Amnesia: The Dark Descent

The folks at Frictional Games sure do know how to scare you.

By Buckley, Posted 03 Dec 2010

Small-staffed indie developer Frictional Games had already flexed its survival-horror muscles with the Penumbra trilogy spanning 2007-2008. So when they said that Amnesia: The Dark Descent would be scary, we weren't necessarily doubting them. We just didn't know it would be this scary. Here is a game that legitimately requires courage to complete.

From the onset, the game explains that it is not meant to be "played to win," but rather played to be immersed in its atmosphere. Approach it any way you like; you'll be immersed. The game also suggests that it be played in a dark room with headphones rather than separate speakers to aid in the immersion. I didn't have the guts to play it that way, and even after having finished the play-through and knowing what to expect from it, I'm still not sure that I would do it.

The game begins in a castle and, as the title suggests, with the protagonist stricken with amnesia. The narrative kicks off with a letter found close by that was written by the main character prior to becoming amnesiac, identifying him as Daniel. One line sticks out immediately: "I choose to forget." Questions are bound to result: So Daniel gave himself amnesia somehow? How would he have done that? What was so horrible that he voluntarily wiped his memory clean to forget it? These questions and more will beg to be answered throughout the entirety of the game. To provide any more specific explanation of the plot-line would spoil the experience, but trust that while this approach to a prologue may seem trite at first, it is fleshed out wonderfully, and ultimately integral to the narrative.

The remainder of the storyline is explained through texts found throughout the game world in the form of diary entries from Daniel himself, as well as historical logs that serve to fill out the back-story, similar to the method of narrative delivery found in one of the original survival-horror titles, Alone in the Dark. While the placement of some of these excerpts may seem occasionally nonsensical, they do well to keep the forward momentum of the game intact. There will also be moments where you will find yourself wandering down a hallway without knowing exactly what you are looking for or why. Thankfully, these aimless moments are short-lived, and among all the answers that come barreling in, there's plenty of mystery left over to drive you forward. The ongoing narrative of the game is assuredly interesting, and is seemingly held to a higher-standard of storytelling that was more commonplace in the heyday of adventure games rather than the "action-makes-up-for-story" approach often found in popular games today.

Amnesia  Review screenshot 1

However, none of this explains just what makes the game so frightening. While the story is compelling, the tense atmosphere is what makes Amnesia: The Dark Descent such a unique experience. Where most games give the protagonist some sort of unnatural strength and courage to blindly traverse into the darkest caverns and find a way to participate in some form of hand-to-hand combat with its inhabitants, our main character Daniel is utterly human. He is scared of the dark, scared of the creatures in the castle, and completely defenseless. This leads to another way the game inspires fear: To succeed, the player must play the game as if afraid. There is no success to be found in throwing caution to the wind.

Light, or the lack thereof, plays an important part in the flow of the game. If Daniel is in the dark, he will gradually lose his mind. This is evidenced through visual cues such as the field of vision slowly morphing and moving, blurring, colors bleeding into others, and occasionally bugs crawling across the screen. There are also audio events that are potentially even more disorienting. Even while "sane," there are screams, moans, and footsteps peppered throughout the game that are specific to each area, garnering a consistent uneasiness. But if Daniel is scared, these will be accompanied by a very eerie scratching noise that will be all-too-easily recalled well after the game is over. These "fear" evidences are also triggered by some experiences Daniel may have, such as supernatural occurrences, or simply seeing one of the creatures of the castle.

To explain the nature or origin of the creatures roaming the castle would be to spoil much of the storyline. Suffice it to say that when you're scared while playing this game, these creatures are what you are scared of. There is no defense against these enemies, so when they show up, Daniel has no choice but to run and hide or die. This can lead to a chain reaction of frightening events. One of these creatures could be unexpectedly seen when turning a corner. The sight of them instills fear in Daniel, triggering the appropriate visual and audio cues, while you as the player attempt to collect your own wits and run, looking for a place to hide. You then run into the nearest room, slam the door shut, and find a dark corner to hide in. Now there is another problem, as Daniel is in the dark, continuing his descent into insanity. You face the corner to avoid seeing the creature and hope to preserve some of Daniel's sanity, but behind you, it can be heard entering the room and slowly looking around. All that is left to do is hope that it leaves. But at some point, the decision has to be made to turn around and see if it is still there, and then peek around the door to check outside again. You may find that simply following through with this decision is easier said than done.

Amnesia Review screenshot 2

This brings to light another game mechanic that deepens the experience: the physics. There is no single-click command to open drawers or wardrobes looking for items and clues, or even to open doors to explore new rooms. Instead, these items need to be dragged open while clicking and holding the mouse button, and they will move as quickly as the mouse is moved. This may sound minor, and at first, it feels like simply a nice add-on detail. However, when you are being chased and you slam the door behind you, returning to slowly crack open the door to peek out, that's when the importance of this mechanic shines.

One of the only major detractors from this game is the visual quality. There is an overall dated look to the character models, textures, and lighting. Though, as a small-budget, small-workforce development, this is ultimately forgivable. The quality of the audio and the visual events triggered by the fear mechanic will overshadow most of the basic graphical inadequacies.

The length of this game is quite the variable. Some have stated that there is little more than six hours of gameplay, while others have logged more than ten hours on a single play-through. This is the result of varying approaches to the game, as well as varying successes with the puzzles therein. Regardless, at $20, there is plenty of gameplay in this title, and it ends at just the right time. Monotony is not given a chance to develop, while there is relief that the experience is complete when all is said and done.

If you are a fan of horror games, or if you are curious as to whether or not a game can scare you at all, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a must-play. While the visuals are dated and the game may be on the short side, it is well worth the $20 to experience the best haunted house you've visited to date. I've heard skeptics in the past say that there is no way a video game can be truly frightening, but I defy any one of those people to play through this game and make that same statement. Indie developer Frictional Games has definitely shown the big boys how to make a scary game.

Matt Buckley, NoobFeed

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General Information

Platform(s): PC
Publisher(s): Frictional Games
Developer(s): Frictional Games
Genres: Survival Horror
Themes: Horror
Release Date: 2010-09-08

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