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Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Horror of Indie Games

/ Nov 12th, 2012 No Comments

Luckily, the game doesn't have smellovision.

Luckily, the game doesn’t have smellovision.

Applauded as one of the most frightening games ever developed, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is survival horror done right. Developed by Frictional Games, Amnesia was released on Sep. 8, 2010 and has been scaring gamers ever since. With its gripping narrative, terrifying monsters, and novel mechanics, Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a refreshing addition to the underutilized survival horror genre.

Set in the year 1839, the gamer plays as Daniel, a British archaeologist  while he explores a deserted Prussian castle. At the start of the game Daniel wakes up with no memory of his past self and must explore the castle–finding notes and journal entries reminding him of his former life. Early on, however, it becomes apparent that everything is not as it seems and a malevolent force is actively pursuing Daniel.

The ambiguous plot works perfectly in the survival horror genre, leaving players confused, nervous, and even distressed as they slowly uncover the disturbing facts surrounding the seemingly abandoned castle. The real brilliance of the game, though, is the mechanics. A large part of the game involves staying in the light. As Daniel strays from light sources and explores the dark recesses of the castle his sanity slowly deteriorates, causing visual and auditory hallucinations. Sure you have a lantern and can light candles with tinderboxes, but supplies are scarce and once the gamer runs out, it’s just them and the darkness. This poses a serious challenge as players are forced to hold onto their dwindling resources as long as they can while simultaneously keeping their sanity in check.

Seriously, they’re scary.

Then there are the monsters. Disfigured and terrifying, Amnesia’s monsters are something out of a nightmare. Rather than fighting these horrifying creatures, players have two choices: run and attempt to escape or hide. In an effort to stall attacking monsters, players can move boxes or barricade doors to slow down their pursuers. Unfortunately, this only creates a temporary solution as monsters can easily move around debris and bust through closed doors. The sheer terror one feels hiding behind a crate as a mutated beast breaks its way into the room not only provides for some of the most gripping experiences in the game, but will also leave the player quivering in fear. This complete helplessness is Amnesia’s true genius and the driving factor behind the game’s uncanny ability to frighten players. The game leaves gamers utterly defenseless against an enemy that can appear from any dark corner or empty room.

Whether it is the scratching of some unknown creature in the dark or a sudden shriek, Amnesia makes perfect use of its audio. As Daniel’s fear increases his breathing becomes heavier and more noticeable. Not only does this emphasize particularly tense moments but it’s a subtle technique to further immerse players into game. Amnesia also likes to expose players to ominous whispering, fainted cries, and of course, creepy child voices, as players explore dark cellars or dimly lit hallways.

Regrettably, Amnesia is the exception in a genre that is increasingly drifting towards action adventure. In an attempt to garner larger sales, traditional survivor horror games–Resident Evil being a prime example–have begun to imitate western shooters. The logic is fairly obvious; with super blockbusters like Call of Duty or Halo raking in hundreds of millions in profits, developers feel pressure to incorporate shooter elements in their games or suffer lackluster sales. Even critically acclaimed titles such as Dead Space, which was praised for its frightening gameplay, hinder nerve-racking experiences by providing players with weapons and ample ammunition. As a result, gamers never have that vulnerable sensation that leads to truly scary moments. But really, can we blame them? With certain titles costing countless millions to develop, a AAA game that underperforms can be a significant financial loss.

So what needs to change? The genre needs to go back to its roots. Large developers should take a cue from indies and replace the guns and action with more appropriate horror elements. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a prime example of a successful game that uses fear and anticipation without resorting to combat. The survivor horror genre shouldn’t just be quarantined to the indie scene for a real fright . Major game developers need to overcome their fears and remember what made these games scary in the first place.

Stephen Vinson

Stephen Vinson

Contributor at Gaming Illustrated
Stephen is a contributor to Gaming Illustrated and part of the editorial team. He regularly reads game reviews, keeps up with gaming trends, and follow news stories about the latest game or console rumor.
Stephen Vinson
Stephen Vinson

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