Past Perfect – Amnesia: The Dark Descent is still terrifying
Past Perfect is a retrospective column in which we look back into gaming history to see whether old favourites are still worth playing today.I return to Amnesia: The Dark Descent with one question alone: will it still scare me?
Amnesia scared the bejesus out of me in 2010 when it first came out. But we all know how games age, and the magic can wear off. At the time the graphics and physics on offer were really astonishing work for a tiny indie team, but what about almost a decade later? Can it still make me do that bum-clenched mad panic thing where I lean in forward in my chair in an effort to get away from the monsters faster? Or will it seem a little quaint now?
Amnesia felt like it came out of a unique space. I’m sure there are ways to trace it back via your Resident Evils or your Silent Hills or whatnot, but for me in 2010, it seemed to come from nowhere other than a jagged-sharp left turn into a dark, dark dungeon, from Frictional’s previous Penumbra series. I can’t argue that any aspect of it was original: sanity meters had appeared before, physics had already played significant parts in first-person gaming, and hiding rather than fighting has been a recurring theme throughout gaming. But putting them all together in one place felt really, really fresh. But what I think what made it feel so much of its own, distinct from what “survival horror” had been before, was its opening statement appealing to the player to not “play to win”.
There’s no phrase in all gaming that makes me bristle more than “I beat the game.” I always imagine these people walking out of cinemas and punching the air in victory – “I BEAT THE FILM!” – or throwing a book across the room in a frenzy of success. No, you finished the game, as the creators intended you to do so. So I just adore that Amnesia began with a request that such players check their dumbassery at the door.
Yes, Amnesia has dated. Well duh, of course it has. But more than I was expecting. As I once more began my confused exploration of a decaying cancerous mansion, unsure who I am or why I’m there, the smeary, low res text and the shadows in corners seem extremely forced, unnatural. It also feels oddly primitive in the way it keeps interrupting the tension with sudden white light filling the screen, then some rather dubious over-acted voice-overs barking expository past moments as your movement is restricted. I became almost immediately pretty sure that it the magic was gone, that the fear wouldn’t be there.
This surety became stronger with the first couple of appearances of the lumbering, undefeatable enemies. In my memory, the opening of Amnesia was all about vague suggestions, subtle background fear, glimpses out the corner of my eye. But in reality Amnesia operates with the same paranoid of an Activision shooter – fear that the player will miss out. It endlessly wrenches the camera away from you to ensure you stare at the right doorway at the right moment. The sound effects are leaden, overbearing, and the forced glimpses of the monsters take away their fear-inducing power.
And then I went into that corridor full of water.
Yeah, it’s still got it.
It’s such a masterful moment. It’s one of the best moments in all of gaming, in fact. You have to put the pieces together. Make a single sound and you see splashes in the water coming toward you. There’s something invisible in here, and it can hear you. But if you’re stood on a crate, no matter how nearby the splashes, it can’t see you. You’re blind to it, it’s blind to you. It’d be a fair game if one of you weren’t a feeble human almost paralysed by fear, and the other a monster capable of ripping you to pieces with a few lazy slashes of its invisible claws. Fall off a crate and it’s just utter, utter panic, frantic scrambling to try to jump back onto something sticking out of the water, as you hear the splashes getting closer and closer, and dammit you can’t get on that crate what about this one argh it’s hit me I can’t take another quickly get on the fucking crate!
Then you realise if you throw a book as far as you can, it’ll charge off splashing in that direction, affording you a chance to jump into the water and run toward the next safe surface, while your real-life arms almost cramp with the tension of getting it right.
The sequence gets even better, having trained you to this incredibly cautious approach, desperately staying out of the water, by following it up with no bloody choice but to just sprint through it in absolute terror. It’s so ridiculous that my chest tightened when not only do I hold onto a fairly firm grasp of the fact that it isn’t real, but I’ve played it before and know exactly what’s going to happen. Yet tighten my chest did. I breathed out a real-life audible sigh of relief, after charging through tunnels, slamming doors shut behind me, when I made it to the final door.
Slamming doors shut is another excellent example of where Amnesia holds up in a way that games have already forgotten to try. When Frictional first did their physicsy drawer pulling and door opening in Penumbra it was just revolutionary. No longer was it about “press E to open”, but a tactile act of the player, making the game world immediately more tangible. In Amnesia they then make that part of the tension, and being able to grab and swing doors closed behind you is a million times more affecting than tapping E. Oh gawd the fear pumping through me as I slam a door behind me and keep on running, hearing the ghoulie slamming against it, pounding it until it bursts from its hinges! So why in all holy hell isn’t this the norm?! I hadn’t realised how much I was missing this until returning to these dank corridors.
All the hands-on tactile elements add so very much to this. That I can search a room by manically flinging objects behind me, or yank on drawers instead of pulling them slowly, so anything inside rolls to the front more quickly, or throw severed arms to distract pursuing horrors… It’s so much more vivid, more impacting.
And yes, it only gets scarier. Amnesia’s flaws are almost entirely up front, the game relaxing and letting you take care of the getting scared all by yourself. Chases are just hideous, the monsters faster than you as you race for a door to slow them, or a dark room to hide in. My leg muscles tightening in absolute fear as I almost touch my nose against the monitor trying to reach safety, before that awful, brutal slashing sound brings me down to my knees, now hopelessly crawling as its claws or blade comes crashing down to finish me off.
The only real shame is its idiotic dazzle-to-white every time Daniel has one of his “memories”. You’re playing in the dark, staring at a very dark screen, and then without warning it routinely attempts to blind you. That I have sinusitis right now very likely makes me more sensitive to it than usual, but still, it’s a crappy move, frequently making me shout as I swerve my head away from the screen to avoid the back of my retinas bursting into flames. More than anything, it breaks the mood, and the mood is Amnesia’s greatest weapon.
Frankly, it’s too scary. I’ve only so much energy to devote to being absolutely bloody terrified, and the real world takes up most of it. Plus, IT’S A GAME! Why am I scared?! I know nothing’s actually going to get me, I know that if I get killed in the game, not only do I go on living in real life, but the game then lets me try again! (I’ve not even gone near the game’s newer Hard Mode.) So why am I just so worked up as I try to escape, so tense, so bristling with panic? Ludicrous. I should be able to rise above this! I’m a strong person! Yeah but no, it just worms its way into my nervous system, a combination of its cacophony of horrific noises, the closing darkness, the twisting vision, increasing heartbeats, panicked utterances, and then that unearthy horror-moaning getting louder behind you… I kind of love it. And then I feel just utterly exhausted.
Can I still play Amnesia: The Dark Descent?
Absolutely. This ran out of the “box” for me, straight into glorious 3440×1440 widescreen with nary a complaint. For a nine year old game, that’s magnificent. No worries at all with this one, with Frictional working on it as recently as a year ago.
Should I still play Amnesia: The Dark Descent?
Definitely. If you like being flipping terrified. And not just for the thrills, but also the super-smart use of physics, in a way that that’ll have you shouting at the sky in fury that all games don’t do this.