"Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend…"
Whether it was a whim of fate or a crazy idea to understand the appeal of horror on Valentine’s Day, it has taken me six years to finish Amensia, and yet it only took one night against my nerves to overcome it. This anecdote does not describe how terrifying Amnesia is as a game, rather how effective it taps into the fears of the unknown, man’s own worst creation. Had I realized how Amnesia has less to do with survival horror and more to do with walking-sims the illusion would not have become self-inflicting. When you strip away all the smokes and mirrors, it becomes obvious how often the player is responsible behind scaring themselves rather than what is truly happening.
This statement does not discredit Amnesia as an effective horror game. On the contrary, Amnesia embodies how horror should be treated as it instills dreading anticipation rather than moments to be feared.
”Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend…”
While some may continue to use the term “walking simulator” as a derogatory, Amnesia perhaps vindicates the idea. Even with the puzzles, the generous resource-management and the “hiding/running” mechanics, Amnesia is a game without much breadth compared to the depth behind its experience.
For starters, the initial hours never rely on enemies to make the player afraid; instead, the usage of background noise and the usage of the darkness/sanity-meter creates the illusion of being pursued. Many would-be horror games fail in their execution to imitate Frictional Games by simply recreating situations of sensory deprivation without manipulating the player. Unless you know from hearsay or you have experienced the game yourself, there are plenty of tricks to never make the player feel alone in the darkness. This attitude is present throughout the game even though players have more mechanics to use and many more threats to be afraid.
While the puzzles become more engaging, the number of forced encounters makes a game devoid of anything other than immersion. It may be surprising to learn 75-80% of encounters can be avoided simply by waiting for enemies to vanish. This aspect does not ruin the experience because it is explained in the lore, yet it often is used to scare the player into a corner or to heighten the tension for a set piece. Aside from a water-monster, a Shadow Chase and one encounter with an Infected, most threats you face do not need to be overcome at all. Some players may find this lack of challenge disheartening, yet the lower number of deaths and the inability to distinguish a fake versus a real threat keeps the illusion intact. However, some levels are narrowed hallways that often showcase this mechanic is a crutch, a design limitation rather than a technical one.
The other mechanics in Amnesia often feel adequate if they only serve the purpose to create a sense of dread. Perhaps the most annoying inclusion is the sanity meter, which would be interesting if it didn’t mess up my mouse and FOV with little gameplay changes. Dark Corners of the Earth utilized this idea with far more interesting consequences. Tinderboxes and lantern fuel are quite abundant, yet there are many instances where you may overuse them. Health potions seems like a non-issue because you cannot simply take more than one or two hits, and if an enemy catches up with you it’s game-over. The inventory system and the “open-ended” order of linear objectives--both of which enhance the puzzles--are really the only additions to benefit Amnesia as a game.
Horror, the Storytelling Jack-in-the-Box
Aside from various elements of gameplay enhancing the horror behind Amnesia, the storytelling also lends some credit to enhancing the game as a piece of horror fiction. Horror is a genre you have to go into with the expectations that it will attempt to frighten you, which often makes the audience more critical of the plot-structure due to assumptions about subversive moments like almost reaching the exit or about other characters’ motivations. These stories can still be scary because how that fear is conveyed and what you must do creates the tension behind the flimsy plots, which often evaporates towards the end because that discomfort is released. The problem with Amensia’s narrative isn’t that it leaves many mysteries or details unexamined but rather how much subtlety is behind its plot and its motivations for what is a very classic horror story.
Although the term Lovecraftian is misapplied to many horror media, the comparison is apt with Amnesia if you have his Poe-like stories in mind such as The Rats in the Walls. Some unspeakable, unimaginable, indescribable horror manifests itself to the protagonist, which further disrupts his or her mental state over time. Eventually, characters break down, consumed by their disruptive thoughts as they result in a tragic end. Most of the time, these endings are unsatisfying, implying something to the audience as a shocking twist or it may border on the absurd as the infamous “I can hear it coming up the stairs as I write this!” trope.
Daniel’s story mirrors many elements of this classic plot, and most remain effective. It’s character-driven involving Daniel, Alexander and a host of other victims with an indescribable entity only referred to as The Shadow. Waking up as the new Daniel and how he gets roped into this mess are effective as the Shadow prevents his escape. While the rationale behind the amnesia is never fully explained without extensive lore reading, its purpose does follow the archetype of a character reaching their mental limits. Unfortunately, many elements of this narrative remain obscured by the way information is communicated as well as the lack of context behind the three solutions which both results in an unsatisfying ending.
Although there are many games before and after Amnesia that relied on notes to piecemeal a plot, the writing is perhaps far too subtle for its own good. Certain mysteries like the Orbs and the castle do not affect the storyline because they are details meant to be left up to the player to answer. Characters outside Daniel and Alexander, however, often will be vague at best due to how they are presented only through snippets of text scattered across the game. The most notable example of this problem is Agrippa who is tied into one of the three endings. Scattered messages give the player some impression, yet when the player meets him it feels as if there was meant to be a stronger connection between him and Daniel. Alexander also only gets exposure through Daniel, so his goal of “returning home” is never given adequate explanation. The only ending that does feel like closure to the narrative is what many label “the bad” ending as it ends the story of the former Daniel, yet it still may seem disappointing as there is no surprise nor does it illuminate the important questions.
The Oldest and Strongest Emotion of Mankind is Fear, the Fear of the Unknown
Although I do not believe I am an expert--nor am I a massive fan--of horror media, Amnesia is an experience that manages to be as evocative of what makes great horror years later. Does that make it one of the best games ever made? Perhaps not if you see through the illusions.
What should be remembered is why Amnesia remains brilliant. It’s not the emphasis on being helpless; it’s not the violence nor the gore; nor is it the result of its classic horror story. It’s the atmosphere, the immersive elements, and the manipulation of player’s expectations of how to be afraid that shows its pedigree. Fear is an emotion out of the ignorance of what you do not comprehend, dissolved away with knowledge; in the moment from sanity, fear exposes more questions than answers to what being alone in the dark shall ever illuminate about yourself. You may come out feeling a sense of amnesia not off who you are but what you think of the world around you.
Community review by Brian (October 29, 2020)
Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.
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