First posted on 10 December 2013. Last updated on 10 December 2013.
Among the seminal interactive fiction titles released in the late stagnating years of the genre, Amnesia (also known as Thomas M. Disch's Amnesia) is a tightly scripted game that not only features multiple (and often unexpected) scenarios and endings but also strong writing and character development of a good novel. Developed by Cognetics Corporation (and published by Electronic Arts) and written entirely by the late famed sci-fi author Thomas M. Disch, the game delivers an experience in the vein of "Choose Your Own Adventure" gamebooks that is also a fitting description alluded to by the game's title.
Amnesia begins with you waking up naked in Room 1502 of the Sunderland Hotel, with nary a memory of who you are or how you come to be there. After getting up from your bed, the game lets you guess how you look, from the color of your eyes to the shade of your hair. Yet, your attempt to give a face to your amnesiac character will always end up the wrong way, as the game will always refute your choices and invent a totally different description of your physical appearance. It is as if you are not controlling a game character but actually yourself. This level of total immersion is rarely seen in games, much less in interactive fiction. Further, once you hear the knock on the door to your hotel room (only minutes into the game), the game will start shaping its world to the choices you make, for better or worse. You are a fish out of water and must use your wits and (sometimes) your instinct if you are to survive this ordeal.
As challenging as Amnesia is, the game offers neither a difficulty option nor a built-in hint system. The game evaluates your playing progress whenever you reach one of the game's possible endings and scores you based on 3 attributes: as a detective, as a character, and as a survivor. In a way, the individual scores and the total score are actually an evaluation of you as the player rather than the character you play in the game. From the outset, your primary objective is to find out who you are. Scoring high as a detective means you have done well in uncovering clues to your true identity. Similarly, you score high as a character if you manages to interact positively with other characters in the game. Scoring as a survivor is self-explanatory: you score high if you go with the flow and stay alive. It is advisable that you get outside to the streets of Manhattan, the city where the game is set, at the first possible chance. I will not spoil the game by revealing how to get there, except when the opportunity reveals itself you will know immediately what to do.
Bundled with the game is a hardcopy of the Street Map and the Subway Map to Manhattan as well as a paper code wheel called the X-Street Indexer and an Address Book. These paraphernalia are necessary for you to navigate through the many streets and subways in the city and, early in the game, to guide a pedestrian who asks for your direction. To this extent, the game is an early precursor to the sandbox genre.
Yet, Amnesia is also artificially, and uncannily, shackled. For instance, at the beginning of the game, you cannot leave your hotel room until you have picked up the phone to answer a call. Despite the fact that the door to your hotel room is unlocked, you are powerless to explore around until the ringing phone has been answered. Such artificial limitation may seem awkward for some players. However, this mentality is inline with Disch's decision to maintain a narrative focus in the game that resembles more like a novel. It is to be respected if you are to enjoy the game's overall experience.
Unlike The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (to which this game is frequently compared), Amnesia is not tongue-in-cheek but instead adopts a real, dramatic, and somewhat somber tone with hints of the "man on the run" Hitchchockian theme. The game is also notable for its immensely detailed descriptions of places and areas where you may wonder about when exploring. While the overall pacing of the story is generally good, parts of the story sometimes do not match up and can leave you puzzled. For example, very early in the game, if you do not open the door in your hotel room at the opportune time, you will miss out a brief encounter with the hotel's maid, regardless whether or not you are still naked. Later, when you encounter a local businessman named Luke Dudley who claims that you are once engaged (before your amnesia) to his daughter Alice, you are given a choice on whether or not to follow through your supposed promise to marry her. Luke has bought with him a holster, implying his intention toward you is clear if you do not marry his daughter. If you accept the marriage proposal, then Luke will walk into your hotel room with a preacher as well as a maid, whom the game will identify as the same maid standing out of your hotel room door earlier even if you have missed the previous encounter with her. This is bound to bemuse some players who wonder if they have missed out an important scene.
Even though the writing in Amnesia is meant to be dramatic in tone, the story is not without a sense of humor. Indeed, the game breaks its own rule in what I describe as a "funny as hell" scene. In a series of rather unfortunate missteps, it is possible for you to end up (or down) in hell, Hades, where you are then given a chance to be taken across the river Styx by the ferryman of the Underworld Charon. Keen players who are familiar with Greek mythology will not hesitate in answering Charon's question, whereas less familiar players will undoubtedly be dumbfounded on what to do when facing the one-eyed ferryman.
In conclusion, Amnesia is a most unique and engaging game that any fans of interactive fiction must not miss. At a minimum, it represents a body of work by the late Disch that shows his prowess not only as a writer but as a game designer. For veterans of the genre, Amnesia may come off as a bit tame. For novices who take a passing interest in the genre, however, Amnesia is a welcome treat for its replayability and strong writing.