Being a human is a pretty great gig. I’m comfortable being at the top of the food chain. I like having a home with a lock on the door and a bedroom on the second floor. I’m safe up here and the only time I have to deal with any sort of strange animal is when I am covering it in steak spice and shoveling it in my mouth with a side of potatoes.
Things weren’t always so hunky-dory for this species, however. Us ape-men used to hang out above ground because if we didn’t we would be food for someone with sharper teeth than ours- not because that’s where we happened to set up the router and if we go downstairs we’re stuck with 2 bars and that just isn’t acceptable. We sorted out how to survive a long time ago and somehow that knowledge is still ingrained in all of us. We have survival instincts that make sure keep this body trucking along towards the next mating opportunity.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent does everything it can to make you act against all of these instincts your ancestors went through all that trouble to figure out and that makes it incredibly not-fun. If you see something terrible happening you don’t get to fire a hail of lead at it until it stops being interesting. You don’t even get to slow the car down and gawk, you have to put out your lamp, spin 180 degrees, and stare at the wall hoping your sanity doesn’t drop too low. You should also hope those groans don’t come any closer while you’re studying the masonry.
But you can’t linger too long in the dark. Eventually that, too, will take its toll on your sanity so you have to continually press onward in hopes of finding some form of light to keep your wits about you. After staring slack-jawed at that ghoul up there for a few seconds too long I was a mess. The world was constantly shifting and warping as if I was looking at the world through glasses made of Jell-O. I couldn’t even rely on the geometry of the world to be stable. Eventually the chattering of my own teeth turned into a high-pitched humming and I collapsed to the floor. Afraid of what sort of insane DMT fueled nightmare I might endure if I let any more sanity slip away I clutched my oil-lamp and let the warm glow restore my sanity, monsters be damned. But Amnesia won’t let you off that easy- the lamp burns through oil at a quick pace and any solace you find in it the flickering light doesn’t stick around long.
The interface does its part to make you feel unsafe and scared, too. There’s no health bar, only a representation of your approximate health if you open up the inventory screen. Underneath the health is a graphic describing your sanity which is even more cryptic. Health is a pretty easy concept to understand, especially after years of videogaming has taught you that having none is a bad thing and usually results in a trip back to your last save point. But what happens when you run out of sanity? I presume, and this is almost a certainty when playing Amnesia, it is a bad thing that I do not want. Never. While bumbling around in the dark the only HUD element is a tiny little dot that represents the center of the screen and is used to make sure you point at the right stuff when you want to interact. Nothing else- no stealth meter, no mini-map, and definitely no night light. Everything “videogamey” is hidden out of sight to maximize immersion and, consequently, terror. And being afraid is not conducive to having fun.
Despite all that Amnesia does to make playing it as not-fun as possible, it also found a way to make you keep playing. Frictional Games, the developers, know that despite all of our survival instincts humans also have a desire to learn and explore. They’ve written, from what I can tell of the first 20 minutes I managed to drag myself through, an interesting narrative. The plot is presented primarily through found letters and journals narrated by their writers, but also seeing certain objects and places trigger recollections that play out in your characters mind. So far they have been either audio-only conversations that play out as you fumble around or complete events that you play through in your mind’s eye. These are typically unsettling and grim, but you can’t help wanting to know more.
Which is why you keep stalking through the creepy castle you woke up in at the beginning of the game. It is dilapidated and frequent collapses make navigating the confusing layout even more difficult. Nightmare always seems to be lurking one room over and you constantly hear footsteps, groans, or any number of increasingly unfamiliar noises emanating from the walls and ceiling. All of these things also contribute to your loss of sanity, as far as I can tell. Its pretty cryptic and I can’t really figure it out which just adds to the unfamiliarity and general sense of unease that this game evokes.
Technically this is a really great game. Most of the stuff I described does a lot to make the game interesting and exciting. But being constantly on my toes and scared for my life (and sanity) does not make for a fun evening. Its interesting that a game can this good but not be fun. I think that is a good thing. Not every book or movie has to be fun, so why should games? I bet very few people left “Schindler’s List” feeling like they had a great time. I’m excited to see what other sorts of experiences games can create. Especially those that don’t scare me out of my pants.