I’m not a big fan of horror games. Mostly because I’m a gigantic wuss. When Jordan first approached (re: bugged the hell out of) me to give Amnesia: The Dark Descent a shot, my first response was a hearty “nope.”
Then we thought up the Horror Games issue.
Much to my dismay, if you’re talking about horror games these days, you have to mention to Frictional Games’ masterwork. Released in 2010, Amnesia didn’t turn everyone into horror junkies overnight. However, as Amnesia’s notoriety for filling Twitch channels with screams grew, so too did the horror game genre itself. Amnesia transcended the genre pioneered by games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark by being more of an experience than a game. It became something you had to try for yourself, whether you were into horror or not. So when Jordan approached me this time about giving Amnesia a shot, I knew I didn’t have much choice – this coward was going to have to suck it up and dive right in.
I’d give myself one hour. One hour of this game to see if I came through unscathed. Lord have mercy.
Set Up for Scares
We all know the proper way to play horror games: lights out, headphones on. My game-playing conditions are a bit stricter than that, so I had to settle for the middle of the afternoon with the blinds closed. To add a bit more immersion (and to hopefully maximize scares) I went into the options menu and checked off the subtitles, crosshair, and hints. In this day and age of hand-holding, on-the-go tutorials, this is the equivalent of digital castration. My thinking went that if I knew I was going to be scared to death, I may as well try to make it my own fault.
Here’s the thing – I was expecting to be scared, and so I hoped that bit of foreknowledge would render me immune to it, or at the very least prepare me for it. I wanted to try and approach it as a smart, rational human being playing a game – not as a character experiencing whatever terrible events were in store for me. I’d take lots of notes, and try to make it as far as I could before fear-quitting.
The Descent Begins
I’m in what appears to be a dark castle. Wind whistles hollowly through the halls, along with the ever-present creak of old rotting walls and the shivering breathing of Daniel, the player character. I immediately put my back to a wall and try to understand my surroundings. The camera is permanently cock-eyed, the floor and ceiling slanting to one side. I swear it wobbles a bit. It’s a subtle yet unnerving way to frame the gameplay, and I can already tell this won’t be the only game mechanic meant to give me the willies.
My objectives tell me to follow the bright pinkish liquid trail on the stone floor. I enter a hallway flanked by two knights. Now I’ve never played Amnesia before, and I’ve seen and heard very little of it, but I know in any other game one or both of those silent knights would have come alive and attacked me. I’m already on edge thanks to the sound of hollow wind and creaking going on in my headphones, but even I can tell it’s way too early for the game to put me in a combat state, especially since I don’t have any weapons or items at all. There’s a big set of doors on the other side of the room. I don’t even think about how their size suggests that they’re an exit, but I click them, and when I do the screen blurs suddenly and the “open” icon disappears. The way is blocked, and I have to move on.
Next hallway. A door blows open, accompanied by a sharp clang and a gust of wind. Startled, I try to hide in a closet behind me, but without the crosshair I can’t get it to open.
For the first time, I think about quitting.
I start up a staircase, aware of the sound of my footsteps hitting the stone at an even pace. I hit the Shift key, but I guess I don’t have the ability to run yet. Fast footsteps sound up and to the right – they aren’t my own. Every hair on my body stands on end. Whoever is up there apparently has a Shift key that works just fine.
I think about quitting again.
I reach the top of the stairs without incident. No sign of whoever or whatever was running through the hallway at my expense. I hit Tab to check my inventory, making note of the Sanity bar depicted by an image of a nervous system. It says I’m fine, which is a bold-faced lie because I happen to be playing Amnesia. Halfway through a winding hallway, I just fall to the ground without any pretext or input on my part. Like, I didn’t hit the “Collapse” button on accident. It’s clear to me now that the game sprinkles in little moments like these to catch the player off guard and keep them guessing how they’ll be spooked next. It isn’t long for me to find out what that is.
The next area is another hallway. I don’t like the openness of this one, and I feel exposed with so many doors. I creep along one wall so nothing can sneak up behind me, and a door ahead opens on its own. Not violently like the last one, but inviting, almost? Anyway, it’s a door, and although I’m wary I know it’s a place the game wants me to see. Curiosity gets the best of me, and in I go. Unlike the dreariness of the rest of the castle I’ve traversed so far, the room is brightly lit.Several ornate pictures hang on the wall. As I go in for a closer look at the pictures, the lights go out and a cyclone stirs up in the middle of the room, stirring up dust particles and debris, the sound of it blaring in my ears.
