Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Genre: Horror Adventure
Everyone finds a different way to tackle their backlog, and it is hardly ever the same as the next person. I’ve worked on finding creative ways to approach my backlog, but it always seems to grow faster than I can get it to shrink. In a recent Twitter post, someone mentioned looking into your Steam library purchases to see what the first game you ever bought on the platform was. My curiosity got the better of me given my pile of games on there is probably the largest of all of my gaming methods, so I took the plunge to find out what my flagship Steam purchase was.
December 11th, 2010. A few days before my birthday so I must have been treating myself. No surprise that it was a horror game but a bit surprising that it was a game I hadn’t played to completion: Amnesia: The Dark Descent. As a bit of a Lovecraft fan and an entrenched horror gaming fan, it struck me as odd that I hadn’t taken the plunge to complete the game but had made a few unsuccessful attempts.
As someone who was very excited to check out Amnesia when it first released, knowing nearly ten years after it came out that I hadn’t finished it became the gasoline in my tank to push into it with the express purpose of seeing the end credits. Not that I didn’t have an inherent interest. After years of hype, though, and seeing it recommended by a ton of fellow horror fans, I had to wonder what kind of impact it would leave on me in the present day.Plot
You open your eyes, surrounded by hewn stone and eerie echoes. Your only light is from a nearby window, illustrating just how immense your environment is. You’re alone and your memory is foggy, to say the least.
You remember your name: Daniel. You’re currently in Brennenburg Castle- but why? You can remember where you live, but even that is fading quickly from your memory. Everything else feels just out of reach. How did you get here? Who exactly are you? There is one other fact that you can remember.
You’re being hunted by something.
Exploring the innards of Brennenburg, Daniel quickly discovers that he erased his memory intentionally- or so a note he scrounges up says. The note appears to be written by his own hand and details that he is to find the Inner Sanctum of the castle, locate Alexander, the castle’s baron, and kill him.
Working toward the heart of Brennenburg, Daniel slowly uncovers his past involving Alexander, the castle, and the strange occurrences taking place all around him. The castle, however, hides many secrets, not to mention shadows and creatures that close in from the darkness with visages seemingly beyond human comprehension.
Playing out in first-person, Amnesia controls smoothly as you navigate your character throughout the game’s environments. Daniel can move as expected, but he also has a couple of maneuvers like jumping and sprinting to help his progress. Unlike many protagonists in games like this, Daniel doesn’t have a set amount of stamina so he can sprint as long as the player holds down the designated button.
Once Daniel comes across an item that can be interacted with, a ‘hand’ prompt will appear, indicating that he can either pick it up or manipulate it in the space or that he can add it to his inventory for later use, indicated by a faint blue glow. Opening doors, moving and placing objects, and pulling levers are all handled by holding down a button to ‘grab’ the item and dragging in the right direction for the desired effect. This allows for tricks like throwing rocks found on the floor to dislodge something from above, pulling large obstacles out of the way of a blocked door, or just whipping glasses across a room and watching them shatter.
There are a number of ways to become “unhealthy” in the halls of Brennenburg. By running into one of the creatures roaming its halls, you can be attacked until you die which is the real way you can perish and have to start at your latest checkpoint. Daniel’s other detriment, however, is a fear of the dark. Besides health, Daniel’s sanity needs to be kept in check, as well. He can take hits to his sanity through witnessing terrifying events or watching his eldritch pursuers for too long. The developers have gone on record as stating that they wanted the darkness to be an enemy in and of itself, however, so the longer Daniel is kept in the dark, the further his sanity dips, resulting in the screen blurring, controls becoming sluggish, and eventually the entire display shifting into a slant.
The best way to counteract this is to run into the light from windows and torches or making light for yourself in two ways. Tinderboxes are strewn throughout the castle which the player can pick up and use on candles, torches, and other sources to create light, creating a refuge in otherwise pitch black areas. You also gain possession of a lantern early on that you can pull out whenever you want to travel dark hallways without using your limited tinderboxes. While the lantern is convenient, however, it needs oil to continue burning which is also in short supply. Not only that, it can lure monsters toward you if they catch sight of the light, ensuring a need to hide. The key to staying sane is alternating between the two methods and being methodical about where you place your illuminated safe havens.
The Good, The Bad, And…
If you’re looking for a Lovecraftian narrative in your games, this game offers it in spades. Everything feels just a bit ethereal, and the trials that Daniel works through and his discoveries as they are uncovered feel like they were lifted straight out of the Arkham archives. The tone is perfect, there is just as much imagined fear as there is grotesque imagery, and the storytelling is on point.
In general, the puzzles that impede the player are also well done and fairly easy to break down, more often than not. To anyone who has experience with the genre, you’ll see twists on very familiar puzzle setups, and even more so if you have ever played Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth as a few sequences call back to memorable moments in that game. None of this is negative; in fact, the moments that reminded me of other games felt familiar while also feeling unique. The developers show a clear passion for the genre and have crafted it into their own form.
