Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Dark Descent | Fear of a Different Sort

Amnesia: The Dark Descent has been sitting in my Steam library for almost two years now. For someone who has a sort of noted preference for survival-horror games, I'm still not entirely sure why I never touched it until two days ago. It could have simply been the backdrop, which while dripping with atmosphere, isn't exactly the most rare setting in a game (I think Penumbra actually edges it out in that regard). It also could just as well have been the almost instinctual impulse of negation towards crowd praise I'm somewhat partial to. This isn't to say that Amnesia is a critical darling above and beyond reproach, just that it was/is consistently lauded for being one of the few games keeping 'survival-horror's essence' alive where most games have simply abandoned it. I always knew I'd have to take that bit of information into consideration when I finally got to it.

After completing it, I can go ahead and agree with the praise, mostly. Across ten hours, I felt fear, anxiety, and just an overall no-fun tension I haven't felt during a game in a long time. The fear however, came with strings.

I knew going in that this was a game in which combat was not emphasized---or at least that's what I initially understood it as. The snag I hit came with the true realization of that statement being clarified through actually playing. Combat isn't just not emphasized, it's non-existent. This isn't Mirror's Edge where combat is an option that's communicated in-game as most effective to eschew, it's Amnesia where you're just stripped of what I'd consider a major component of interacting with its world.

I'm not necessarily saying fighting specifically is the most viable option either. Amnesia is one of the unique first person narrative games tailored to how the PC interface specifically operates. Mouse-maneuvering around space to physically interact with puzzles, the world, and even basic physics, the game is almost yelling  interaction with Brennenburg Castle at every corner---and here comes the but...


...you're given very few options with which to actually explore your fear. The closest the game comes to this is being able to block monsters out of rooms using heavy rocks and objects, but that's pretty much the extent of it. You're mostly meant to suffer Daniel's crippling nyctophobia at every corner. That's about the only context I could sift from the choice to strip him down so bare both emotionally and physically. The game even addresses this connection from the get go, which is amazing in itself. It tells you within the first five minutes that staring directly at disturbing events will drain your sanity, after which Daniel's vision starts to impair and he moves sluggishly. This however only highlighted the problem I just described, you're given even less to work with when you already had so little.

You don't see such a fitting quote every day.
I see the reasoning here, but I'm not entirely sure it's the real problem to begin with[1]. Taking away all variations in which one could flee or fight definitely is a surefire way to create the tension the game so chiefly pushes to the forefront, yet that tension will still erode for me and plenty of others as the game wears on. The game will then become less nerve-wrecking and just plain annoying. This is a problem with any survival-horror title too, so I won't lay the problem all at Amnesia's feet. Once the player has seen and confronted the danger, they can begin to psychologically counteract the danger in all actions afterwards. They get past the initial shocks and jumps and it becomes routine. This counts whether you're blowing freakish monsters up or in Amnesia's case---simply by dying. And that's the only real option in this game, flee or die. You can hide, but its often very rudimentary and often far too forgiving which is why I don't really consider it a part of that short list.

Amnesia attains this fear, but at quite the price. It creates a gorgeous sense of dread, but by doing the equivalent of making someone appreciate their sight by blinding them. I even tried my own version of counteracting this early on, recognizing that I would have this problem not even an hour into the game. It worked for the most part, but I can't give praise to the game due to how I accomplished it. What did I do?

I never got caught.

I made it through the entire game without ever being assaulted by a Gatherer or Brute (I don't count the Kaernks because those things are just fucking stupid...). I knew that once I got caught, 'routine' would in effect rear its ugly head even faster in an otherwise pretty nice experience. Thus, I became more scared of losing the illusion than I was of getting caught and killed.

This is also why I find the complaints of the game being too short horrific because I know that:

A. These people brute forced their way through the game after coming to terms with the erosion I described above.
B. Used a guide or really any sort of help whenever they got stuck/frustrated or simply gave up at any number of the game's more intense areas (e.g. 'Storage').
C. Are on the stupid side of the value-to-game-length argument which is another story entirely.

Amnesia was in my view too long---in fact I thought Justine communicated more effectively in one or two hours what Amnesia started becoming redundant with at seven to ten. This also plays into the erosion problem I described as obviously the shock value and fear elements are very much tethered to density of the experience rather than its extensiveness.

That moment I said 'Oh shit...' for all the wrong reasons...

What ended up defeating me here? The goddamn narrative caught up with me and conked me on the side of the head---literally  There's a scripted sequence during the last hour or two of the game in which the player enters the Chancel and a Gatherer (or rather many gatherers) ambush and incapacitate Daniel. So all the great things I was valuing up until that point suffered a steep drop after that point. I wonder now if Frictional recognized this, as the sequences after that specific point in the game sort of up the stakes in what you're meant to deal with (most notably the guardian/shadow chase sequences).

And though there is a thread of context in the game's story for how the nature of fear affects your perception, most of it feels strangely separate from one another (i.e. there's the Amnesia you're supposed to be scared of and the one trying to tell a story). I'd be more willing to forgive this if any of the characters were enjoyable. Alexander becomes a mustache-twirling baron while Daniel feels like a revolting yet inept sidekick (the former's only redeeming quality being that a full frontal nude male was shown). Most of the story is really told in notes that are scattered all throughout the castle, so when Agrippa begins speaking to you and describing his motives in the game, things take a sort of terrible turn for the worse. The game at the point of entering the Nave begins to feel eerily like a questionable sidestory of Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Everything from the simplistic sanity effects to the otherworldly origins most of the characters are revealed to have begins to feel jarring. Hell, the shadow that chases the orb in the game could just as easily have been Chattur'gha[2].

Justine however, picks up the thread where the main game actually fails, creating an equally decadent yet easily more sophisticated setup in what you're experiencing (especially considering you're playing as the villain). Justine Florbelle specifically is a better character than anybody in the primary game and in my opinion would have served even better than the main antagonist Alexander, or hell just stick her in the same castle with roughly the same story with some sort of interweaving narratives going on (that would have at the very least, saved the tale for me). Presenting it as a DLC character study with no saves hurt me more than it helped and I ended up uninstalling the game halfway through because it crashed and I was too spent on the experience overall to start over again (which is sad considering how short Justine actually is). Thank God for no-commentary 'Let's Plays' though[3]...

All in all though, Amnesia lives up to the bulk of its praise, even if it does so by forgoing some far more interesting choices it does a great job at highlighting. I'm very much interested in A Machine for Pigs now, though I'm sort of amused with how keen the developers are either consciously or oblivious to regarding the correlations that can be called in with Eternal Darkness[4].

1. And I've yet to see an actually game tackle this issue. Amnesia is one the few that actually acknowledges it.

2. The announcement of Shadow of the Eternals and its blowback is amusing to me, but totally unrelated to this by the way.

3. If you have half an hour to spare, give it a watch [Link]

4. "There’s a story that plays out in the present, but there are also stories of what happened in the past – and while some of the strands are definitely real, some of them might have been invented by the disturbed minds of A Machine for Pigs’ characters. You’ll have to try to make sense of this fragmented narrative." [Link]