Am­ne­sia The Dar De­scent

On the tor­tu­ous de­vices and am­bi­gu­i­ties of Fric­tional’s hor­ror mas­ter­work


The world of Am­ne­sia is a dan­ger­ous place and you are ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble,” the game an­nounces as you start it up for the first time, white type float­ing against what ap­pears to be a brick-and-mor­tar birth canal, viewed from the per­spec­tive of the emerg­ing child. “Do not try to fight the en­e­mies en­coun­tered. In­stead, use your wits. Hide, or even run if nec­es­sary.” This may seem a rather blunt state­ment of in­tent – Fric­tional break­ing its own spell at the out­set to fore­warn vet­er­ans of hor­ror games in which you are, in prac­tice if not ap­pear­ance, the most dan­ger­ous en­tity in the room. Then again, as you learn from a tor­turer’s jour­nal later in the game, some­times the quick­est way un­der a vic­tim’s skin is sim­ply to tell them your meth­ods, in the plainest terms. “Pro­ceed by pre­sent­ing the form of tor­ture you are about to ap­ply,” it in­structs, not­ing that “the point of pre­sen­ta­tion is to in­fuse ter­ror. The hu­man mind is ex­tremely ef­fi­cient, as it will trig­ger it­self into greater fear.” Respite is, the jour­nal con­tin­ues, as if not more im­por­tant than agony. Tor­ment a man with­out cease, and he might suf­fer for a few mo­ments, but give him a chance to gather his wits, to dread anew, and you can hor­rify him for hours. The Dark De­scent’s tum­ble­down Prus­sian cas­tle of­fers many such mo­ments of respite, and is all the more har­row­ing a set­ting for it. Li­braries you can lock and bar­ri­cade, for ex­am­ple – pil­ing fur­ni­ture in front of the door with your cur­sor, al­low­ing your char­ac­ter’s breath­ing to set­tle as you plot your route. Spa­cious halls where a lit­tle weak sun­light is per­mit­ted to spill through tall win­dows, and un­der­ground cis­terns in which the bur­ble of wa­ter is al­most enough to dis­tract you from ac­cu­mu­lat­ing fleshy growths and a per­sis­tent, elu­sive mut­ter­ing. There are col­lectible notes and di­aries, some voiced, an op­por­tu­nity to seek refuge among the spec­tres of the past, only to re­turn to the present equipped with ghastly in­sights about your char­ac­ter. Pro­tag­o­nist Daniel is a de­cep­tively bum­bling English­man on a quest to mur­der Alexan­der of Bren­nen­burg, the cas­tle’s baron and his former pa­tron.

Ac­tual threats are, you slowly re­alise, few, but the prom­ise of their ar­rival is ev­ery­where. Its dis­tinc­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the ef­fects of stress and buried trauma on per­cep­tion aside, Am­ne­sia re­mains a mas­ter­piece of old-school sus­pense and mis­di­rec­tion, a game that de­lights in stretch­ing out the pause be­tween each twist of the knife. One of the cru­ellest false starts comes as you ex­plore a large flooded vault, an hour or so after a brush with a blind, in­vis­i­ble, aquatic en­tity that hunts by sound. To progress, you must turn a num­ber of valves lo­cated around the im­mense cham­ber, one of which is reached by hop­ping across three crum­bled ledges, your lantern sway­ing in your fist. As you make the third jump, some­thing splashes into the an­kle-deep wa­ter be­low. It is all too easy to re­coil in mid-air, slip­ping down into the murk. Pan­ick­ing, you’ll thrash across the flag­stones, haul your­self up an eroded stair­case and turn in ex­pec­ta­tion of a sav­age blow. But there is noth­ing, no un­earthly roar or ad­vanc­ing trail of rip­ples, just the creak of an­cient brass and the shim­mer of the sur­face in dis­tant cor­ners.

