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Amnesia

March 29, 2011 16 comments

I was told that Amnesia was an excellent and extremely frightening game. I vaguely wondered what could ever be good about a game being scary. This vague curiosity became more pressing when I started to experience first hand just how frightening it was.

I gave Amnesia a try with my mind as open as possible. I decided to play it with headphones on, the lights off and exclusively at night time. I played it fullscreen, with the in-game audio on nice and loud. No-one else would be in the room as I played, and I would not have skype or the radio on to distract or comfort me. Whilst I had not played any games of this type before, I certainly knew the sorts of strategies I could employ to protect myself from being sucked into the experience and took steps to prevent myself using them.

I would not try to trip the game up or mess it around. I would not (as I otherwise would) use my years of gaming experience to try and break it, or to probe the limits and rules of its artificial reality. I would take it on its own terms and with sympathy for what it was trying to do. With this in mind, watch the following, HD and fullscreen:

Amnesia is a very frightening game. 20 minutes in, I was running my character down a corridor and into a side room to hide from an enemy. I found a wardrobe, climbed in and shut the door firmly behind me. The danger soon passed, but it took me five long minutes to get myself to open that door and carry on.

At several points I found myself silently pleading with the game mechanics to let up: “You really gave me a scare there Amnesia! That’s surely enough! Look how frightened I am now! Surely you will have to dial things back a bit now, even if its just to lull me into another false sense of security?…etc” The game frightened me into violating one of the rules I had set for myself at the outset – one of the rules that was there to prevent me from cheating the game out of its chance to scare me. I think this speaks for itself.

Amnesia has made me wince, swear, flinch violently, and – I must admit – even whimper. On a few occasions as I played it, I caught myself rocking on my chair. I had a few special twitches during the time I was playing Amnesia. John Walker – in his excellent review on RPS – puts it superbly: “I was inventing new swears by the end of it… I confess I yelped on more than one occasion. One of them might be considered, by some, to be a squeal. But more often I’d find myself rigid with fear, my stomach pressed against my desk as I leaned into the monitor trying to reach the next illusion of safety more quickly.”

Right now I’m not primarily interested in exploring why Amnesia is so frightening. What I am interested in here is examining what unique opportunities a game like Amnesia has to do special and interesting things. I will explore the answers I found the most compelling; no doubt there are others. (When I say ‘game like Amnesia’, the main qualities I have in mind are how frightening it is, the weakness of its main character and its problematisation of light and safety.)

From http://www.amnesiagame.com/#media

In a noninteractive medium such as film or literature, you cannot change the way the plot will unfold. In a game, however, even if there is one ‘correct’ path through, you still have to achieve it. In watching a film or reading a novel, you do not have the terrible burden of responsibility for the characters involved. In a film you can even sigh or chuckle at the inept planning of the characters on screen as a way of dealing with the stress of their situation. In a game you are a full stakeholder in the drama.

Whereas a film merely demands that you watch and respond emotionally to what is happening on screen, a game requires active engagement. You have to be thinking and planning, quick-witted, dexterous – actually doing things. In a game you are saddled with the terrible burden of having to plan, execute and survive.

It is worth taking some time to establish the unique vulnerability of the character you play as in Amnesia. No weapons, armour or radar, no ability to incapacitate or harm any possible threats. Physical vulnerability is paired with mental vulnerability: your character in Amnesia will go insane if they look at too many frightening things (like mutilated corpses and monsters), and if they spend too much time in the dark. (Whilst Amnesia’s reduction of mental health to a ‘sanity meter’ is obviously an oversimplification, it is a minor quibble, especially if you are willing to accept ‘health meters’ in games in the first place).

Unsurprisingly, much of the game is in dark and shadowy locations. You have a lantern and a limited supply of oil and matches. You need light to explore and stay sane, but it has the drawback of revealing your location. Weighing up the trade-offs involved here is one of the crucial dynamics in the game.

It is crucial that you cannot fight, only run and hide. Progress means exploring, sneaking, puzzle solving and surviving. Because the set of skills you have relative to the threats you face in the game is so limited, you are perpetually in a state of vulnerability and impotence. This means that progress is always demanding – both psychologically and in terms of the limited options at your disposal. Moving forwards is always risky, unattractive and frightening – but you have to. Or else you’ll starve in that cupboard.

As my friend Sasha pointed out in discussion, your vulnerability and inability to fight back makes death this flinching, horrible, terrifying thing again in videogames. No insert coin, no respawn. Death in Amnesia is much more painful and profound than we are used to in games– this is no mere frustration to be dealt with through the quickload function. My character died three times during my play through and I still feel something approaching guilt and shame about each death – part of me doesn’t even want to write about them here. Amnesia is a videogame where the loss of life is profoundly untrivialised. This deserves praise.

From http://www.amnesiagame.com/#media

In Amnesia, light is crucial to your character’s sanity, and is psychologically vital for the person actually playing the game. It is hard to appreciate just how important this is until you’ve actually experienced it. Anyone who has tried Amnesia knows what a joy it is to just sit in a lit, safe, room for a while. This is a game that has made standing still in a room with only a few items of furniture and a lantern in it a profoundly valuable experience. This achievement clearly demands attention. In all my years as a gamer, light has never looked so welcoming or ever been such a beacon of hope; I have never looked so intensely at the flicker of a candle, appreciated so fully and totally the warm glow of a fire, or relished the rich golden light of an oil lamp.

A lot of the time, the light is is tinged with danger: revealing your location, or uncovering horrible things you’d rather not see. Sometimes you have to stick to the shadows, making it all the more comforting when you can enjoy a safe, well lit area. The one or two locations in the game that are flooded with light and provide a moment of safety are some of the most strikingly beautiful I’ve ever encountered.

Light is not just something pretty in Amnesia, it has meaning : it can be a welcome relief for both the player, and the character they are playing in the game – as well as having additional importance in terms of the gameplay mechanics. Of course, other kinds of games have lovely peaceful sections and fantastic lighting etc, but the way Amnesia is set up lets it achieve this kind of beauty and atmosphere very effectively, and in a way that is worth observing.

The violence your player character is faced with is uniquely threatening given your inability to directly respond to any of it. The danger you face is particularly visceral – I meant it when I said I flinched violently. The game serves to remind us of the terror of being powerless, and the force of the imperative to just survive. You have to run, hide, sneak, psyche yourself up, it is always a struggle to move forward. Sometimes it’s almost paralysing. This is a valuable counterpoint to so many games that indulge you with fantasies of being superhuman.

So, why play a frightening game? Because it can so powerfully remind you of the beauty and profound importance of light, comfort, safety and being able to respond meaningfully to the threats you face. As we are sitting down to pursue this hobby of ours, we should occasionally be reminded that the kind of comfort and freedom we enjoy are not in any way inevitable or universal. We should occasionally be jolted out of our comfort zone so we can see it for what it is. This sounds trite written down, but Amnesia isn’t a written piece – it drives this point home with raw atmosphere, emotion and panic. Those are the best means to deliver this kind of point, and Amnesia is utterly consummate at manipulating them.

Amnesia provided one of the most profoundly beautiful moments I have ever experienced in a game – it came immediately after the most frightening. Scrambling down a flooded passage – seriously wounded and still being chased – the splash of it close behind me – much too close – I’ll be dead soon… And then a door. Through it, shut behind me, and the new area loads. Safe.

I cannot describe this adequately. Anyone who has played this section will recall that overpowering sense of relief and beauty. Sunlight streaming through the large stained glass windows, a fountain gurgling peacefully. The music shifted immediately from frantic strings to a sparse choral/acoustic piece. In a few seconds I had switched from running for my life to being struck silent in admiration; it was a truly serene moment. Combining the beauty with the release of tension made it all the more vivid – without the overriding fear and danger immediately before, this experience could not have happened. Panic has never been so vivid in a game, safety and light never so welcome or profound. I would recommend Amnesia on the strength of this moment alone.

The choice between fight or flight is a choice between two active responses. This game focusses on something prior to this  – the conflict between paralysis and activity. That moment of overcoming terror, anxiety, and acting. Acting despite the fear and the overriding danger. This basic purposive step in the face of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability. That’s something profoundly valuable; it’s a fundamental psychological moment. It’s as central a human moment as that in 2001: A Space Odyssey where tools are first used. It’s that crux, that tipping point, that shift from paralysed fear to decisive human action. Capturing this is one of the game’s triumphs.

Amnesia leaves you so powerless and vulnerable that it forces you to act through this central psychological drama time and time again, albeit in different forms and with different trappings. That basic moment of resolution and action in the face of such overwhelming danger, such limited capacities and such pressing fear is something that Amnesia captures so uniquely well. And you need to be a game of just this sort to capture it. It is because your character is so vulnerable, because you have no particular abilities, because light and sanity are problems for you at every step, that the game is able to hone so ruthlessly in on this central drama and focus so unflinchingly on it. There are no combat sections, conversation options or inventory management tasks to divert the focus away from this psychological core.

Of course, Amnesia cannot capture this moment entirely: you need to have a living human being playing the game and responding to it emotionally for this drama to be played out. That is why it could only be captured in an interactive medium like a videogame – in a film or a novel, the audience simply do not and cannot make the sort of input needed. A game this scary reminds us of the profundity of overcoming fear and paralysis by forcing us to do it repeatedly. Having to move forwards, the terrible burden of having survive and progress in the face of such difficulties -it is this drama that I found the most compelling in Amnesia.

Conclusion

I have not been primarily concerned with looking at how Amnesia creates its fear or with reviewing the game. I’m concerned with examining the things this sort of game can do uniquely well. This piece has highlighted some rare sorts of beauty you can find in this kind of game; it has examined some crucial psychological dramas that could not happen elsewhere; and has explored Amnesia’s uniquely visceral capacity to lead us into certain emotional responses – such as reacting with such strong relief to the presence of a lit candle.

These are the three main unique and valuable things that I think a game like Amnesia can do, (at least with unique ease and efficiency):

Capturing and conveying both a different kind of beauty, and relief – which can only be done in a game that plays it off so strongly against fear and danger.

Reminding us – because it is hard to do so in words – how valuable light, safety and having power over your own situation are.

Capturing that central psychological drama of acting in the face of fear and paralysis – by having the player continually replaying it – and so ruthlessly and relentlessly keeping the focus on it.

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