Amnesia: Dark Descent

Do you remember any of my armchair game design posts? More specifically my Stealth Survival Horror game idea? Guess what? Someone made that game, and it is called Amnesia: Dark Descent.

This happened to me before once. In January I found out about Precursors which was pretty much an implementation of my RPG, FPS Space Trader Sim idea. Unfortunately the game was in early development stagesat that point, and almost entirely in Russian. Amnesia on the other hand is a finished, polished and ready to use. And it is available on Steam.

If you can’t be bothered to read my stealth survival horror post, let me summarize what I said there for you. To put it plainly, most “horror” video games out there are not scary at all. Yes, they have a spooky atmosphere, and some startling “monster jumps out of nowhere and makes a blood curling sound” moments but they are not frightening. There is a huge difference between being startled and being startled, and being afraid. For one, the startled state is momentary.

So you might be playing a game, and all of a sudden a scary looking dude pops out of the closet and attacks you. This may make you jump up in your seat, and get your adrenaline pumping but after the initial shock, you just take out your trusty shotgun, blast the monster in a face, loot his body and then tea-bag him for a good measure. It is like an instant pressure release valve – all the fear and anxiety is usually gone as soon as that monster dies. You feel good, you feel triumphant. And if another monster jumps out of the closet in the next 5 minutes you will not even jump anymore – you will nonchalantly walk up to it and shoot it’s head off. To have any chance of startling you again, the game will have to put you through several minutes of spooky scenery, eerie sounds and unsettling music.

To put it plainly, it is not very scary to play a space marine in a power armor or a special forces guy with three assault rifles strapped to his back. Yes, the monsters can startle you buy they can’t really be frightening you if you are mowing them down by the truck load. In fact, the scariest part of every horror game is usually at the very begging when you haven’t really seen the monsters yet, you don’t have any good weapons and you are wandering around some creepy place with obligatory creaking doors, windows that randomly slam or open themselves and etc… So my idea was to make an entire game out of that.

You are an ordinary guy, you have no weapons and your only recourse when monsters show up is to run the fuck away and hide. I had this mental image of your character cowering behind an upturned table while an unseen monster is rummaging through the room, smashing doors, throwing objects up in the air and making scary noises. Amnesia is that game!

It does not just startle you – it actually aims to frighten you to the core. How many games have you played that were so spooky you actually had to stop playing them at one point to catch a breather? Usually when the game tells you “hey, you have to go back to the scary area™” you go “bring it on – I know where the monsters are now, so I’m no longer afraid”. When Amnesia told me I had to go back to the Choir area I said fuck that shit, and went to browse reddit for a bit, because I was totally not ready to re-experience it after the first time.

What happened the first time you ask? I spent about 15 minutes hiding behind some broken pillar staring at a wall, my character literally curled up on a floor whimpering like a girl, with the monster stalking around the room about 3 feet from my hideout fading in and out of a blood red mist. And I couldn’t even make a run for it, because at this point I lost so much sanity I was only able to crawl slowly across the floor. To get away I needed to know where the monster was, but looking at him would actually slow me down. So all I could to was to inch along the walls, using rubble for cover, periodically making frightened glances over my shoulder to make sure the creature did not move into a position in which it could see me. Oh, and crawl up into a fetal position and whimper few times along the way. It was incredibly unsettling and incredibly awesome at the same time.

This is what Amnesia excels at – it is able to make you profoundly uncomfortable, but you don’t want to stop playing. And because your character is just a regular guy – with no special powers, no weapons and no power armor you start to identify with him. You start thinking “shit, if I was in his place I would totally shit my pants”.

In most games, if the designers wanted you to hide in a closet and see a glimpse of a scary creature through the crack in the door, they would have to make it a cut scene. There would be no way to actually keep an armed and dangerous player from jumping out and shooting the thing after about 3 seconds. But in Amnesia this is exactly what you do. You glimpse a monster from the corner of your eye, you dive into the closest room, you close the door behind you, you push the bed against it, and you hide in the fucking closet as the creature is smashing the door open from the other side.