Not show­ing peo­ple what they’re afraid of is, of course, one of hor­ror’s old­est rules of thumb. In Am­ne­sia it’s also some­thing of a ne­ces­sity, be­cause Am­ne­sia’s vis­i­ble mon­sters aren’t all that mon­strous, even by 2010 stan­dards – hideous in re­pose, their ex­ploded, molten faces and ab­domens barely held in place by ban­dages and riv­ets, but rick­ety in mo­tion and easy enough to avoid or out­run. Es­sen­tially zom­bies with a more than usu­ally ar­cane back­story, they are the most glar­ing in­di­ca­tions of Fric­tional’s mod­est re­sources (the de­ci­sion to have one, jaw­less crea­ture speak through a wind-up sor­cer­ous gizmo was, in fact, taken to avoid the need for lip-sync­ing). The trick is that you can’t look at them for long, be­cause to do so is to plunge the al­ready-un­sta­ble Daniel into mad­ness, to the point of tem­po­rary paral­y­sis, while in­creas­ing the odds of be­ing no­ticed. A form of stealth en­sues in which you must feel your way along walls, care­fully avoid­ing the sight of what­ever it is that’s hunt­ing you with­out los­ing track of its po­si­tion – an ex­pe­ri­ence that com­pares to the fi­nal mo­ments of The Blair Witch Project, to which first­per­son

hor­ror games at large are hugely in­debted.

Am­ne­sia was hailed at launch for stand­ing against the tide of ris­ing as­set bud­gets, re­mind­ing the cre­ators of main­stays like

Res­i­dent Evil that fear needn’t de­pend on ex­pen­sive crea­ture ef­fects; part of that achieve­ment is that it ac­tively pun­ishes you for tak­ing note of its lim­i­ta­tions.

Of­ten com­pared to el­derly Game­cube ad­ven­ture Eter­nal Dark­ness, the game’s san­ity me­chan­ics are hardly a con­struc­tive por­trayal of men­tal ill-health – they owe more to Vic­to­rian Gothic fic­tion than any med­i­cal re­search, and are highly dis­taste­ful in the way they re­duce an anx­i­ety dis­or­der to a char­ac­ter stat – but they re­main an ex­tremely nasty way of fos­ter­ing in­se­cu­rity. Pre­serv­ing Daniel’s peace of mind is a con­tin­ual worry, on top of the pres­sure to scour un­invit­ing nooks and cran­nies for lamp oil and tin­der­boxes. Given the threat of am­bush, it’s un­wise to walk around with your lamp lit, but to linger in the dark is to steadily bleed san­ity – the field of view elon­gat­ing and con­tract­ing as Daniel’s heart­beat ac­cel­er­ates and your ears fill with the crunch of break­ing eggshells, one of au­dio de­signer Jens Nils­son’s more bril­liant touches. The fact that reach­ing ob­jec­tives re­stores Daniel a lit­tle, mean­while, is a dan­ger­ous temp­ta­tion to rush.

The ef­fects of low san­ity aren’t as de­bil­i­tat­ing as they might seem, but they take an on­go­ing toll on the player’s nerves, com­pa­ra­ble to that of the orig­i­nal Silent Hill’s fizzing ra­dio. This owes much to the strong sense of in­hab­it­ing a phys­i­cal, vul­ner­a­ble body – as in Fric­tional’s pre­vi­ous Penum­bra games, Am­ne­sia al­lows for life­like ana­logue ma­nip­u­la­tion of ob­jects such as doors, which cre­ates ad­di­tional ten­sion when you’re try­ing to, for ex­am­ple, open one a frac­tion or slam it in the face of some­thing dread­ful. But it pos­si­bly owes more to the way san­ity ef­fects strad­dle the line be­tween diegetic and ex­tra-diegetic de­vice. It’s hard to know ex­actly how much of what you per­ceive can be ab­stracted as game de­sign, and how much is spe­cific to Daniel’s de­te­ri­o­ra­tion: the ar­ray of back­ground noises that could be voices, or just the shift and clench of wooden floor­boards; the sound­track’s ar­se­nal of glis­san­dos, or­gan crescen­dos and vi­o­lin stingers. This blur­ring nat­u­rally peaks when the game dis­creetly an­nounces it­self for a kind of malev­o­lent tor­ture de­vice.

