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Amnesia: The Dark Descent - Horror Game Perfection

Bypassing the jump scares to get at the dark stuff

So long as there are parts of us that love to be scared, there will be people attempting to perfect the art of horror. A lot of folks have gotten it down pretty well. Hitchcock was a master of the jump/scream and some of Romero's classic flicks still make my skin crawl upon repeated visits to the material. But video games are relatively fresh as a medium, and as a result the horror game genre has only a few real gems. Silent Hill was probably the first horror game to match the best films in the genre in quality. But it wasn't until I played Amnesia: The Dark Descent that I really understood what it meant to craft a horror scene to perfection.

Amnesia has gained infamy as perhaps the scariest game ever made. I thought I had some tough nerves going in. I didn't know how a game like that could really frighten. I knew it was only a puzzle game with monsters--no combat, no active gore, nothing really out of the ordinary. You just played a dude in a creepy castle with some weird stuff going on around you. It sounded like all sorts of point and click adventure games from the 90's only with slightly better graphics.

Now, I don't scare easy anymore. I got all the panic out of my system when I was a kid and terrified by pretty much anything on a TV screen. Ever since seeing the Japanese version of The Ring in 8th grade, I've got a pretty decent tolerance for the freaky. I'm not too keen on torture and mutilation, but that comes from a place of disgust rather than real fear. But Amnesia? Yeah, it got to me. I played it at night with the lights out in a dorm that resembled a castle. I had to drive home alone after that. You could say I was on edge. There was all kinds of adrenaline running through my body. It had a real physical effect that was difficult to shake. I wasn't even scared of the monsters coming after me in real life like I used to be when I was a kid. I was just shaken up in a brand new way.

See, Frictional Games understood me--and gamers in general--way too well. They decided to branch out from the now-predictable surrealist horrors of Silent Hill, where walls turn into gooey biomorphs and monsters get awfully Freudian. They weren't interested in making you jump with new enemies around every corner. They wanted to render you helpless, leave you crawling around a world with only a constant, heavy sense of dread. You don't get a weapon in Amnesia. Terrible things want to kill you and you have to hide from them until they go away. You're smarter than they are, luckily, and can trap or outrun them fairly easily. But they're sneaky dudes, and part of the constant horror comes from the fact that you're always waiting for one to pop up. There aren't a lot of enemies in Amnesia, but the threat of the enemy is always there. You open a door into a dark hallway and hope there's nothing waiting to kill you. You open a cabinet in an office and a pile of skulls falls out of it and then you turn to see that the painting on the wall has changed into something new and deeply evil-looking. Then you hear the distant thumping of footsteps. Maybe someone's coming, maybe not. It's these small moments that keep the dread alive in Amnesia. The game knows where you're going to look at any given moment. It sets up situations where danger is unbearably near but never realized. There are points where you wish the damn things would just kill you already so you can break that horrible tension. It's the mastery of the rarely realized threat and constant feeling of doom without relief that makes Frictional the Hitchcock of video games.