Dynamics of a Descent: Amnesia and the Crafting of Great Video Game Horror

It all began when I had my four wisdom teeth removed on my first day back home during my last Winter Break. The surgery wasn’t particularly fun, but my parents took great care of me and I enjoyed being tasked with nothing more than laying around and relaxing in the aftermath. Somehow I felt compelled to play a scary video game, although I had never played one before. There was a part of me that had always been drawn to the macabre and the morose elements of spooky campfire stories and Are You Afraid of the Dark?-like shows. I am not a fan of violence or gore, but rather of the gloomy thrill of the first half of a slow-burning horror story. After browsing several websites and reading reviews, I purchased and downloaded a copy of the 2011 game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game’s atmosphere and intensity fascinated me and inspired me to learn a great deal about the meticulous craftsmanship necessary to create a successful horror game.

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Produced by a tiny Swedish company called Frictional Games, Amnesia is all about atmosphere. Indeed, the gameplay itself is only occasionally interesting. It’s the setting and the gradual feeling of mounting dread that it conjures up that quickly got me hooked. According to an AMA Frictional Games did on Reddit, the whole staff only met once in person during the production, making the remarkable cohesion of the resulting game all the more impressive. Amnesia is the result of razor-sharp focus. The game successfully melds elements of H.P. Lovecraft stories with survival horror games in a ‘haunted castle’ settling, and it comes with specific instructions not to play to win but to be immersed in the environment. Furthermore, the instructions encourage the player to be in the dark and to use earphones in order to fully have the intended experience. I did the best I could to live up to this, although I may have occasionally turned on a light or muted the sound when the tension became unbearable.

The story functions as a slowly unraveling mystery, with the protagonist waking up in a castle in 19th Century Prussia with no recent memory and a handwritten note begging for you to find and kill the denizen of the castle, known as Baron Alexander. The opening section of the game sets the stage for the events to follow, building up tension through the sight of broken bottles and cracked windows scattered throughout the dusty and seemingly abandoned setting. Some of the most memorable segments consist of finding journals and notes in dusty libraries discussing legends of the enigmatic Alexander having lived for centuries and of the historical disappearance of stray travelers in the surrounding woods. As your journey takes you further beneath the castle, you eventually find yourself threatened by monsters – against whom your only defense is to hide.

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I wrote in previous posts about how video games can function as an art form, and Amnesia‘s succeeds here by providing an experience of horror through its storytelling that forces you to endure its dangers in a way that would not have been possible in any other medium.  It certainly succeeds as an impressive immersive experience. The interaction on the part of the player is often intensely involving despite being limited. The confrontations with monsters are extremely simple, as your only option is to get away and hide. The various puzzles are designed to fit the setting well and expand the duration of the gameplay, but they are also simple and even a bit mundane (like finding coal to add to a furnace). The final confrontation with Alexander is ludicrously easy to resolve from a gameplay standpoint, though it is packed with dramatic energy from the story.

The game’s greatest success in functioning artistically through its gameplay is in its use of light and darkness. I’m sure something like this has been done before, but it works extremely well here. The protagonist is afraid of the dark, and the gameplay reflects this by having the perspective become increasingly skewed and filled with hallucinations as you spend more time in dark areas. Every time you enter a room, you have to look for a light source. If none is present, you have to choose between using your lantern – which has limited fuel and draws monsters to you – or sneaking through the shadows and enduring hallucinations and a disintegrating view of the surroundings. Too much time in the dark can cause you to faint, leading to many situations in which you have to run to a light source. Light feels like air in an otherwise suffocating environment. This gameplay system adds a whole new layer to the physical environment created by Frictional Games’ designs. You aren’t playing in a replica of a 1800’s castle, but in a whole new world where the navigation of light and darkness requires careful calculation. Much of the game is spent hiding, and the need to balance time in the dark with time in the light makes this dynamic much more involving than it would be otherwise.