Per­haps Am­ne­sia’s least cel­e­brated fea­ture is the skill with which it tells a story about am­ne­sia – a much-abused premise. Daniel be­gins the game shortly after eras­ing his own mem­ory, armed with a note from his former self charg­ing him with Alexan­der’s down­fall. The note also warns of a ter­ri­ble Shadow, a re­morse­less if pon­der­ous ter­ror, its prox­im­ity ad­ver­tised by an ad­vanc­ing car­pet of flesh. The Shadow is one of the game’s goofier abom­i­na­tions, but the thought of its ap­pear­ance is a


pow­er­ful in­cen­tive to keep mov­ing, as much as you might want to hang back, and it’s mir­rored by a shadow of an­other sort. Daniel’s former self, play­ers may be un­sur­prised to dis­cover, was not a wholly moral man: the game’s plot is as much about de­cid­ing whether his crimes are also yours as it is about chas­ing down Alexan­der. The three end­ings play this out a bit clum­sily, but the process of re­liv­ing the orig­i­nal Daniel’s col­lapse from a like­able youth into a self-de­luded sadist is well­han­dled. The game mixes au­di­ble flash­backs with col­lectible doc­u­ments and third­per­son ac­counts dur­ing load­ing breaks, with the im­port of cer­tain dreamy mo­tifs (and grisly noises) dawn­ing on you as you piece to­gether the chronol­ogy.

Hor­ror games are sel­dom cel­e­brated for their mod­ding com­mu­ni­ties, but The Dark

De­scent has sprouted some­thing of a move­ment. At the time of writ­ing, this seven-year-old ti­tle has over 800 user­gen­er­ated cam­paigns on – rang­ing from fully fledged stand­alone epics such as The Great Work to an in­san­i­tary re­make of Valve’s Por­tal. Fric­tional’s will­ing­ness to em­brace what oth­ers make of its fic­tion ex­tends to hand­ing the se­quel off to The Chi­nese Room, cre­ator of Dear

Es­ther. The re­sult­ing Am­ne­sia: A Ma­chine for Pigs is a more po­lit­i­cally aware, fe­ro­cious and high­fa­lutin’ take on the same ideas but, in chop­ping away the san­ity me­chan­ics, also rep­re­sents the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Am­ne­sia’s pe­cu­liar­i­ties with a more straight­for­ward breed of in­ter­ac­tive story.

Beyond its own fan­base, the game’s pe­cu­liar blend of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and self­con­trol can be traced through­out hor­ror games to­day, its near­est rel­a­tive be­ing

Slen­der: The Eight Pages, an­other tale about the per­ils of see­ing too much. Its DNA is vis­i­ble in Red Bar­rels’ Out­last games, which rein­vent the ero­sion of re­al­ity as the mal­func­tion­ing of a hand­icam, and The Cre­ative Assem­bly’s mag­nif­i­cently claus­tro­pho­bic Alien: Iso­la­tion, in which the psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­file you must keep a lid on is that of a ma­raud­ing xenomorph. Am­ne­sia has, per­haps, yet to at­tract a suc­ces­sor that seeks to elab­o­rate on the en­tirety of its achieve­ment, but it re­mains a ripe store­house of con­cepts for gen­er­a­tions of de­signer-cum-tor­tur­ers, a re­minder that a blade is never more ter­ri­fy­ing than when it’s left dan­gling over the sub­ject’s neck.

Cer­tain scenes of carnage take in­spi­ra­tion from ac­counts of bubonic plague out­breaks – it wasn’t un­usual for the still-liv­ing to be in­terred with the dead

San­ity was once vis­i­ble as a per­cent­age stat, but Fric­tional ul­ti­mately opted for in­ven­tory icons that leave your state am­bigu­ous – a nod to Res­i­dent Evil’s heart­beat mon­i­tor

The game’s three hub ar­eas are largely safe, but each grows steadily more un­pleas­ant as you com­plete ob­jec­tives and ac­ti­vate mech­a­nisms in the sur­round­ing cham­bers.

The game once fea­tured san­ity-restor­ing po­tions – in­tro­duced as a bal­anc­ing mea­sure, but dis­carded be­cause they were thought to spoil the mood

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