I’ve said before that I think that survival horror (real survival horror, the kind intended to invoke actual fear) is some of the most challenging work a game designer can undertake. Monster shooting galleries like Dead Space, Resident Evil, F.E.A.R. and Doom are nice in their own way, but the really impressive work is found in games like Silent Hill or parts of Thief, where the game is more about self-preservation than bringing murder to all of the creeps.
I can’t think of any other genre where the central purpose of the game is to make the player feel a specific emotion. It’s hard enough to just devise and properly execute a regular game where you can amuse yourself by building or destroying things. But doing all of that while reaching in and plucking at raw, primal drives? Invoking any emotion is tricky stuff, with fear being one of the most challenging to pull off.
And to be clear: I’m not talking about gotcha jump-scares here. Decades ago hack movie makers learned that you can get a cheap scare by lowering the volume and pointing the camera into the darkness for half a minute before blasting the audience with sound and light. That’s not fright. That’s just startling someone. It’s not clever and it doesn’t actually bring about feelings of fear. Putting an air horn into the middle of Eat, Pray, Love wouldn’t turn it into a scary movie.
It’s pretty hard to scare someone while they’re secure in their own home, sitting on their comfy couch, sipping their favorite beverage. You need a compelling character to draw them in and make them care. You need a solid story hook to pull them forward into danger. You need a stable story that isn’t going to distract them with nagging plot holes and nonsense. (Capcom please, please write that last one down someplace.) And you certainly can’t afford to break immersion with bugs. But in a survival horror game it’s possible to get the gameplay and technology right and still have the game fail because the idea simply didn’t connect with the player enough to make them feel fear.
This actually happened with the Penumbra series from Frictional Games. Their 2007 debut title Penumbra: Overture was a good hook. It presented a spooky world with a solid scare factor, but the follow-up titles didn’t quite work for me. Without getting too much into spoilers, there is a character who begins speaking to you at one point, suddenly giving voice and personality to what was previously an unknown danger. At that point the game completely lost me. The evil voice sounded too much like the comical devil in the original Black & White game. When you’re trying to spook the player with some terrible unknown horror from beyond, it’s a bad idea to give them the voice of some some low-level mook in Tony Soprano’s organization. The game would have worked a lot better if they had left that part out entirely.
Having said that, the game was an admirable effort with a lot of brilliant ideas, and I was really excited to hear that they were coming out with a new game this year, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
This is the part of the article where the author usually flirts around and fills in some more details before they give you their opinion, but if it’s all the same to you I’d just as soon cut to the chase: Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a triumph. It’s dark. It’s disturbing. It’s twisted. And most of all it’s genuinely frightening.
As with the previous games, you don’t fight monsters. You are not the Doom Marine. You are not Master Chief or Marcus Fenix. You’re not even Gordon Freeman. You’re a regular guy who has unwittingly involved himself in something far beyond his own power and understanding. Monsters are not common, but they’re strong, they’re fast, and your only real options are running and hiding.
Also making a return appearance are the physics-based interactions. Doors can be pried open with a good lever. Machines can be jammed or un-jammed by interacting with their dangerous moving parts. Objects can be thrown or shoved, and they react sensibly to the flow of water. Even doors are governed by physics, and if you carelessly fling them open or slam them closed you may wind up attracting attention that you do not want. These touches don’t just make the world more immersive, they make for some darn good puzzles.
Amnesia isn’t just a good indie game. It’s a good game, period. The technical aspects like sound, environment design, and graphics are all polished and professional. (Although I’m probably not the best guy to ask about graphics. Pretty much anything made since 2004 looks awesome to me.) The only thing that feels “indie” about this game is the convention-defying approach of non-combat gameplay, and that’s the best part.
If you want to shotgun monsters in the face, then this is not the game for you. But if you’re in the mood to really immerse yourself in a world of weird and allow yourself to be scared by a game, then this title is an excellent example of a rare breed.