Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Terror, Horror, and The Dark Descent

The fact that I am a shameless button masher should be enough of a reason for me not to play computer games. The fact that "Amnesia: The Dark Descent" made me screech at pitches that should not be audible to humans provided a more than adequate ramification of why the aforementioned pitfall should be taken into account, for my own good.

Doubtless many of your here will have heard of the sensation caused by indie horror hit "Slender" - and  I will confess to being one of the many who laughed herself into stitches at the recorded reactions of her favourite YouTubers upon watching them play the game themselves. That said, perhaps that partly contributed to the reason I didn't find the game so terrifying myself; I knew what to expect, and thus it was more a matter of unpleasant jumpscares than genuine fear that caused me to find the game rather stressful on my nerves.

Not so with "Amnesia". I'd seen it mentioned here and there, and its status as an award-winning indie game gave it a certain prominence, even among non-gamer communities. So, I had a go at the game myself; computer controls are a good deal easier than fiddly video game controllers, which, I hoped, would make up for my general inability to pull off anything more impressive than the "run" function.

Ten minutes into the game, though, and I couldn't have cared less about the controls. I was too busy trying to find somewhere to hide.

The distinction between "terror" and "horror" is subtle, but vital, in the art of stimulating fear. I've spent these past two years studying the idea of the Gothic in literature, a genre which prides itself on unsettling and disturbing you even more than that one holiday snap of your grandad in a speedo. However, the distinction is often a little hard to draw - various authors and critics have defined it in a variety of ways, but within a text itself, it's often harder to draw the line when considering the overall effect.

"Amnesia" showed me the difference that hours of research had failed to fully reproduce in under half an hour.

The premise of the game is not overly complex: you play the titular amnesiatic hero as he descends into the dark bowels of Brandenburg Castle, following a letter you wrote yourself, telling you to find a man named Alexander and kill him. No background, no major exposition, and not so much as a half-second tutorial to help you find your feet.

Disorientation is vital as a starting point for fear: being lost is one of the most primal fears of humankind, and "Amnesia" knows it. There is not one single point in the game where you feel safe; every corner, every shadow, every blood-curdling noise, translates directly to danger, without any conscious effort from the player.

It only gets better - and by that I mean worse - from there. "Amnesia" makes the most of its typically Gothic environment to exploit every available primal fear: claustrophobia, darkness, pursuit, confusion, even insanity brought on in the main character by prolonged exposure to a stressful and unsettling environment. These are very basic principles, but its the game's execution of them that produces the atmosphere that gives the game its greatness. The background music is absolutely minimal: for the most part, we hear only the noises of the character interacting with the environment, and it is only during those hair-raising moments of pursuit that the game uses a combination of high tempo and jarring notes to further heighten the panic.

Furthermore, the player's discovery of the game's plot depends entirely on their actions. Progression is only possible when challenges are balanced and overcome - most plot points hinge on the confrontation of the scariest parts of the game, and the deterioration of the main character's viewpoint as insanity takes hold is directly relayed to the reader, thanks to the vivid and immersive environment and atmosphere.

Of course, as a horror game, "Amnesia" also has its fair share of monsters and gory bits. In fact, the game is packed with them. And they're not scary in the slightest.

Okay, no, I lie; they are pretty freakish - seeing one of these careering up the passageway towards you will send your heart vaulting up your throat faster than your fingers can find the shift key. However, once you've seen these things once or twice, and worked out that they're thicker than two short planks in a tar pit, they're little more than overglorified jump scares.

But, although these monsters make up the majority of those you encounter in the game, they aren't the real monsters. Oh no, these lovely creatures may be the ones that lurch out of passageways, chase you down ladders, and send you diving into cupboards in an attempt to avoid their lurching, grunting, search . . . but they aren't the ones that frighten you.

It's the others that frighten you. Those echoing howls in the cellar, the creaking around the corner, the ever-present immaterial shadow-lurkers hiding in the shapes of shelves and upturned barrels.

You never see them. And with every twitch of your mouse, every tentative twist of a door handle, every raspy breath you hardly dare to take, you hope that they never, ever, see you.

"Amnesia" is easily one of the best games in terms of quality of play, as its success and multiple, and in many cases, equally brilliant, spin-offs and extensions are testament to. But, for me, the real value of the game lies in its ability to combine all the most basic elements of fear, and exploit them in a perfect, pants-wetting, combination. Without the visual horrors to ground it, the atmosphere would collapse into melodrama, while the sights alone, without the overlaying atmosphere of terror, wouldn't add up to anything scarier than the Haunted Haystack ride at your local fair.

For anyone who wants a crash course in scaring the living daylights out of any and every faculty of the human brain, "Amnesia: The Dark Descent" will teach you everything you need to know, all for the bargain price of a month's sleepless nights and lasting terror of splashing noises.

~ Charley R


  1. Great review-thingy! It's pretty much guaranteed that I won't try playing Amnesia because I'm a wimp. Scary? No thank you.

    1. Ehehe, I'm a horrible wimp too! That said, it was a great learning experience - I know a hundred and one new ways to scare people now ;)

  2. I don't play computer games, generally (though I was a shameless Runescape addict when I was about eleven... is that really awful to admit?). However, this sounds like something worth doing just because it sounds like such a bad idea in terms of my sanity. When exams are over, I want to try it. Even though my lack of coordination means even using a mouse is trial and error at times...

    1. Trust me, this thing is the WORST IDEA EVER. But it was also a massive learning experience. Even if I never got to the end of the game. Because let's face it that was never on the cards.

  3. Whee! Scary sounding thingy you have there. It's difficult to simulate the same sort of fear in a story, I think. The idea of not knowing what's going on is a little too hard to grasp-- in a book, you never want to be that ambiguous from the start. However, perhaps it could work if you just didn't know what was hiding in that dumpster waiting to jump out as you passed with your backpack casually slung over your shoulder...

    But I don't know. Perhaps what you said here is inapplicable to narrative. I don't think that's the case, but hey, anything can happen.

    1. Well, the unfamiliar environment doesn't have to be so complex that the reader just ends up confused - although that is something one has to watch out for. Atmospheric buildup, though, would help to mitigate that, because even on the most simple environment a good atmosphere can work wonders.

      Admittedly, the different mediums do mean your point holds water, but I reckon anything is doable with the right words.