Amnesia: The Dark Descent
If there is any justice in the world, the sizable contingent of gamers who incessantly bleat about the lack of new experiences in modern video games will purchase Amnesia: The Dark Descent right now. This indie project is an expertly crafted tale of horror and discovery that uses its interactive nature to enthrall players as deeply as any tale in any medium. Amnesia is barely a game in the traditional sense, leaving the nearly two decades of horror gaming tradition since Alone in the Dark by the wayside and forging its own twisted path.
Daniel's story is a tragedy from the beginning. Waking up in a decrepit Prussian castle with no memory of his past, he soon learns that his amnesia is self-inflicted. "I can't tell you why, but know this; I choose to forget," reads the note his former self left for him, dated August 1839, before intentionally blanking his own memory. His reasons for this drastic act remain vague, but the horrible reality of the castle gives reason enough to squeeze your eyes shut. A literal living nightmare relentlessly pursues Daniel through the castle as he struggles to piece together enough of his past to make sense of his former self's final directive: Find and kill Alexander of Brennenburg.
Going into further detail would spoil the mystery; Amnesia's setting is too intricate, and the pacing of reveals is too well crafted to disrespect. The backstory parallels Daniel's current quest. Amnesia follows the tradition of Lovecraft, Poe, and Shelley, weaving a tale deeply tied to the 19th century's spirit of discovery, power, and glory. The journal notes you unearth tell a story of hubris and curiosity inexorably pulling a fascinating cast of characters through their own descent into madness, which leads to the current predicament. The story drew me reluctantly onward, even when I wanted to walk away – not out of frustration or boredom, but because I was outright scared of what awaited me down the next dark hallway.
I'm not ashamed to admit my fear. Amnesia is terrifying. Slow footsteps and ragged breathing might be part of the ambient audio track – or they might mean that a nightmarish creature is behind the next door. A door flying open could be a clue to where you need to go next. It could also be a precursor to a horrible monster charging at you. I literally jumped out of my seat several times per hour. Developer Frictional Games has discovered a strange alchemy that mixes pacing, interactivity, and presentation into pure suspense.
The first-person gameplay itself is simple. The castle slowly opens up to you as you explore its many chambers, revealing the secrets that have kept it and its occupants shrouded in a cloak of occult mystery for centuries. Gathering your nerves to venture into the next darkened room is the hardest thing about Amnesia; action sequences are used sparingly to capitalize on built-up tension. The primary mechanic is your sanity level, which slowly drains as you spend time in the darkness. Standing in the light makes you an obvious target for any enemies, though, which makes the light-dark tension a constant. Cool fullscreen effects make everything more menacing as your sanity spirals downward, and Daniel's breath echoes in his ears as his mind loses its grip on reality. Advancing through the game is the only method to regain your wits, which creates a feedback loop that pulls you ever forward rather than encouraging the meticulous scavenging behavior that is a hallmark of so many games.
Inventory management is limited, as players only need concern themselves with a bare handful of resources as well as the occasional puzzle piece. Unlike Alan Wake (or nearly all horror titles, for that matter), the gameplay never takes away from the suspense or sense of immersion. This comes at the price of action, as you generally have no viable combat option in Amnesia. Then again, the ass-kicking protagonist is a concept foreign to the horror genre in every medium but games.
If Resident Evil is Aliens, Amnesia is Alien. Frictional Games has created something wholly unlike the traditional horror game. Amnesia shows us by example that gaming has entirely new realms to explore. The price of admission is only $20 through your digital retailer of choice. Do the right thing.