October 1, 2015

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)

developed by Frictional Games (Helsingborg, Sweden)
designed by Thomas Grip and Jens Nilsson
written by Mikael Hedberg
story by Thomas Grip and Mikael Hedberg

Part of the new “1-m” attitude toward these computer game entries is: less OCD infobox stuff at the top. Director + writer continues to feel solid and sufficient at the top of the Criterion entries, so I figure an equivalent here is studio + designer. And writer where applicable. Done.

I also am finally getting it through my head that most people just aren’t inclined to click inline links, so hey, how about an embedded Youtube video of the game trailer? Much more reader-friendly.

I’ve considered adding trailers to the Criterion entries, too. But there are some snags involved. Unlike game trailers, movie trailers generally aren’t posted and maintained by the official owners, so quality would be variable and I’d be setting myself up for a lot of broken links down the road. Also Youtube isn’t as complete a repository of old movie trailers as you might think. But it might be a good idea anyway. Gonna continue considering it.

Amnesia is supposed to be a nightmare that haunts you for days, and the general buzz out there says that it is indeed. And it probably would have been, had I not deliberately spoilered it for myself, because I have no interest in having a nightmare that haunts me for days. A one-off nightmare that quickly fades, that I don’t mind. But basically, I’m scared of being too scared, and this game is renownedly scary. So I defanged it by reading carefully about what I was in for. That did the job.

Being scary is the function of Amnesia; other than the carefully calibrated atmosphere, there’s not much going on here. The game is basically a string of “go get the key to unlock the door” scenarios, twist-tied to a completely genre-typical goth-schloth story about otherworldly forces and torture-based alchemy. Basically it’s Dracula with precipitate of Lovecraft, overwritten, which is to say it’s exactly what you assume as soon as you see the haunted castle environs. “Oh, there’s totally going to be a secret laboratory with corpses on whom unspeakable experiments have been done, and long boring pen-and-ink letters to read that make papery noises as you turn the pages.” Well DUH.

The threat, meanwhile, is basically just a moaning, lumbering zombie with a screamo face, who doesn’t have a very sophisticated ability to hunt for you once you’re out of his line of sight.

But you don’t know that for sure until you’ve been playing for a while. And therein lies the brilliance of the game. “Uh oh, I hear a monster coming, I need to hide … oh god, do you think it’ll be able to see me if I crouch over here? I don’t know, dude!! Maybe it will!! Oh shit oh shit oh shit!! … Oh shit it’s still there!!! … Okay I think it went away. I guess it didn’t see me. Oh god that was scary…

This is the part of game-playing that in any other game would be considered the tutorial phase, where you haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet, haven’t wrapped your head around the rules, figured out just how things behave and what to expect. Amnesia deliberately draws that phase out to last for most of the game. They don’t want you to know what to expect, because that’s not how horror works. Instead they want to keep you in that initial trust-testing frame of mind, where you’re trying to cobble together a sense of how the game reality might work by starting with your own real-world intuitions — always far more nuanced and alive than any game’s actual mimetic system — and then gradually paring them back.

Amnesia says, “Hey, no need to pare back those intuitions. Make yourself at home in a game of your own projection — we won’t interfere.” The haunted house in Amnesia feels like a real, potent haunted house because the game is asserting itself as little as possible, leaving you with all your guesses. “I don’t know, dude, maybe it knows where you are!!! Maybe the walls are, like, watching you!!!

This is why it was so utterly spoilerable. The actual what-goes-on of what goes on is no big deal. But the process of finding out what goes on, working only from your own Dracular intuitions — plus the creaks and moans and shadows that the game carefully stages — is, I’m sure, intensely nerve-wracking. I still found the game “creepy,” “scary,” “atmospheric,” but I basically sidestepped that essential process of sifting it out, picking it out of a lineup from among the shadows of my own imagination.

So maybe I kind of sidestepped the heart of the game. And, having gotten genuine pleasure out of the Halloweeny vibe and the slow, thoughtful pacing, maybe I kind of regret that. In retrospect. But being open to horror is about trust — and I just don’t. Not strangers, not something I downloaded off the internet. Hell no. How could I? The whole wide uncensored world simply isn’t trustworthy that way.

But now I know, these particular Swedish guys turn out to be basically trustworthy. Despite all the heaping schlockola — let’s just agree, no more games where interdimensional evil manifests as fleshy organic matter sprouting from the walls, okay everyone? — this game was clearly designed with intelligence, theatricality, and genuine affection, and that’s all engaging stuff. These same designers just a week ago released their long-awaited next game, another “classy, atmospheric” horror story, and it’s getting great reviews. Perhaps someday I’ll truly submit myself to that one, put my fear at its mercy the way I didn’t with Amnesia.

I’d rather trust than not; it’s more fun! But I have to baby step my way there.

I guess actually that’s my biggest happy takeaway from this game: 5 years ago when everyone online was talking about how Amnesia was the scariest game ever OMG, I worried that it was some kind of gross-out jump-scare shockfest, and that nobody has any taste at all. But hooray, they do! Relatively.

(Then again, I just watched the trailer for their new game again and it sure looks like there’s fleshy organic matter sprouting from the walls. Come on, guys! I thought we had an agreement.)

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