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.


  1. First of all, I thought Amnesia was a great game, but in some ways I think Frictional Games' previous title 'Penumbra: Black Plague', while being less polished, was a scarier experience.

    Likewise, no weapons, but something really worked - I think it was that the encounters were slightly more varied and unpredictable - the mechanics don't become apparent quick as fast as in Amnesia. The monsters don't de-spawn when you look into a corner for a minute, for example. They patrol the corridors and it feels a lot less 'gamey', for lack of a better word.

    I agree, hiding in a cupboard for the fourth time just isn't scary when you know it works. It would have been great if they betrayed that expectation of safety at some point. But Amnesia has great moments other than the first 2 hours of finding your feet. Particularly the Prison comes to mind as the encounters feel much more randomized (which is silly, because the game is very scripted, but it still got me worrying about the next corner).

    1. to add more to my incoherent blurb, what I think works about the whole Prison and water demon sequences is that there is sufficient challenge (though not to the point that fear of failure overrides fear of the unknown) and that you CAN'T simply turn around and wait until it goes away and your screen goes blurry due to lack of sanity. I found being chased and having to throw open doors to be the scariest parts as my security blanket was taken from me.

  2. Whilst I agree that Amnesia TDD isnt the least bit scary and anyone who found it scary needs to see a shrink, I find your examples of what scary is to be...dumb.

    A wax doll opening a door isnt scary...being incoherent isnt scary...its annoying and disrespectful to the player.

    Something like 'every time you open a door, someone is killed' but the player not knowng this till later is what 'scary' is; it takes something familiar to the player and still is familiar but makes it uneasy, it makes the next time the player opens a door in real life feel queasy.....seeing art in a police station wont have the same affect,

    You need to get your point across better.