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Though the duration of the gameplay of Amnesia is a bit short, Frictional Games provided an optional commentary system that enhances the replay value. With the commentary activated, the small team discusses in fascinating detail the craftsmanship that went into making the game as scary and effective as it is. Creative Director Thomas Grip has discussed how poorly-constructed puzzles can often break the flow of otherwise enjoyable games, stating that his “gold standard” is that A puzzle should make players to do something in such a way that they feel they came up it themselves.” Puzzle complexity – or, more broadly, gameplay difficulty as it pertains to boring or irrelevant ideas – has always kept me away from many video games. In the same sense that I can only think “Who cares?” at arranging numbers in the right sequence in Soduku, games that require you to become an expert in tapping buttons in the right order have never interested me. The puzzles in Amnesia are all easy, a point discussed by the creators in the commentary. But they function effectively, because, as Grip describes, they extend the player’s perception of the length of the gameplay and require a revelation that feels autonomous. They are also crafted and designed to fit with the 19th century setting and provide a loud noise and visible change at their completion to signify that something important has been accomplished.

Playing the game through again, it is actually remarkable that so little of the game involves actual danger. The designers talk about this, too. The peaceful hub setting after arguably the most frightening part of the game (an encounter with an invisible water monster) has a majestic score and serene lighting, the product of a deliberate decision to build a sense of contrast into the game. Indeed, the levels full of light and large, open spaces are usually followed by claustrophobic and gruesome horror – with brooding soundtracks to match. It’s a simple system, but one used extremely well by Frictional Games that makes the lack of “lighter” moments in the extended final act more frightening. As co-founder Jens Nilsson wrote in a Reddit AMA, “We were a bit worried about the start of the game, as we wanted to have a nice buildup, with it taking a very long time (in game standards) before the player actually had a close encounter with an enemy. We also like to make sure that after very intense moments, there are calm moments (like after the waterlurker you get to the backhall with the fountain), or after a lot of darkness you get to a lit place (prisons and you come to the cistern hub). Hopefully this contributes to prolonging the level of scares and not draining the effect of them early on in the game.”

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The result of the impeccable craftsmanship that went into the pacing, contrast, and suspense of Amnesia is a truly scary game, especially when played in the requested conditions (headphones, a darkened room). Thomas Grip wrote in the same Reddit AMA about how they had a genuine problem with people not completing game, with the median playthrough ending at the encounter with the water monster about two hours in. Players were too scared to continue.

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This level of tension is made all the more remarkable by the presence of only one jump scare that I can remember and a fairly low difficulty throughout the game. In a blog post, Thomas Grip wrote about how in a previous game (Penumbra Overture), the player’s enjoyment of each threatening experience depended on the number of attempts: “And what’s important to note is that even if the first one or two attempts are exciting, the frustration that ensures from repeated attempts will spoil those initial memories and the sequence as a whole.” I can certainly relate to this experience, as I rarely find the frustration of trying dozens of times to accomplish a difficult task in a video game setting to be satisfying. Although the eventual payoff can be splendid, this kind of system invariably takes me out of the world of the game. For this reason, most of Amnesia’s monsters disappear after a few failed attempts to get by them, making the game easy but keeping the scares fresh. The helplessness of the weapon-less protagonist also keeps the tension high. Grip has also shared his frustration – shared by me – with the constant shooting of enemies in Bioshock taking away from the immersiveness of the experience. Despite its meticulously-constructed environment, the gameplay loses the basic tension holding it together through constant encounters with enemies that are resolved through gun fights.

