This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
I know it's unusual for me to review a lower-profile indie game when there are big, juicy, mainstream targets doing the fan dance in my sights. But while I like keeping up to date, it's slightly eclipsed by my love of baiting fanboys, so Halo: Reach can sit in my to-do bucket for another week. I spent all the time I should have spent playing it playing Amnesia: Dark Descent, a first-person survival-horror adventure game with physics puzzles and stealth elements available now on Steam. Brought to us by Frictional Games, whose only previous title is Penumbra, a first-person survival-horror adventure game with physics puzzles and stealth elements available now on Steam. I guess it's good to stick to what you know, and Frictional seem to be stuck, nailed and riveted to what they know. And what they know is how to make me poo my pants.
Regular viewers will know I have a fondness for horror games but that recent mainstream horror games haven't been scratching that particular pulsating, tumorous itch. You see, there are three kinds of horror games: first, there's the kind where you're in a dark room and a guy in a spooky mask jumps out of a cupboard going, "abloogy-woogy-woo" - that would be your Doom 3. Then there's the kind where the guy in the spooky mask isn't in a cupboard but standing right behind you and you just know he's going to go, "abloogy-woogy-woo" at some point but he doesn't and you're getting more and more tense but you don't want to turn around because he might stick his cock in your eye - that would be your Silent Hill 2. And then there are horror games where the guy in the spooky mask goes, "abloogy-woogy-woo" while standing on the far side of a brightly lit room, before walking slowly over to you, plucking a violin, and then slapping you in the face with a t-bone steak - that would be your Dead Space. See, the second one is best, because your imagination is doing all the work. All a good horror game needs to do is hand you a piece of sandpaper and shout encouragement as you vigorously massage your own undercarriage.
This is something Amnesia pulls off quite nicely. It's actually got pacing, unlike Dead Space, where all the monsters are so fucking thrilled to be working that they fight each other for screen time. It's quite a while before you even glimpse a monster, and let me just transcribe my thought process at the time: "Dum de dum. Well, this isn't very scary. Oh, look, physics! I can throw chairs around like a removal man who's completely stopped giving a shit. Doors suddenly blowing open in the wind? Yawn-o-rama! Guess I'll just look around upstairs and then might as well play Halo: Reach for a bit. Nope, nothing much up here either. I'll just go back and...whoa, what was that thing I just glimpsed running down a hallway? I don't know, but it looked cross about something, so I think I'll go down this other hallway instead. Oh, it's blocked. Guess I'll turn around and- WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?! WHAAAA! RUN, RUN, RUN! I'M SORRY, I DIDN'T MEAN TO MESS YOUR CHAIRS UP! OH, PISSING BLIMEY, THERE'S JAM COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!"
The entire backstory is neatly encapsulated in the title. You have amnesia, that old video game storytelling chestnut. If adventure games were a medical condition, the first symptom would be amnesia and the second would be kleptomania. Your past self is courteous enough to write you a note telling you to find and kill a guy, but not quite enough to wipe his memory somewhere that isn't five hundred locked-door puzzles away from the target. From there the plot is heavily Lovecraft-inspired, and like many games with a Lovecraftian bent, implements a sanity meter, as if sanity is like diesel oil or something and you can get a reading on it by sticking a dipstick in your ear. And as is so often the case, the main effect of losing your sanity is that the screen goes all blurry and weird, as if the first thing anyone does when they go insane is lose their contact lenses. Hanging around in the scary darkness depletes sanity because apparently we're five years old, but staying in the light makes it easier for monsters to see you, creating a toss-up between not getting a headache from wibbly-wobbly camera filters and not being murdered.
Now, in Frictional's first Penumbra game, there was a bit of combat. It used their trademark click-drag physics engine in that you had to manually swing melee weapons around with the mouse. Which wasn't a good idea when Alone in the Dark did it either, because it always tends to feel like you're controlling someone with two dislocated elbows. After that, Frictional threw up their hands and kicked any notion of self-defense in the head. While in another horror game, the tension of the "abloogy woogy woo" situation is diminished by the comforting heft of heavy ordinance (or at the very least a weighty bit of old pipe), in Amnesia your only recourse is to flee like a man in an expensive suit from a teppanyaki restaurant and put as many doors, walls and preferably continents between you and the wobbling mutant as possible. Amensia understands that a monster stays scary the less you see of it, so if you ever hang around long enough to get a good look at the ugly Cenobite rejects, then your face will be torn off and repurposed as a tea cozy before you can say "Cthulhu fhtagn."
I wouldn't say it's a great game. The level design reflects its independent origins; it's really just a sequence of small environments with little connectivity, each with one or two self-contained, simplistic puzzles. Yeah yeah, wander around a corridor maze, find puzzle item, use on puzzle, unlock door to next area, get devoured by cosmic monstrosity. Blah de blah. The game does come alive when monsters appear in pursuit of protagonist pie, but the game's habit of cheekily spawning one right around the room where you just solved a puzzle starts to get wearily-predictable. It's like they're being summoned by the autosave function. But a horror game actually scaring me, penetrating the caked-on layers of doughy acceptance that the games industry has been pelting me with over the years and provoking some vestige of emotional response is reason enough to celebrate it. And one should always support the independents - at least until they start making money, the soulless, sell-out fucks! Amnesia isn't a perfect game, but it's almost unmatched as a constipation aid.
- A thing that goes hump in the night: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I know I overused the shitting yourself thing a lot this week but I always think the pissing yourself motif is a little too ambiguous
- At least this one doesn't keep pretending to erase your save games