Frictional Gamers. The headquarters of virtual terror. A small, crummy desk, a few monitors clipping on and off and putrid tomes lying on the edge of the tables, lighted only by the diffuse flames of occult candles. In strong contrast to the geometric accuracy of corporate studios, the torture chamber in which testers sit in semi consciousness drown away every week, sigh or scream through their round shapes and gothic stone walls.
It’s hard for me to imagine the source of Amnesia’s terror without associating it with a studio that’s dedicated to the brink of hysteria to H.P. Lovecraft’s landscapes. The formula under which the multinational producers decided to inject our veins with supernatural phobias is not new in principle, but is extremely efficient. The general immersion and the lack of cinematics to separate us from the first person perspective, the heavy breathing, well-designed noises or the paranoia of a protagonist who stumbles, fumbles and hears more voices than Charles Manson.
A sinister breeze growls menacingly through the halls of a massive gothic structure. On the cold stone floor, a silhouette announces its awakening. We know only one thing – his name is Daniel. The voices ramming intermittently in his head, his blurred sight and weakened legs inform us that we’re not served a hero in the classic sense of the word.
When you’re this unstable, both physically and mentally, the last thing you need is a stroll toward the heart of darkness, through sewers, laboratories and underground reservoirs with the bad habit of being populated by monsters. Especially when you’re unarmed and the only pulse in the whole game is your own. A pulse the beats weaker by the minute, that is.
Daniel, like Jason Bourne, has no identity. But while Bourne reveals himself to be an especially proficient individual in service of Absolute Good, Daniel is a frail fly swatting its way out of the spider’s web, hallucinating and trembling because of a past that gets darker and darker with every diary page found in the castle he’s traversing.
The world of Dark Descent leans towards the gothic and is somewhat more archaic than the predominantly industrial landscape in the Penumbra trilogy. While the supernatural spirals between hallucinations and the visual overdoses of primary colors, sequentially undermined by obscure, claustrophobic tunnels, Amnesia abuses the dark, the backgrounds of a castle whose origins get lost in the mists of history and lovecraftian references towards demons of Ancient Egypt. A sort of interactive rendition of the Outsider, with most of its motifs and themes kept intact.
Until the end, you don’t know whether you’re an apprentice of good or the most dangerous amnesiac since the manchurian candidate. Actually, even this aspect becomes your call. Despite its linear design, the decisions you take while feeling your way through the haunted dungeon will decide whether all the plumbing work you do to solve the puzzles culminate through saving humanity, dooming it to eternal darkness or some other conclusion it would be lacking in elegance for me to reveal…
Although your travel is occasionally interrupted by cerebral obstacles and morbid traps, Amnesia recreates the sensation of a continuous adventure – no matter how scared you are, how many voices you hear or how often the lights go out on the corridor you hope is the last you have to traverse – something pushes you forward. The course of events is pretty fluid, you have absolutely no reason to stand still, even less so as the growls and the tense music announce the presence of a demonic creature staring at you from behind.
The monsters in Amnesia are more than just animated menaces standing between you and victory. They represent the lack of control, lack of power in its most acute form. Not only can you not fight them, but looking at their general direction for too long will cause madness and you will reveal yourself, no matter how dark the corner you’re hiding in is. One of the main ingredients of this fear is the frailty and the lack of the combative element in Daniel – your only escape is the closing of doors behind you, a time-out that never lasts long, because it only takes a moment for the beasts to break through the wooden barriers.
The sensation that you’re being followed constantly is accentuated by the so-called Shadow always biting at your heels or the sequences in which water gets splattered by invisible feet forcing you to stay suspended on crates and alcoves, shaking and hoping that you’ll get to the end of the flooded rooms before you get to see the loading screen, while the character trips over breathlessly in the pond.
Furthermore, the restlessness has no clear limits, because monsters can spawn virtually everywhere. There are no specific areas on which they will appear or identifiable escape sequences. Every level has its dangers, which can make you extremly unsure about when it’s safe to use the lamp in your inventory (with finite oil) or when to use the candles and torches on the walls with tinderboxes just as finite.
Sitting for too long in the darkness emphasizes Daniel’s descent in dementia, visually and auditively marked by effects on the perspective, cockroaches patrolling your retina and heavy breathing, of a dying adventurer. While the puzzles aren’t especially pretentious – a noticeable disadvantage, considering the numerous possibilities offered by the physics engine, inheritant of the Penumbra concept – the fact that you have to revisit previous areas in case you missed critical elements pushes you back into dangers you thought you’d passed forever.
And the music? Well, the music is one of the genius elements. Amnesia can be drawn back by individual aspects – the often simple obstacles, the somewhat inconsistency of the level architecture – but the general imagery is fueled and presented like a movie that makes you forget that you saw, even if only for a few seconds, the microphone dangling above the characters or holes in the script.
The music and sounds fully contribute to the immersive atmosphere: the screams and dementia majestically tied to the tension in perpetual crescendo, the calm suggested by the water flowing armonicall for a few minutes in a reservoir lacking in the hazard of death or the metallic scratches of a monster heard, but never seen – nothing seems random, and you’re calmed without noticing it by a sequence just so you can be unprepared for the carousel of desperate sprints that follows.
A special element comes in the form of producer commentaries, that work just as the Dev Comments in Half-Life 2. However, I suggest you go through the game with this perk only after finishing it once, because you risk spoilers and the defusing of atmospheric moments and generally the breaking of immersion.
If you think you can do better, you can wait for the map editor, because Amnesia has a very promising option incorporated in its menu: Custom Story. YouTube presents the general interface of the creation tool, which seems intuitive enough and similar to others in its genre for me to expect enough third-party content to make the twenty dollars invested in Frictional’s latest toy seem like a bargain.
Thus, Amnesia is an incredibly terrifying game, whose merits become more spectacular as its tools are more rudimentary, the constant sensation of fear and instability equaled only by Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Frictional made an interactive adventure that always pushes you to descend deeper and deeper towards the heart of evil, balancing the exploration of your own mind towards the point of maximum dementia with the exploration of a castle perhaps older than we are initially led to believe…