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent was followed in 2013 by a spiritual sequel (only briefly and vaguely related to the original game) called Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Frictional Games produced and published the game, but the programming and development was all performed by The Chinese Room, who I wrote about thoroughly in my article on their most famous game, Dear Esther. I could write about A Machine for Pigs in great detail, but would need another article to do so. A Machine for Pigs certainly looks and sounds like a great game, but it’s ultimately a near-miss. It benefits from another brilliant score by Jessica Curry (whose music steals the show just as strongly as it did in Dear Esther) and striking, haunting visuals, but its attempt to shift the source of the horror from Lovecraftian monsters to early 20th century industrialization is only marginally successful. The game requires you to navigate a gigantic system of machinery, and while there are monsters (mutated, giant pigs), the real villain is the snarling, ugly machinations of dehumanizing mass production. The story contains some obvious revelations (the answer to why a mysterious, unseen antagonist knows so much about your character’s subconscious is painfully clear from the beginning), but the uncovering the macabre mystery at the center of the plot is a lot of twisted fun. The biggest faults with A Machine for Pigs led me to appreciate The Dark Descent all the more: the sense of contrast in the lighting is missing in Pigs (every level is equally gloomy), and by limiting the player’s ability to interact with objects that are irrelevant to the plot, the gigantic settings never come to life.

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More satisfying than A Machine for Pigs, oddly, are many of the custom stories created with no immediate financial incentive by fans of the original game. Frictional Games left the system they used to create Amnesia: The Dark Descent open and built into the original game a way to easily download fan-created alternate stories. Plenty of games have mechanics like this, but Amnesia’s has been utilized to an incredible extend. I’ve spent far longer playing these custom stories than the original game, and a few are even comparable to it in quality (though permanently indebted creatively). By using the tools provided by Frictional Games (items, settings, figures, sound effects, and monsters) and expanding upon them with new additions, dozens of small teams of programmers have created entire worlds. Many tap into the same mechanics as the original game, but others expand into completely new directions.

I’ve played dozens of these customs stories. Of course, many are absolutely terrible, but many are brilliant. Three in particular come to mind as rivaling the original game: “Abduction”, “La Caza”, and “White Night”, all of which I’ll describe in more detail below. Amnesia and its many custom stories actually had a major impact on Youtube, inspiring a wave of thousands of “Let’s Play” videos where players film themselves playing – and being frightened by – the games. The concept of course, had been done for ages, but for whatever reason Amnesia brought its popularity to new levels. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on PewDiePie, a young, charismatic Swedish man who, for better or for worse, became Youtube’s leading celebrity through these kinds of videos. His frightened reactions during videos for Amnesia were instrumental to launching his career. Now, he reportedly earns $4 million a year from his Youtube channel. His fanbase is relentlessly annoying, but his hijinks coined memes in the horror gaming community that are hard to ignore. In his playthrough of “Abduction”, PewDiePie befriended a small gold statue that he went on to name Stephano, which consequently finds its way into almost every custom story. Entire stories have been created based on memes like this, including one that replaces monsters with the Pedo Bear meme. These tend to be (sadly, like most of PewDiePie’s videos) forgettable outside of temporary diversions.

An Easter Egg joke ending to one Mod, consisting of a naked old guy dancing to techno music amid flashing lights

An Easter Egg joke ending to one mod, consisting of a naked old guy dancing to techno music amid flashing lights

Though it is well-known as the birthplace of the Stephano meme, “Abduction” is a deeply ambitious and often brilliant sequel to one of the original game’s three endings. The game world of “Abduction” is gigantic, taking the player across multiple dimensions in a journey that takes longer to complete than the game that inspired it. The protagonist from The Dark Descent finds himself pursued by a vengeful Alexander, with the final section of the story taking you to Alexander’s home in an alternate reality. Parts of the plot are actually rather moving, as you witness the tragic fate of the family with whom Alexander had employed all of his malicious abilities to reunite. The “Song of Healing” from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask even makes an effective appearance. “Abduction” is probably the sloppiest of the games I have listed here – for its admirable scope, it’s too long with too many bugs and monster encounters – but it’s a phenomenal work nonetheless, with a final boss fight that knocks the ending of the original game out of the water.

