You're going to die.
Whispered in the darkness, those four premonitory words distill the essence of fear. You are not dead yet—the horror lurks just outside of your vision, and you have not yet fallen beneath its claws. But you are going to die, and so this nightmare of terrible anticipation draws longer and longer with no end in sight. Crouching paralyzed in a corner, staring at the floor; knowing that any stray movement or sound could spell your doom, wishing it would just be over. You're going to die, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent is designed with a singular purpose—to cultivate fear in its purest form. The first-person horror-adventure seeks to reduce players to twitchy, terrified wrecks, shaking shells of their former selves who cower in the darkness and leap out of their skins at the slightest provocation. It's a nasty piece of work, and it does what it does quite well.
I can't go in the water oh god I can't go in the water, it can feel me when I'm in the water and it comes splashing, grunting, hungry or angry or I don't know and I run and run and climb but still I can hear it, sloshing around behind me, sniffing, searching. I'll never make it down that hall, never get out of this stinking hole, there's nowhere to hide just me and the water and that
Games in the "Survival-Horror" genre (as it has perplexingly come to be known) generally share a few core traits. In addition to the usual zombie/serial-killer/creepy-little-girl antagonist, there is an emphasis on discretion over action, usually due to a scarcity of weapons and ammunition. Player-characters are also more frail than they are in action-oriented fare, which forces players to move at a slow, cautious pace. Power-ups and healing items are scarce, and deliberately clunky controls make combat overwhelming enough that it's best avoided altogether.
Games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill pioneered survival-horror back in the 1990s, setting forth a template that arguably peaked with Masashi Tsuboyama's sublimely terrifying Silent Hill 2. Unfortunately, things seem to have gone a bit awry in recent years. If I had to chose a culprit, I'd blame Resident Evil 4. Shinji Mikami's 2005 masterpiece revitalized the venerable Resident Evil formula by upping the pace, placing the camera over the protagonist's shoulder and making gunplay a more integral part of the game. It worked, it was awesome, and it sold really well. Then it became a template for countless imitators.
Recent survival-horror games like Alan Wake, Dead Space, the Alone in the Dark reboot and even Resident Evil 5 have all taken more than a few pages from the Resident Evil 4 playbook, and while each of those games had its moments of spookiness, each one also overemphasized the "survival" part of the survival-horror equation. Machine guns, flame-throwers, explosives, co-op partners, regenerating health bars and bullet-filled crates skewed the experience and left any trace of real dread far behind. For a time, it seemed that videogames' enduring love affair with male empowerment fantasies had permanently derailed much of what made horror games scary in the first place.
You're going to die.
You're cowering in the dark, just out of the light, and you can hear it. It must have seen you; it shrieked just before you ran. You can hear it breathing
swallowing. Is it behind you? You would turn and look, but your mind cannot take the strain and it would surely break
already you hear the ghastly chittering of madness, cockroaches chewing at the edges of your sanity. Too much more and it will hear you, oh yes. It will hear your madness and it will come running, panting, screaming out of the darkness, rending your flesh as your mind snaps and your heart stops.
Amnesia's protagonist Daniel is not an astronaut or a marine; he's a young Englishman with no memory of who or where he is. He does not wear armor or carry a gun; he wears a shirt and carries a lantern. He has no means with which to defend himself against the nameless horrors that lurk in the shadows of Brennenberg Castle, no choice but to run from them, and to hide. And from that powerlessness, true terror is born.
Daniel's frail body is not his only vulnerability—his mind is at risk as well. In addition to a health meter, Daniel has a "sanity" gauge that is in a constant state of flux. His sanity holds steady as long as he remains in the light, but once he ventures into the shadows it begins to steadily decline. Suffice to say, Brennenberg Castle is a fairly shadowy place. If Daniel's mental condition gets too low, he loses his grip on reality. His vision bends and pulses, his breathing quickens, and hallucinatory insects worm their way across his view.
While Daniel's fragile mental state is admittedly a bit of a contrivance (why, exactly, does the darkness have this effect? Perhaps he is a nyctophobe?), it adds a potent degree of tension to the entirety of the Amnesia experience. As I played, I found myself weighing how much time I thought I could spend in the dark against how much lamp-oil I had remaining. The game offers no concrete numbers or statistics, so gauging Daniel's status is a matter of agonizing approximation. And no matter what I did, either his lamp or his sanity was eventually going to run out.
And just when you've figured out a way to survive and stay sane, the monsters enter the equation and everything goes bananas. Darkness becomes a safe haven, for when Daniel is in the light, he is visible and therefore as good as dead. So when they come for him (and oh, how they come), he must take to the shadows, risking his sanity in the process. And as if that weren't enough, merely looking at a beast quickly erodes Daniel's state-of-mind—if it drops too low, they can sense him in the dark.
Allow me to share that I have had no more flatly terrifying moment in recent memory than I had in Amnesia, standing stock-still within a tiny patch of darkness, staring at the floor and
waiting as some unspeakable shade wheezed and grunted behind me. Unable to turn around, unable to look, praying that my mind wouldn't snap and give me away... This is horror, folks. That terrible wait for the imminent unknown.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent does have its share of flaws—the slow build-up and sudden, shocking terror of its opening chapters gives way a bit once players figure out how to evade the monsters. The narrative itself is fairly thin Lovecraft-lite stuff, and the final chapter is a bit of a letdown. The game's music occasionally misfires as well, with overbearing scare-cues and out-of-place fantasy guitars doing an unfortunate amount to undermine the castle's otherwise magnificently oppressive atmosphere.
But taken as a whole, I can only call Amnesia: The Dark Descent a success. Designers Thomas Grip, Jens Nilsson and their team at Frictional have identified the nature of fear and recreated it with a surgical precision, and their moment-to-moment execution is peerless. By enforcing player-powerlessness to a degree that most other horror games do not, Amnesia: The Dark Descent imparts an experience that is as deeply terrifying as it is satisfyingly original.
You're going to die. Do try to enjoy yourself.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent was developed by Frictional Games and is available on PC and Mac via steam and direct download. The Mac version of the game was reviewed.
Kirk Hamilton is a musician and writer in San Francisco. He can be found at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton.
Watch the trailer for Amnesia: The Dark Descent: