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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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SpaceChem

March 7, 2011 1 comment

Spacechem is a work of dazzling originality and almost ferocious intelligence; its concept is brilliantly realised and the whole thing sparkles with love and polish. It is a game of unexpected beauty, charm and humour; a celebration of creativity and experimentation. It is a game about designing your way through sophisticated multilayer puzzles. SpaceChem’s most significant achievement is the way it is able to foster creativity and experimentation without having to sacrifice any of its complexity or subtlety. It introduced me to a compelling new skillset and type of thinking; giving me the space to learn, experiment and play with its game system. It has left me surprised, delighted, excited and intimidated – both at the demands of some of the puzzles, and at what I have managed to produce in response to them. With SpaceChem, Zachtronics Industries have created a charming, superbly rich and uniquely creative puzzler. Its rightful place is alongside Braid and World of Goo. I wholeheartedly direct you to the demo. Let’s see a video of it in action. Set the quality to maximum and enjoy this one fullscreen with the sound on.

Spacechem is a design based puzzle game. That idea deserves explaining. At its most basic, Spacechem presents you with a grid of squares. There are four special zones in this grid: two input zones and two output zones. Your job is to take certain inputs from the input zones, process them in a particular way, and then put the desired product into the output zone. You do this with the two ‘circuits’ at your disposal. Each starts off as nothing more than a ‘start’ command placed somewhere on the grid. You have to design a circuit that will do whatever processing is required to turn the inputs into the outputs. Since I started writing this article, Zachtronics industries have put a better explanation up themselves. Watch it below.

These two circuits each have a ‘waldo’, which you should think of as a cursor that moves along the circuit executing instructions as it comes to them, picking up and dropping off molecules and so on. It’s the bit that looks like a (). The commands that you can put into your circuit include: requesting a new input molecule, picking up, dropping off, bonding, splitting and rotating molecules. You can direct each circuit to go wherever you like by issuing directional commands, and can order the two circuits to synchronise in various ways. You can get it to do double loops or fancy things if you want. There are two circuits involved in each reactor you work with and they are largely isolated from each other; commands issued to one will not impact the other. You can and will have them working together : swapping molecules between them, triggering each other’s inputs and so on. You will get a feel for it. With two circuits at your disposal and free choice of of where they start, go, and what they do, you have a lot of options within this 10×8 grid. It is a powerful toolkit to play around with, and Spacechem gets an admirable amount of mileage out of it. ‘Design some circuit that will take these inputs and produce this output’ is a surprisingly deep and compelling core for a game.

With this core of mechanics in place, Spacechem opens up its complexity and depth. New mechanics and constraints are introduced, some as one-off challenges, some as extra considerations for a few levels, some as permanent additions to your repertoire. This reactor circuit work is the heart of Spacechem, but the puzzling soon becomes multi-layered. Whilst you start off dealing with one reactor in isolation, with some given inputs and outputs, eventually you are given a series of inputs and asked to perform tasks that require you to wire up multiple different reactors and get them working together. You are not just solving one ‘take these inputs and spit out this output’ problem in one reactor – there’s a meta-puzzle. You have to work out some combination of reactors performing certain tasks to get from the inputs (from atmospheric pumps, or storage tanks) to the outputs (to be dropped into a reservoir, or supply freighter). You have to assign different tasks to different reactors, wire up their inputs and outputs in a way that makes sense, and then design the insides of each reactor to actually perform the role you want them to produce.

Reactor A might break the water down into two Hs and an O, and then send the hydrogen off to reactor B to do something, and the Oxygen off to reactor C to do something else. The two levels of the puzzling interact wonderfully. Your decisions at the meta-puzzle level end up defining the parameters of you individual reactor problems. A breakthrough in the meta-puzzle can make the individual reactor circuit designs a lot easier; conversely, if you manage to make a particularly fancy circuit, you might not need so many reactors, or to hook them up in such a complicated way.


Should you be scared off by all this talk of chemicals? No. The chemistry is best thought of as a theme or a setting. Clearly, the game is made by a guy who loves his chemicals – and that love is very obvious and infectious – but you certainly do not need any chemistry knowledge to play this. Don’t think that this is a game where you do chemistry: you do SpaceChemistry, which is even sexier.

The crux of the game’s genius is the way it has executed the idea of a design based puzzle game. It taps into a potential to create things that I didn’t know I had. Each level involves creating a working circuit to complete a particular task and (after being shown the ropes) it is left entirely up to you to decide how you want to solve each challenge.

There is a vast number of different possible circuits that will get you through a given level. Spacechem is not about you finding the answer, it is about you making your answer. Because there is such a wide range of possibilities, you do not feel constrained or hemmed in. That’s why it is a design based puzzle game, and this is how creativity comes into the picture. Make no mistake, this is a challenging, deep and complex puzzle game – when I finish a circuit and watch it run successfully, it is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever achieved in a game. The solution I arrive at for each level feels much more uniquely mine than any game where there is only one prescribed path through. With no unique, right or optimal solution to a level, there is room for style and individuality, choosing one’s own approach. In contrast, in Braid, Portal or World of Goo, I solved things in much the same way as anyone else; I might have executed things slightly differently, but I will have been pursuing one of at most four or so different routes through.

I had two big fears about this game.

  1. I would never be able to produce some of the frightening looking circuits that I had seen in the previews, or anything of that calibre.
  2. The game would end up being a chore of optimisation – one where I would feel that my lack of prodigious mathematical and spatial analysis ability would be holding me back from playing the game properly, that the whole thing would give me a headache and feel a bit too much like work. Work that would much better be done by a computer.

On the first point, I shouldn’t have worried. I always find myself pleasantly surprised when I look back at some of the things I have produced. Some of them rather intimidate me. (Quintin Smith noted this very nicely in his RPS review.) No doubt you too will surprise yourself with what you end up creating.

It is not necessary to see the an entire design solution in your head at once: most of my progress has been made by taking the input molecule and seeing how I could make it a bit more like the required output one operation at a time. I would gradually build up the circuit in little stages like this. Work out how to unbond it first, then work out how to rotate it, then work out how to drop it over there, and so on. Step by step tentatively designing towards the goal, running the circuit for a bit, building the next stage as I could best see it, and so on. Every now and then I would tinker, go back and pursue a different line of thought or inspiration. Through no more complex process than this, I have been able to produce some rather impressive results. It is made very easy to tweak, play back, revise, tinker and shift your circuits around when you are making them, so you can locate faults, and see exactly how things are working. Things get a little trickier with multi-reactor problems, but not before you are ready.

SpaceChem has an excellent answer to the second worry, and it is worth looking at closely. Forget the idea that puzzles only have one solution – or one optimal solution – right now. Any design that can deliver the right amount of output molecules completes that level. That is a totally binary thing, success or failure, 1 or 0. Hundreds of designs can complete each level for you. With multi-reactor problems, where different configurations of reactors are encountered, the number of possible solutions to each level increases massively.  I will use two examples of my own to show how two radically different designs can complete the same production task.

Your solutions have the following statistics reported when you complete a level (and compared to a distribution of other poeple’s designs):
Number of cycles taken (how long your reactors take to produce the stuff).
Number of symbols used (how many components your circuits needed)
Number of reactors used (how many reactors you needed to have working to solve the problem)

In gameplay terms, these are meaningless. There is no in-game reward or benefit for doing it in one way or another. By the time you see these, the game has already opened up the next level for you. So, the game does not force you to optimise your solutions on these counts. But, if the graphs are there, might we not be tempted to slavishly optimise all our designs until we sucked the fun out of the game? SpaceChem cleverly ensures that we are unable to get too hung up on optimisation. How it does this is crucially important. Beyond a certain point, it simply is not possible to optimise your solutions; this is because almost all the time, each of the statistics you might want to optimise are in tension. You are prevented from chasing a ‘perfect’ circuit’ because no such circuit exists. Having a faster circuit often requires more symbols; using fewer reactors requires that the ones you have work harder and use more symbols, and perhaps take longer. Because there is a trade-off between these different statistics you cannot chase all of them to a maximum, so you don’t have to worry about the burden of doing so.

Sure, your design may have been relatively slow, but you probably used fewer symbols. That guy who used even fewer than you? He was probably slower. Looking at the statistics is entirely optional. The question is less about making the single perfect design, and more ‘can I make what I have done better by the standards that I think are important?’ How you want to refine or optimise your circuits is up to you, the game does not mind either way. I found that I created circuits that were slow, but used few resources, and enjoyed trying to make them as economical as possible. The narcissist in me loves the idea of having my own particular SpaceChem style, and unique portfolio of intimidating SpaceChem designs.

Because because efficiency over and above completing the objectives is optional and – in terms of gameplay consequences – meaningless, because there are no stakes, no rewards or incentives involved there is no external reason to pursue it. You do it -if you do it at all -for its own sake; it is rewarding in and of itself. With no pressure either way I found that I wanted to have a quick tinker, especially when I cast my eye over some of my earlier designs. Making playing with circuits enjoyable in this way is a master stroke of design. Not introducing aggregate scores is a crucial part of what makes SpaceChem fun to play. I have seen some suggestions about introducing this sort of thing, but I hope it is clear why this would strike at the core of the game’s Fun. Pressured optimisation would creep in, and I’d feel like a maths program should be playing the game instead of me.

Beyond the bare minimum of completing the output quota is the room to breathe, experiment, be creative and unique. That is the crucial space that SpaceChem has created. That is the genius of design puzzling in SpaceChem- it is a uniquely creative form of puzzling, especially given the multi-layered structure of many of SpaceChems levels. The parameters are kept open enough to allow circuit creation to be genuinely free and enjoyable for its own sake. In SpaceChem, this sort of puzzling is delivered in a lovely package and polished to a shine.

You will find yourself much more talented at playing the game by the time you reach some of the more tricky looking puzzles. Again, you should not be intimidated by this game. I got better at SpaceChem as I played it. I have a better feel for the sort of difficulties I come up against, and have a better grasp of how I can work round them. Whilst a lot of my play revolves around incremental trial and improvement, I do have occasional flashes of insight and eureka moments, and I’m able to read things a bit more sensibly in advance than I used to. I’ve dropped some odd assumptions I had since the opening tutorials. (This wasn’t entirely my fault: see the supplementary post). Going back to the earlier puzzles shows me just how much I’ve learned, and it is great fun to go back and remake them.

Beyond the superbly designed mechanics of its central puzzling, Spacechem does a lot more to draw you into the game. Short written interludes break up the puzzling and sketch a story with a gentle sort of charm and wit. The music is superb; I was certainly not expecting to find music in this game that I would happily cruise to in my car. As Quintin Smith highlighted on RPS, this music is very important for morale, strengthening your resolve, and salving any potential feelings of frustration. The art direction is fantastic, the GUI is excellent and the game is tight and precise like it should be. The circuit designing is very responsive and intuitive – it is very easy to follow up an idea without having a hard time translating it into action. Components clunk into place in a very satisfying way. Whilst I have one or two minor suggestions that I will post later, SpaceChem is superbly made.

Spacechem is a work of dazzling originality and almost ferocious intelligence; its concept is brilliantly realised and the whole thing sparkles with love and polish. It is a game of unexpected beauty, charm and humour; a celebration of creativity and experimentation. It is a game about designing your way through sophisticated multilayer puzzles. SpaceChem’s most significant achievement is the way it is able to foster creativity and experimentation without having to sacrifice any of its complexity or subtlety. It introduced me to a compelling new skillset and type of thinking; giving me the space to learn, experiment and play with its game system. It has left me surprised, delighted, excited and intimidated – both at the demands of some of the puzzles, and at what I have managed to produce in response to them. With SpaceChem, Zachtronics Industries have created a charming, superbly rich and uniquely creative puzzler. Its rightful place is alongside Braid and World of Goo. I wholeheartedly direct you to the demo.

http://store.zachtronicsindustries.com/product/spacechem

Quintin Smith did an excellent review of SpaceChem on Rock Paper Shotgun.

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/01/10/wot-i-think-spacechem/