By removing combat from the game Frictional made their monster genuinely scary. This is why I think this game is exceptional. It also helps that it has cool physics mechanics and a great Lovercraftian themed story. But first and foremost, the game will actually frighten you. The tension building, the mood and the pacing are just perfect. And you can’t just release all that pent-up tension by pulling on a trigger and releasing lead into monsters face. The only thing you can do is run and cower in some dark corner.

It really seems I’m not the only person who was craving a game like this. Reddit can’t stop talking about it, and if you look on youtube, there are hundreds of videos of grown ass men, screaming like little girls while playing it. Granted, I think most of them are overacting a bit and probably playing it up for the audience but… The fact remains that people keep posting these videos and talking it. It is really heart warming to see and indie game get so much publicity and so much attention from mainstream gaming public. Frictional claims that their sales are through the roof – a month after the release they already doubled their most outrageously optimistic estimates, and the sales do not show any sign of slowing.

Amnesia definitely made a splash. The question is, did the big game development houses noticed it? And if they did, what will they do about it? Will we see big budget Amnesia clones? Or will they miss the point entirely and simply churn out bunch of Lovercraftian themed games featuring space marines in power armor, shooting rockets at monsters in poorly lit rooms.

So yeah – I wasn’t paying attention and queued this post to publish on the 15th instead of 14th and it only took me like 8 hours and change to notice it did not go up as expected. Sorry about that.
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6 Responses to Amnesia: Dark Descent

  1. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I played this one, but didn’t find it particularly scary, even at night, lights turned off and sound reasonably high. I’d say it was more unsettling than scary, especially in time sensitive areas or in the invisible monster part. In normal exploration parts, the game is way too generous with lamp oil and matches so you can avoid losing sanity quite easily, and advancing puzzle at a good pace keeps your head level. Monsters can barely see so it’s quite safe to sneak past them in some dark area. Getting spotted means instant death anyway since they easily outrun you.

    If you enjoyed Amnesia you should try the Penumbra series, Frictional Games previous games, because the games are very similar (at least for the first two episodes of Penumbra, the third being more 3D puzzle than anything).

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Zel:

    Actually, I managed to run away a few times. The monster can outrun you, but it seems that it is slower when it needs to navigate turns and corners. So several times I was able to get hit like once or twice and then do the “oh fuck, oh fuck, ohfuckohfuckaaaaaaa” run, dive into a room and hide in the closet or behind some barrels.

    Also, the game was a bit generous with the oil and tinderboxes but I thought that was maybe because I am a natural hoarder in this type of games. I hardly ever used them unless it was necessary (like in the prison level). At the end of the game I had like 30 tinderboxes in my inventory and like 15 flasks of oil. :P

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  3. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’ll have to try that out. I think Silent Hill 2 is among the best, along with Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. I never liked the ammo starvation in Resident Evil, but so it goes. Actually, I thought Doom 3 was pretty terrifying. I got Penumbra: Overture with the humble indie bundle, I guess it is the prequel to Amnesia, but still haven’t gotten around to playing it.

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  4. Dave Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Preview of Amnesia

    Downloadable video

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  5. ovIm GERMANY Camino Mac OS says:

    If you like being scared instead of startled, I suggest you take a look at Clock Tower for the SNES. Even though it is old as hell, it still makes me piss my pants. You dont need good graphics to create a horror atmosphere

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  6. Matthew UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Hi there, I know this post is a year old but just wanted to say I laughed at your little review here of Amnesia, you write like I write…except I don’t swear as much….maybe I should start!?!? It’s funny! especially when done right!
    Anyway, I just purchased this game on Steam last month, and I agree completely with your wish and point of view, that a truly scary game..should be sustained creepy/scariness! Not just a fun house of predictable ambushes! Totally agree. I am usually NOT afraid of much when it comes to movies and games. That’s why this game caught me off guard, I actually sit and contemplate firing it up now, late at night, with all my lights out, headphones on….because i ask myself…can I handle it? It is literally almost TOO intense. The part where I was chased in the water area by that invisible kaernk monster, my heart was beating so hard, i could feel the adrenaline thumping in my chest…i thought i was gonna have a heart attack! This game may not be perfect, but it’s pretty well done to say the least…I hope I have the guts to finish it! [and that’s saying a lot for me]

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