I’ve been playing for twenty minutes, and I so badly want to stop. An image of Jordan appears in my mind’s eye, urging me to have strength and not to give up. I tell Mind Jordan to go fuck himself.
I’m in the Old Archives when I give my first audible yelp. “OH,” I cry, in all capital letters, when a door blows open, accompanied by another goddamned gust of wind that plunges what was a bright hallway into darkness. I briskly go through the door, descend the stairs, and find a corner to hide in. I figure I could probably wait out the rest of my hour in this room. There’s a nice light coming in from the ceiling that casts everything in a pleasant, bluish hue, and so I crouch and start looking around for something to pass the time. My eye catches a piece of paper lying on the ground and things take a turn for the worse. It must have been a piece of crazy paper because as soon as I look at it my vision, for lack of a better word, “fizzes.” Suddenly maggots that weren’t there a few seconds ago are crawling all over the floor. They’re kind of cute like the ones from World of Warcraft, but in this world they’re seriously creeping me out. I leave, betrayed by what could have been my safe haven.
At this point in the game, I’m now sure of one thing: Amnesia is not going to let me just sit idly. There are mechanics in place designed to spur me on so I can see all the awful things Frictional has in store for me.
It’s down the hall I go and into a new room. I’m kind of annoyed that I still can’t run. I’ve spent thirty minutes in the game and I’m sure I could see a lot more of the game if I could only get from place to place quicker. I find a lantern, which seems like an important thing to have in a game that seems to want to put me in the dark so often, as well as a note from Daniel. After listening to him talk for a minute, I hear the first bit of music in the game – low, rumbling chords, mixed with a groan that I know does not belong to any instrument. The chords are fine, they’re doing what music in horror games is supposed to do, but it’s the groaning that gets me. I take off my headphones and open the blinds because it’s getting kind of hot in the room.
I start going crazy again, which I guess happens if you spend too much time sitting in the dark, paralyzed in fear. My craziness urges me on, but it’s hard to navigate because opening the blinds made a bunch of glare on my monitor. I stumble into the next room. There’s a furnace there, and I wish I could use it to burn this entire castle down, just end it right here, but it’s not a thing I can interact with. I find some more Daniel notes in the next room, which is great because it means I don’t have to play the game while he’s talking. Something about killing a dude named Alexander, which unless I’m going to bludgeon him to death with my lantern is going to be a difficult task. I’d sooner force him to look at Crazy Paper until his brain turns to mush.
I pull a lever, because of course it’s that kind of castle, and I’m into the next area. It’s a big antechamber, or maybe a regular kind of chamber. I’m too pleased with how well-lit it is to care. As I root around for a place to roost for the remainder of the game, I remember I’m supposed to be following the pink or red liquid that could either be blood or candlewax, and I spot some before a set of descending stairs. I head there, pulled by a will that is surely not my own, and am rewarded with a flashback. Kind of. I’m still in control, but the door at the bottom of the stairs has taken on a pink hue and I hear the disembodied commentary of Alexander and Daniel speaking to each other. I don’t get far, as what I can only describe as a “fleshweb” gates me from making further progress. I should be grossed out by this unnatural feature of the otherwise normal castle, as well as by Alexander’s talk of “experiments,” but I figure that’s something I’ll be seeing much later. I head back up the stairs.
There are several directions I could choose to go, and I choose to go up the stairs at the end of the hall to a stone catwalk overlooking the rest of the chamber. I figure it could give me a good vantage point to watch for any danger coming my way. Just as I reach the top of the stairs, the camera jerks and a woman screams, followed by my own scream, which also isn’t that manly. My arm hairs are standing on end and there’s sweat on my upper lip that isn’t caused completely by the heat. There’s a barricaded door at the top of the stairs, which compounded with the woman’s scream adds one more mystery to this place that I cannot wait to not want to learn more about.
My wife texts me, saying she’s on her way home. I give thanks to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Buddha, Satan, and every other spiritual entity I can think of that my time playing Amnesia has a finite amount of time left.
Read on to find out how the rest of Eric’s Hour with Amnesia went…