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
IT’S UNWISE TO WALK AROUND WITH YOUR LAMP LIT, BUT TO LINGER IN THE DARK IS TO STEADILY BLEED SANITY
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 moddb.com – 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