Developer & Publisher: Frictional Games
(Reviewed on PC)
Adorno argues that art which gives pleasure is meaningless – instead, we need art forms that are commensurate with the anxieties and terrors of modern life. While he might find many problems with Amnesia, he could certainly not fault it for being pleasurable. It’s a rebarbative nightmare that suspends players in relentless fear, making the entire experience deeply uncomfortable.
While other survival horror series have drifted more and more in action-horror directions, Amnesia runs counter to this trend. At no point do players have access to the numerous shotguns and flame-throwers that seem to litter every other zombie infested town or haunted castle – in fact, you have no access to any weapons whatsoever.
As the title would suggest, our protagonist, Daniel, wakes with no memory of who he is or why he has found himself in a seemingly deserted Prussian castle. He finds a note from his past self, instructing him to descend to the basement of the castle and kill the person who waits there. As you explore, it becomes apparent that Daniel is not alone in the castle, but is being pursued by some monster against which he has no defence. From the notes and diary entries you find scattered throughout, you realise that what’s stalking you is a curse from an ancient artefact recovered from an archaeological dig. Daniel’s memory is constantly inundated with more information, as increasingly ill-omened objects provoke flashbacks that distressingly impede players’ control.
Instead of weapons, players find tinderboxes to light candles and an oil lantern for exploring the shadows. When encountered with the enemy your only option is to flee and hide. Safe as staying in the light may feel, monsters can see you all too well so players must take cover in darkened rooms or closets. However, lingering for too long in the dark or looking directly at the monsters lowers Daniel’s sanity meter, causing your vision to blur and distort, the walls to pulsate, and your body to slacken, rendering him temporarily immobile. Control is taken from players on many levels. Though you are often made aware of your powerless against dark forces that hunt you, the prison of your own mind is an even more constant threat.
Play is split between anxiously creeping and running in terror, while you desperately try to remember the route to relative safety, extinguishing candles on your way. Once hidden, Daniel’s waning sanity makes it difficult to discern between noises that come from the monster and those that are the product of his deteriorating mental state.
True to its Lovecraftian influences, the unknown is a perpetual threat, as actual contact with the monsters is rare. Though their appearances are infrequent, the decrepit castle and malfunctioning machinery maintain an atmosphere of constant menace. The feeling of helplessness induces relentless terror, making every movement cautious, and flight the instant reaction to any encounter.
Although Amnesia has a relatively low-tech feel that heightens the disconnection with movements and sensory perceptions, the aesthetic generates a finely tuned anxiety. You’re forced to play relatively slowly as glimmers and shapes are sometimes not easily distinguishable from actual dangers. There is no map and, as players descend further into the chasms of the castle, increasing levels of concentration are required to navigate the oppressive underground mazes of dark grisly caverns and dimly lit sewers.
Silence retreats when danger is near or simply when you’ve spent too long in the dark and your sanity is low, replaced with an impressive layering of truly unnerving sounds – human and otherwise. These are punctuated with unpleasantly meaty sounds if you are harmed, drawing players’ attention to the visceral in preparation for the fairly unexpected gore towards the climax of the game. Though there are many moments of appalling realisation, a standout instance is when players must use a hand drill to bore into a corpse’s head, wedging in a copper cylinder to collect their blood.
There are no real moments of respite. Even in rooms that we immediately sense are “safe”, the atmosphere and music are melancholy and the colours muted, emphasising Amnesia’s cinematic quality.
The game is fixed within the Gothic tradition – we uncover Daniel’s tortured past, replete with Orientalist Victorian obsessions with ancient cultures, mystic ritual, and frontier science. Daniel follows trails of fresh blood through rooms haunted by forgotten grandeur and into cellars that house decaying steam punk-esque machinery. There develops a real sense that the environment harbours some malicious intent. The castle is not simply disintegrating: it is diseased. As you progress, weirdly organic crimson viscera grows and pulsates from the walls and floor. Players cannot ignore the encroaching gore – whenever you get too close it splatters unpleasantly.
The central story is well expressed through Daniel’s past narratives, lessened only slightly by the over-acted storytelling voice. The calibre of the writing, though, is unusually high for survival horror, especially when considering that the most spoken about survival horror dialogue is industry joke Resident Evil.
Amnesia’s first-person perspective gives the action immediate and personal feeling. The lack of an on-screen avatar forces a deep immersion; there is no other body to act as a mental barrier between you and the danger. Horror is given more room in which to work when it feels as if you are involved to such depth, however, in this case, deep immersion indicates weakness more than power.
Amnesia is not really about “survival”. You are impelled to continue, travelling towards ominous understanding instead of any kind of happy ending. This is another element that adds to Amnesia’s gothic power, the sense of fate and haunting dictating our actions.
Continuing to play when the feeling of unease is so great is a fantastic expression of the death drive. It doesn’t make sense to continue to self-inflict such intense discomfort. You’ll want to stop playing. Your pulse will race, your palms will sweat, you’ll jump, you’ll scream. You’ll keep playing.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Replay Value: 9
Overall Score: 9