Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Posted by Martin Mulrooney.
First posted on 15 July 2012. Last updated on 30 January 2014.
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Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Even the simple task of opening a door can become difficult.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Finding a well lit area is rare.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Daniel's sanity must be constantly kept in check.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Flashbacks can be terrifying.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
The game is a largely lonely experience, except near the end.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an adventure survival horror game from Swedish indie developer Frictional Games, creator of the acclaimed Penumbra series. Similar to games from that series, this game is played from a first person perspective and features an advanced physics engine that allows direct interaction with objects and the environment. It is by far the scariest game I have ever played.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent takes a decidedly minimalistic approach to actually acknowledging its own medium. Although blatantly a game, there are very few instances where this is declared to the player. The entirety of the experience is played directly from the player character's viewpoint, with only a minimalistic inventory breaking the illusion. The player cannot save or load at will; instead, the game uses a robust autosave system. When the game first begins, the player is literally thrust into the game's terrifying world of darkness. To survive, the player must adapt, fast.

The player takes control of Daniel, a young man from London who awakens in Brennenburg Castle in 1839 with no memory of who he is or why he is there. A note he has written to himself explains how he is being hunted by a shadow and must murder the baron of the castle, Alexander. It also reveals that Daniel has seemingly caused his own amnesia intentionally. The rest of the plot is drip fed to the player as the game progresses, in the form of notes and increasingly eerie flashbacks.

The central game mechanics revolve around fear and terror. Although there are occasional enemies, the player has no way to combat them via conventional means. Instead, light and dark must be harnessed with care and skill. Further, Daniel must manage both his physical health and his mental health. Physically, he can be hurt by being attacked or by falling from a great height. Much more prominent and interesting is that his sanity can also be sapped. If Daniel stays in the dark for too long or looks directly at an enemy, he will begin to shake and hallucinate. In turn, the game's controls become sluggish and the player's viewpoint becomes blurred.

To counteract this, the player must collect tinderboxes and lantern oil. Tinderboxes can be used to light fixed candles and lamps in the environment, whereas lantern oil fills up a portable light source, allowing the player to traverse the perpetual darkness of Brennenburg Castle with increased clarity. Much of the game is spent hunting down these essentials. It quickly becomes compulsive to open drawers and search shelves for items of use. The downside, of course, is that enemies will be drawn to the light, instilling fear in the player even when in the warm glow of the lantern. A common dilemma is whether to hide crouched in the darkness and risk going slowly insane or to flee with the lantern guiding the way and charge down the stone corridors with unspeakable evil in hot pursuit. The player often only catches glimpses of evil, but somehow that is even more terrifying than a full view. Here, it is undeniable that less is more.

The story itself is intriguing but fairly generic, with the player having to find pieces of an orb that has been shattered, in order to close a portal that is being opened by the mysterious baron Alexander of Brennenburg to fulfill his own hidden agenda. Although there are flashbacks and notes aplenty, the majority of the game is spent in isolation. While this can make the act of playing the game a lonely experience, it is this loneliness that in turn feeds the player's fear. It is a serious accomplishment when a game developer can make the player hide in fear from a danger that does not even exist in reality and to be on edge at all times. Indeed, the game often plays tricks on the player's mind.

Gameplay is difficult to quantify, because it is more of an experience than a traditional adventure. Although there are puzzles, they never seem too difficult and can usually be figured out fairly quickly. The castle itself feels like a real location, with many of the obstacles in the player's way feeling authentic and organic. Although turning valves and replacing pipes is not especially innovative or original, doing so to drain a flooded passage feels satisfying and believable. The physics engine also allows for multiple solutions to many of the puzzles, with the player often having to smash, throw and stack (to name but a few possibilities) to achieve their goals. There is also some use of inventory items, ensuring that the adventure elements do not fall to the wayside in favor of strict survival horror. A diary helps to keep track of the player's goals and objectives.

The sound design is accomplished. Although the musical soundtrack is minimal, it allows environmental sounds to stand out starkly. The rustling of a chain or the roar of an approaching enemy can quickly cause panic. As the player is actively punished for looking directly at an enemy, there is often a mad scramble to pull open a door and shut it whenever the player detects that a monster is fast approaching. The voice work is clear and well spoken, though it can sometimes feel slightly stilted and devoid of emotion.

The graphics are solid, made more remarkable by effective design that is more than just technical. Whereas most areas are shrouded in darkness, there is a careful balance achieved throughout, with shafts of light offering little relief. The darkness is played to good effect to terrify the player, as being wrapped in this darkness is preferable to being spotted by a monster. The art design raises this game above its budget, making it a far more attractive game than it otherwise is.

Overall, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a great horror game. As an adventure game, it can admittedly sometimes fall flat, with the puzzles being fairly straightforward and the story somewhat generic. Daniel is also a protagonist that does not endear quite as much as he first appears, begging the question of why he is not left as a silent protagonist. However, as a survival horror game, it may very well be the scariest game ever made. Although not for the faint of heart (and far too scary for my own personal liking), it undoubtedly achieves the pure terror it sets out to evoke. Interested gamers are advised to approach Amnesia: The Dark Descent with caution... and a generous supply of tinderboxes and lantern oil.

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