Monday, 27 May 2013
Why Amnesia The Dark Descent Isn't At All Scary
If you don't know the gist of Fraction's Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it's simple: You're being chased the whole game by a monster and you don't have any way of hurting or killing it. The idea with that of course is to up the scare factor. We're so used in games to just turning and shooting at things, to being able to mount a defence with a good offence. Taking our guns away should, by rights, be the scariest thing a game can do - since when were these anything but male power fantasies? But Amnesia is actually kind of rubbish. It highlights what I think is an interesting paradox. It shows that, inside horror games at least, having a gun is actually more frightening than not.
Having a gun in a game always means you have to do something with it. Name a game where you're given a gun only to never fire it, a game which has guns in it but no killing or violence. Bet you can't. You know like how before a boss fight a game will feed you bullets, power-ups and health packs to get you ready, and you just know what's coming? When you're handed a gun, you know you're going to have to fight with it. With that power always comes responsibility.
And responsibility is scary. The reason businessmen pay a dominatrix to treat them like a baby for an hour a week is so they can shrug all the responsibility of the adult world off their shoulders and remember how much nicer it was being a child, how much easier. Amnesia is like that. By taking away your gun, it kind of infantilises you; it absolves you of responsibility. When you see a monster, you know you don't have to fight it, you don't have to do anything, and that's not frightening. Coming up against an enemy and wondering "how the fuck am I going to deal with this?" and knowing that you do have to is scary. Simply being allowed to run and hide and not do anything at all isn't frightening, it's a get out.
Amnesia's too rule based as well. It does its initial flip of expectations, breaking what you might argue is the first rule of first-person games (arm your players) but then becomes as mechanical and predictable as backgammon. You hide in the dark and the monster can't see you; when you're chased through the water by something invisible, you jump on boxes and it can't get to you. Keys unlock doors, levers turn cogs and lamps burn oil - Amnesia's a thoroughly logical game and again, that doesn't make for good horror.
You take Resident Evil 2 and look how it fucks with you. It's set mostly in a police station but takes great pleasure in twisting that familiar place around. Doors are unlocked with jewels and plugs; corridors are lined with fine art and statues instead of vending machines and chairs. It's a weird, illogical place. Silent Hill as well is all a mess. It's lateral, non-sensical - in Silent Hill 2 you unlock a door using a wax doll.
You need this kind of illogic to make a game scary. Amnesia plays its opening gambit of "hey ma no guns" but then becomes a run-of-the-mill, lock and key, Pipedream kind of game where everything clicks together like you'd expect. It's fathomable. It's not scary because it makes sense.
Oh and there are jump scares which unless your game is written by Ken Levine and Drew Holmes are always shit.