The finale of "Abduction"

The finale of “Abduction”

“La Caza” may be my personal favorite. Frictional Games actually gave it the top prize in a Custom Story contest that they held in 2011, and the award was well-deserved. Developed by “Team Ninja-Samurai”, “La Caza” takes place in an unnamed location in South or Central America, where a plane crash has left the protagonist stranded. The transition from a 19th Century Prussia to 20th Century America is pulled off seamlessly as you are forced to navigate a mysterious archaeological site that provides the only shelter in the area. “La Caza” works splendidly as an intense stand-alone adventure. It has a few creative puzzles, an unforgettable atmosphere of isolation and dread, and a handful of truly terrifying moments. The plot (unlike that of many other custom mods) is cohesive, with an earned and satisfying ending. Its most memorable scares involve the presence of empty suits of armor, implied here to be haunted with the spirits of doomed conquistadors. It’s exactly what a great custom story should be.

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Of all the custom stories, “White Night” is the most awe-inspiring. That it was made primarily by one developer (“Tanshaydar”) with no direct financial incentive over a short period of time is astonishing. Tellingly, it won the “Mod of the Year” award from ModDb (a central hub for game mods) in 2011. Other custom stories, including the great ones like “Abduction” and “La Caza”, might translate the items and settings of The Dark Descent into new locations and time periods, but they are always recognizable as originating from the original game. Not so with “White Night”, which transforms the source material so thoroughly that it may as well be a completely unique work. “White Night” takes place in an abandoned and decrepit mental asylum where the protagonist appears to be a patient. Hardly an object is recognizable from the original material. A new, minimalist (and occasionally electronic) soundtrack creates a feeling of unease, and you’re never sure exactly what is real and what isn’t. This does not get annoying, however, as the game is paced well and presented with a cinematic eye for visual detail. The game journeys directly into the mind as worlds within worlds unfold before you, each more bleak than the last. For the most part, the puzzles are extremely creative. One even involves playing keys on a piano in the appropriate sequence to match the tune played by a sound box. Even as it grows increasingly difficult to develop any sense of reality in the constantly shifting settings, the game successfully creates the impression that a lot is at stake, making the ending all the more unforgettable.  Based on a game already meant to be played alone, “White Night” paints an anguished and powerful image of solitude.

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A great example of the subltety of "White Night"

A great example of the subltety of “White Night” (Click to expand)

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There are tons of other worthy Custom Stories as well. “The Attic” may be the scariest of them all, as your young protagonist slowly discovers the secrets of his father’s experiments upstairs. It also features some strong voice acting, even if the narrative becomes hopelessly muddled in the middle.

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“Oblivion: The Gates of Hell” develops a haunting environment in the frigid cold that eventually leads you to a literal journey through Hell. “Oblivion” also had 3 unique endings, one of which lets you devilishly join the villains.

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“Nepsis” attempts to tell an Amnesia story on a purely psychological level, and it makes for an interesting alternative full of metaphorical meaning.

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Seeing worlds within worlds originating from a single work of horror reinforced to me just how addictive and important the feelings produced by successful horror can be. It instills in me the same feelings as the atmosphere-focused dark ambient music I enjoy.  The developers of Amnesia and its many mods are not (as far as I can tell) sick people, and I’d like to think that I’m not one either. I visit cute animal websites frequently. I suppose what drew me to these games in the first place was that flickering sense of melancholy that a good campfire ghost story leaves you with, combined with the fascination I already held towards the crafting of a great cinematic experience. The best parts of Amnesia and its many mods utilize the artistic elements available to them – lighting, contrast, sound effects, pacing, voice acting – to enhance an atmosphere while still progressing the story. I moved on from the whole experience after about a year, but I still feel like digging so deeply was worthwhile and eagerly anticipate whatever Frictional Games releases next.

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One response to “Dynamics of a Descent: Amnesia and the Crafting of Great Video Game Horror

  1. Pingback: Game-Idea-A-Day | Next Level·

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