Somewhere in here, the question has to be answered: is the game scary? Well, yes and no. There is an overall feeling of dread, even when things seem at their most hopeful. Aside from a scarce jump scare and some tense situations of hiding and being chased, the game opts to sit in the realm of ‘unsettling’ rather than ‘frightening’. I admit that this may be my own misgiving from having watched the hype train pull in and out of the station so often about this game. I found it to be a lot of things- intriguing, unnerving, inventive- but I didn’t particularly find it ‘scary’.
The other issues I had were mostly minor technical quibbles. It may have been due to my settings, but there were times when the game’s cursor felt off-center, making precision clicks in desperate moments tough to achieve and even the picking up objects in the calm between events a bit of a struggle. A couple of voice clip subtitles would pop up but only half of the phrase would come through my headset. By no means were any of these issues game-breaking, but they were noticeable and sort of a smudge on an otherwise solid experience.
Visually, Amnesia is on par with most games of the time. The environments are very nice to look at, and when you get character models involved, they’re smooth enough to keep the player immersed. With the amazing detail in some of the environments, though, it makes it even stranger when small details seem overlooked. In one sequence, Daniel has to jump from window ledge to window ledge, and while you can see treetops, looking downward produces darkness and haze where the ground logically seems it should be. Explainable or not, it still comes as a slight disappointment in the midst of some beautiful environments.
Where Amnesia really shines is in what the player is given to listen to. The voice acting is fantastic on nearly all counts and the sounds of Brennenburg and its ‘inhabitants’ never let the player sit in comfort for too long. Technical flubs aside, the underlying soundtrack that resides in some of the scene work here is subtle and integrated well, sometimes setting the tone it intends to before you even perceive there is music playing. There is some slight dissonance since the sounds you may think mean something is approaching tend to plod on for a bit longer than they are actually in the area, but in the end, it just creates more tension when you go to check if the coast is clear.
In the end, I really enjoyed Amnesia: The Dark Descent for what it had to offer. It was wrapped up around the eight to ten-hour mark, and the story never felt like it suffered too much from pacing issues; there was always another piece of Daniel’s mental puzzle to uncover. Has it suffered a bit from the hype train? Absolutely. I was expecting to be scared out of my seat, unable to continue with the lights off. That feeling never really settled in with me, though, as it has for a couple of games.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the potential to do so for others, though. Not everyone is a horror hardened veteran, and Amnesia does a fantastic job with creating a sense of dread revolving around what’s next to come or what you may uncover. The present time story is the tip of an iceberg that is uncovered meter by grim meter as you explore. You may not walk away shaking, but if you’re a fan of Lovecraft-esque works, you’ll walk away satisfied.
Plot Discussion and Therefore- Spoilers
There is one bit to Amnesia I want to discuss, and that’s the actual “character” of Daniel himself. This won’t be a long analysis, but it’s something that’s been on my mind since I started researching as the credits were rolling.
As you travel through Brennenburg Castle, you come across a man named Agrippa. Agrippa’s story is a bit short-lived (almost literally) as he was studying with one of his students after they found some relics that would help them traverse dimensions. As with any Lovecraftian narrative, Alexander is attempting the same thing that Agrippa and his student were, imprisoning him to steal his orb and achieve the goal himself. Through some means, Daniel has a couple of options on how to handle Alexander once he reaches the Inner Sanctum. The apparent “best” ending revolves around severing Agrippa’s head from his body, using a special tonic to keep him alive, and throwing it into the dimensional gate that Alexander is opening, allowing him to be free from his torment.
My confession lies in that I completely forgot about waiting for the gate to close, and I had Daniel ruin Alexander’s ritual immediately, resulting in an ending where Daniel escapes from Brennenburg Castle, most likely resulting in Agrippa’s death and definitely resulting in Alexander’s. It struck me afterward that I had indeed put my own preservation first in the grand scheme of everything. The game did nothing to indicate I had done anything wrong, though, which was nice, as the last things Daniel talks about are finally getting his revenge and that he had done the right thing, heading out into the sliver of light passing through the entryway of the castle.
I feel like the ending is where the game takes its biggest misstep in a way. While waiting for the ritual to finish, both Alexander and Agrippa have no means of communication with Daniel. Up until that point, Alexander has taunted Daniel through some telepathic means and Agrippa, while a husk of a person chained to a torture device, chatted and urged Daniel toward the next steps of his goal up until his head was removed from his body. There is no indication toward the end that you, as a player, are waiting for Alexander’s ritual to be finished. The story dictates that’s the case, but you are given no indication that you have an invisible countdown going until you can perform what you’ve promised to Agrippa. As a result, my gaming history compelled me to go ruin Alexander’s set-up, which was when I actually started getting vocal responses that I was affecting something.
While I’m iffy about the fact that I didn’t save Agrippa- who apparently promises to come back as you and Alexander are sacrificed so that he can save you should you actually help him- my concern is minimal. In a game where self-preservation is key and getting things done efficiently seems to be the right course, every aspect guided me toward the ending I had gotten. Saving him almost feels like it would have been too virtuous, even if I hadn’t made my mistake in reading the game’s design. It’s possible that this game taught me something about myself and my instincts as a result of this- but it’s also possible that in the swirl of plot devices and unveilings that occurred between promising Agrippa salvation and reaching the ritual site, I completely lost track that I had a severed head in my pocket waiting to be thrown into an interdimensional gate.