Paint the Man... Paint the Man...
HIGH: Encountering a monster for the first time and being forced to run and hide.
LOW: Encountering a monster for the first time and being forced to run and hide.
WTF: Encountering a monster for the first time and being forced to run and hide
Games, like any other art form, are capable of eliciting very strong emotions. We get choked up when Aeris dies, we laugh at the antics of Phoenix Wright's quirky witnesses, and we get angry when Mega Man can't quite make that jump over the pit. Over time the range of responses that games are able to invoke has only increased, getting the player more and more involved in the goings-on of their worlds. Still, there is one emotional state that I've never felt in a game—fear. Constant, gripping fear. Ask yourself, have you ever felt truly afraid in a game? Have you ever felt for yourself the imminent danger that the player character is supposed to be feeling? I can't say I ever have.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is to date, the only game that has ever scared me. Not scared as in a short burst of shock, but in a heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, I-need-to-stop-playing-so-I-can-calm-down kind of scared.
The player takes the role of Daniel, the main character who wakes up in a dark castle with no memory of who he is or why he's there. That's the entire setup, and the simplicity of this concept lends itself brilliantly to the sense of isolation that Amnesia conveys so well. Completely alone in the castle, Daniel must contend with all the things going bump in the night on his own, with no map and completely unarmed save for a lantern.
Amnesia creates the best atmosphere I've ever seen. The wonderfully disturbing castle combined with subtle visual and audio effects are seamlessly woven together to create something terrifying on a level I've never experienced before. On top of the aesthetic, the structure of play is designed to ensure that the player is always on edge since there is absolutely no fighting back against the various enemies encountered. This prohibition on combat creates a sense of helplessness that challenges every video game instinct I've had burned into my psyche.
You see, the first thing any gamer thinks when encountering an adversary is, "how do I kill it?" That is the lesson we've had pounded into us. No matter what, the player always has some kind of weapon to use against the bad guys. Even in "stealth" games there's usually a way to take out or at least avoid a given enemy. We're always in a position of power, to a certain degree.
Amnesia is different. The player is completely defenseless against the horrors of the castle. My only recourse when encountering a scary-looking thing was to literally run and hide, and hope that they would go away. When combined with the aforementioned aesthetic, the game managed to keep my pulse elevated nearly the entire time. While true horror fans will likely salivate at this prospect, the crippling fear the game instilled in me nearly made me give up on it.
At the very beginning, Amnesia gives a few statements as to how this setup works.
Don't try to fight the enemies it said.
OK game, you got it, I thought.
Don't stay in the dark for too long, it said.
Not a problem, I thought.
Turn the lights off and put headphones on, it said, with a wicked smile inflected in the words.
Hmmmmmmm.......OK, I thought. Why not? If the game is going to lay out the terms by which it should be played, why should I not oblige?
I should not have obliged.
Amnesia is an extremely intense experience even with the lights on, and taking the game's advice on how to play makes it visceral. I only lasted about two hours or so with the dark/headphones setup before I had to turn the lights on. This felt incredible—the game was literally too good for me to handle. After seriously considering giving up, I chose to soldier on... With the lights on, of course. This made things a bit less stressful, but the game still had quite a few tricks up its dark, hideous sleeve.
The first time I actually encountered a monster, I ran and I hid. I wasn't thinking about killing it, I wasn't thinking about getting out of its line of sight, and I wasn't even thinking about how to get past it. I wanted to stay in my hiding spot in the dark where I felt safe. There was no thought other than "please just make him go away" crossing my mind. I began to sweat, and my heart beat faster.
I could hear it getting closer every now and then, and sitting in the dark caused my character's sanity level to slowly drop, which in turn caused the screen to distort and cue disturbing sound effects. My hand trembling over the mouse, I couldn't move, couldn't think, and couldn't even motivate myself to exit the game.
I've been shocked in games before. I've been startled, agitated, and even creeped out a little, but I have never, ever been as stunned by fear as I was at that moment.
I didn't want to keep playing. I didn't care about getting to the inner sanctum, and I didn't care about getting the items I needed to solve the current puzzle. All I wanted was to stay safe; to stay in that hiding spot. Nothing else mattered.
That my friends, is fear, and Amnesia is a game that invokes it like no other. The imagination is capable of dreaming up things that are more terrifying than anything conjured up on a screen, and Amnesia does an excellent job of screwing the player's imagination to a point where it exists in a constant state of abject terror.
Of course, that's not to say that hiding from some shambling monstrosity is all that Amnesia has to offer. Oh, no no no. As Daniel makes his way deeper into the castle, bits and pieces of the story are revealed at a steady rate and the true horrors of his former life become apparent. I won't spoil it here, but the details of Daniel's backstory are so gruesome and horrifying that I'm having a hard time thinking about them even now. Again, the atmosphere is amazing when it comes detailing these events.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a game that I both love and hate simultaneously. I don't have the stomach for most horror (hell, I watched 20 minutes of Hostel once and had to turn it off) but I can't help but appreciate a game that does what it's trying to do, and does it so well. The fact that it was able to reduce me to a jumpy, gasping mass of mustached man more hesitant to open doors after playing makes me love it for what it is, while at the same time I honestly dread the thought of playing it again. It was without a doubt one of the most difficult, draining, and stressful gaming experiences I have ever had, but it's also an absolute masterpiece.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 9 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once.
Parents: At the time of this writing, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. There's lots of blood, some gore, and tons of disturbing imagery. If it wasn't obvious from everything I said above, keep the young kids away. This game practically gave me nightmares, so I wouldn't want to see what it does to a little one.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Unfortunately, you'll likely have a lot of problems. Audio cues are used very frequently, especially when it comes to letting you know there's a monster nearby, and I think the game would be a lot more difficult without them. In a broader sense, sound effects are an important if not essential part of the experience, so you'll be missing out on a lot of the intended moods.