Yes I’ve played Bloodborne and yes it is an excellent game chock-full of Lovecraftian themes and imagery but today I’m talking about a game that predates Bloodborne by half a decade. While revisiting my back catalog (courtesy of three years worth of PSN’s monthly games), I stumbled upon Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I was familiar with the game’s title and genre but during my playthrough, I was immediately struck by how Amnesia absolutely nails the feeling of being a narrator in one of H.P Lovecraft’s short stories.
From the onset, the setting reminds me of Lovecraft’s twisted tale – The Rats in the Walls. The player-character Daniel wakes up in the intimidating Brennenburg Castle knowing nothing but that he must traverse it to reach its secrets within the Inner Sanctum. This premise alone allows the player to share the confusion and subsequent horror of Daniel as the game unfolds.
Lovecraft stated that “(t)he oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. Like in many of Lovecraft’s texts the fear comes not from what you see but rather it stems from your imagination. In Amnesia you hear and sense the monsters long before you actually see them giving the player a sense of dread and helplessness.
You just KNOW the creature is behind you and expect it to pounce at any moment but it doesn’t which only heightens your paranoia. This is amplified by Daniel (Amnesia’s protagonist) being unarmed for the most part. Aside from the ability to throw bottles to briefly stun, Daniel is defenseless. The atmosphere becomes extremely tense as you madly search for any wardrobe or table for refuge.
Amnesia has excellent pacing. While so many horror games throw hordes of monsters at you and constantly try to provide you with a steady stream of jump scares, Amnesia uses downtime very well to add to the latent horror instilled in the player. Because of the linear nature of the game and scripted events, the game truly felt like you were experiencing the game exactly as it was designed much like how a reader experiences a book. This results in a well-tailored player experience that the developers have full control over.
Similarly to Lovecraft’s tales, the player discovers snippets of the story at the same rate as the narrator. Events that have already unfolded are fed to the player through letters and diaries. Amnesia really keeps the player in the dark (no pun intended) for most of its eight-hour campaign which is amazing to pull off without irritating the player or intruding on their immersion.
We can’t talk about Amnesia without bringing up the sanity meter; a staple of Lovecraftian horror. The game’s sanity meter provides an excellent representation of the mental instability seen in many of Lovecraft’s work and incorporates it expertly as a gameplay mechanic. The game gets harder as Daniel’s sanity decreases meaning the player has as much incentive to frantically manage their sanity meter as Daniel himself.
As red, fleshy substances start to ooze through the walls, you explore darker areas and as the monsters’ appearances become more frequent Daniel becomes increasingly traumatized. Daniel must solve puzzles and remain in light to remain grounded and restore his sanity but sources of light act as a double-edged sword; light makes it easier to be spotted by enemies.
The level design of Amnesia is labyrinth-like; there is visible disorientation throughout the game reflecting Daniel’s mental state. Similarly to The Rats in the Walls as the player descends further and further into the castle so too does their sanity. Amnesia does a great job of emulating Lovecraft’s gothic aesthetic, the ambient noises and sudden gusts of wind make the player feel like that something is increasingly malforming the seemingly normal castle.
Then we have the monsters, the terror that these creatures imbue to a player is remarkably executed. Amnesia gets Lovecraft’s sense of helplessness right as the player-character cannot wield a weapon or even fight back; even staring at the monsters is detrimental to your sanity. As the odds are stacked against the player, you feel a genuine sense of relief every time you find the odd health vile or tinderbox as resources are scarce. This is where I feel many games that try to emulate Lovecraft’s themes fall short as most of these games are generally concerned with giving the player a sense of empowerment.
There’s nothing less empowering than cowering under a table, looking away and trembling long after the monster has left. Even the game’ plot somewhat revolves around sanity, without digging up too much, Amnesia endorses the Lovecraftian trope of madness derived from an ancient, otherworldly item found in an archaeological dig site.
The orb affects all those involved at the dig site, its appearance defies conventional description and radiates a cosmic-like power. Daniel remarks that upon reaching out and touching the mystical relic:
I felt drawn to the mystic light. I reached out, closing it in my hands. The faint glow escaped my fingers and began to spark brightly and spirit me away, unlocking alien memories of spiraling towers, endless deserts, and impossible geometry.
This description could be taken almost word for word from one of Lovecraft’s weird tales. Although we are never shown these alien landscapes their description is enough to inspire terror. I believe that this is also a subtle way to allude to Lovecraft’s iconic imagery. It is known that many of the descriptions of Lovecraft’s creatures are distorted due to the narrator’s increasing madness but by not referencing this directly Amnesia chooses to focus on Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic isolation of humanity. The cosmic abominations are merely props to drive hope that motif and I’m glad at least one horror game that draws from Lovecraft doesn’t just slap tentacles on something and call it a day.
Amnesia really stuck with me as an amazing and unique horror experience. The perfectly timed set- pieces as well as the careful pacing of the game’s story make it a game that can only really be experienced once but it is well worth the price of admission. While there are a good number of excellent games inspired by Lovecraft’s unique brand of horror I feel that Amnesia tastefully adopts the ideas and themes from the author’s works without compromising aspects of it.