On September 8, 2010, Swedish developer Frictional Games gave us a uniquely harrowing experience that is still, even five years later, considered to be one of the scariest video games of all time. With the patience of a serial killer stalking his prey, it took three Penumbra games to build up to the nightmarish masterpiece that is Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Amnesia is a considerably more clever game than the eponymous plot device it employed to make sure the player was always as lost and bewildered as its mentally diminished lead, Daniel.
With a slow-burn narrative that emphasized exploration, puzzle-solving and hiding inside closets or behind the door you barricaded by throwing everything in the room at it, it feels like a found footage horror movie in the making. Without its influence, actual found footage games like Outlast and Slender might not exist.
Every system, mechanic and smart idea is connected, like cogs in a machine. So while the insanity system tends to hog all the attention, Daniel’s fragile psyche isn’t singularly responsible for this game’s success. Take Daniel’s character, or lack thereof, for instance. There’s not much going on there, and that actually makes it scarier.
The Dead Space series did this, too. In the original, Isaac Clarke had about as much personality as the skeleton that always stared at me in health class. It wasn’t until the sequel took the time to flesh out his character that he felt more like a human being. This didn’t have a negative impact, but it did signal a dramatic shift in the series’ pacing.
Dead Space and its sequel are comparable to the first two Aliens films. They’re both scary, but the first was more adept at scaring the blue out of my jeans, and that’s because it’s so much easier to project yourself onto a blank canvas than it is on one that’s been partially filled out. With Amnesia, Frictional turned guiding an amnesiac avatar through a hallway made of painted polygons into an extension of the player.
Clever scare tactics can carry a mediocre horror film until the credits start rolling. It’s not as useful to game developers, who must also possess a certain amount of technical mastery to craft something that won’t be forgotten as soon as the next scary game arrives.
Amnesia treats its players like rats in a maze. The goal is to use the limited sources of light to navigate the labyrinthine series of stone chambers inhabited by unkillable monstrosities that wander about seeking people-shaped nourishment to take back to their bone nests, I’m guessing, so they can feed their hellish offspring baby bird-style.
A few tweaks to that last paragraph and it could describe a bunch of games, many of which aren’t worth honoring five years after their release. Amnesia earned its legacy by striking a balance between familiar staples of the genre — a helpless character lost in a hostile world with limited resources — with its more unconventional ideas.
Amnesia works so well because it is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not a complex game, and that streamlined approach to its design is why it’s so easy to play, enjoyable to watch, and impossible to forget.
Your move, SOMA.