there are distinct "zones" that the castle is divided up into. Moving between these zones requires a loading screen. This is a shame, because it creates an exploit in the game's monster mechanics: the monster can't follow you between zones. So if you know where the nearest zone door is (either the one you came from or the one you're going to), you don't need to bother hiding from the monster, you can just sprint to the zone door to avoid the monster entirely. Such encounters go right back to feeling like the otherworld sequences of Shattered Memories.
This is a minor issue though, and if you exploit it, it's your own damned fault. Fortunately, the designers were also smart enough to usually spawn the monster between you and the nearest zone door, so if you want to just run to the next zone, you'd have to go through the monster. And the monster can outrun you in any footrace you try to have with it!
Checkpoint systems drag down yet another horror game!
Unfortunately, the big problem comes from modern game conventions that reared their ugly head to drag this game down a few pegs. While the character doesn’t have any sort of auto-heal (you have to consume items to restore health), there is a checkpoint system. And it’s an unnecessarily-generous checkpoint system!
Walking into a late-game area like this just doesn't have the same level of fear once you realize that death is just a trivial inconvenience.
Whenever you die, you respawn almost exactly where you left off. You don’t lose any progress. Even worse, you don’t even have to go through the monster encounter again! The only punishment for death is that you have to sit through a 30-second loading screen. This does help to keep the monster encounters feeling fresh and avoids forcing the player into being stuck going through trial-and-error against the same monster until you find an optimal solution (à la Silent Hill Shattered Memories, Resident Evil 4, etc.). Modern action shooters are really bad about this sort of thing, but Amnesia skips past it by just letting you go on with your business after dying.
This does, however, kill most – if not all – of the tension from the game. Once you realize how trivial the consequences to death are, you might be willing to throw caution out the window and just sprint through the rest of the game with no fear. If you run into a monster, just let it kill you and carry on your merry way.
It doesn’t help the situation that monster spawns are fairly predictable. By about halfway through the game you’ll know both when to expect them, and also just how unthreatening they are.
None of these problems are game-breaking though, and it's entirely up to the player whether or not to take advantage of them. So despite these shortcomings, Amnesia is a very good horror game that is definitely worth being played if you're a fan of the genre! If you want to try it out for yourself, you can download the game off of Steam at http://store.steampowered.com/app/57300. I definitely intend to pick up the sequel A Machine for Pigs when it gets released on Steam next month; although, I'm a little concerned that it's only being published by Frictional, and the actual development is being outsourced to another studio. Hopefully, it turns out well!
Is it even real?
I do not want to run into whatever did that!
The checkpoint system does lead to one interesting thematic question about the game: are the monsters even real?
Perhaps they are all just an hallucination. Maybe the character thinks he is killed by a monster and passes out in his own fear. Then he just wakes up - perhaps having forgotten that the monster had attacked - and continues on his way.
I doubt that this is the intent of the designers.
You can still die of other causes (falling, poison) with the same effect. Also, since monster encounters seem to be scripted to occur at specific points in the game and don't seem to be influenced at all by your sanity level, I doubt that their appearance is representative of Daniel's mental state. More importantly, I'm pretty sure I remember documents and dialogue that discuss how the monsters were created, and I know there was one journal entry by an author other than Daniel that specifically mentioned the invisible water creature. So assuming that we can trust the author of these documents, it seems likely that the monsters are all very real.
It is still an interesting question though…