Every night for the past week or so, I've given my wife a kiss, grabbed a beer, and headed into my dark office. I'll close the blinds, turn off the trippy colored lighting on my keyboard, and put on a pair of headphones while the loading screen for Amnesia: Rebirth does its thing. My relationship to horror has been defined by my wife at my side, but my wife doesn't like to watch me play games, even horror ones, which means I'm left to experience this nightmare on my own.
And so, as I watch the oil in my virtual lantern run out, I consider what's waiting in the darkness. All I can do is hope my children can't hear the screams from downstairs.
Rebirth, an unexpected sequel to one of the most influential horror games of all time, is ultimately more tense than horrifying. That assessment comes from someone numbed from decades of watching Friday the 13th and its ilk, however, so your mileage may vary. But when Rebirth wants to punch you in the face, it lands hard. When it wants to dare you to turn the screen off and walk away, it can.
But Rebirth is also a perplexing alchemical mix of game design ideas trapped in the framework of a heavy legacy, struggling to transmute into something new. Based on the six or so hours that I've played in the past week, it mostly works, but not without struggling through an uneven first act that doesn't fully communicate how some key mechanics work.
Few games can claim they helped define a genre, but you can't understand the modern horror game without 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Its influence is everywhere. One of its many innovations, Amnesia stripped the player of their primary interaction with a game: violence. You could not fight the monsters hiding in the dark. All you could do was run, hide, and pray for salvation. For better and worse, Amnesia also contributed to launching the careers of folks like PewDiePie, who helped popularize the Let's Play style on the Internet.
Even developer Frictional Games seemed to realize how much Amnesia felt like lighting in a bottle, which is why the studio spent the next five years leaving behind its cthulhu-inspired world for an existential crisis set in the depths of the ocean, Soma. It is, and remains, an underappreciated masterpiece, featuring one of the medium's best and bleakest endings.
Rebirth, though connected to the story of The Dark Descent, does not require you to have played it to hit the ground running. The story here centers on Tasi Trianon, who is part of an expedition into the Algerian Desert that hits a nasty speed bump when their plane crashes in the middle of nowhere. Tasi awakes alone, and sets out to find out what happened to everyone, including her husband. While experiencing frequent blackouts and suspecting she is very much not alone in the desert, Tasi has another reason for survival: she's pregnant.
One of the reasons Soma remains underappreciated is because a lot of people struggled to get through it. Navigating the game's lumbering monstrosities was not, in fact, the best part of Soma. It was the story, and its monster sequences became tiring endeavours of trial-and-error. It was worth it, of course, but there's a reason Frictional later patched in a story mode of sorts. In that mode, the monsters were there, but they could no longer kill you.
"Rebirth is going to be way more—the enemies make sense there," said Frictional creative director Thomas Grip to me earlier this year. "You can’t just remove enemies that are deadly because that wouldn't make story-wise sense. So it's much more connected to the narrative. I think that the best version of Soma is one with the enemies because that gives a certain amount of dread. But I still understand that some people didn't like that, from the frustration or whatnot. They were too scared and just wanted to enjoy the story."
Rebirth tries to split the difference, while still feeling very much like an Amnesia game. There are cumbersome physics puzzles that grind the game to a halt. You read lots of notebooks that fill in parts of the story because there aren't really cutscenes or character interactions. A main source of tension is a desire to explore butting into the extremely limited resources allotted to light the darkness, knowing that walking around in the pitch black will eventually result in losing a grip on reality. (In a nod to how our discussions around mental illness have shifted in the last decade, Rebirth swaps losing "sanity" for being overwhelmed by "fear.")
I'm an easy mark for these games, but truth be told, I found the opening hours frustrating and hard to settle into. It takes some time before players get access to a lantern, which means for a while, your main source of light is using matches to ignite nearby candles, torches, whatever you can find. The faster you walk, the faster the matches go out. You do not get access to many matches early on, which means choosing to light one up is a huge gamble, because there's also no guarantee you'll find anything useful to light along the way.
You end up spending a lot of time in Rebirth bumbling forward, a dwindling match in hand, hoping to find something to light along the way. This meant I was less encouraged to poke around the world, because it meant burning a precious resource. I would fumble through desk drawers without igniting a match to help me see better, hoping the game's interface would switch to the icon that represents an item I could pick up. Hopefully, it was a match.
This was especially maddening during the game's first encounter with a creature of some sort, which is also tied into the first real puzzle. To engage with that puzzle requires a lot of exploring, requiring matches I didn't think I could afford to give up. So I didn't. The result was me circling in the dark, mad instead of scared, and disengaging from the atmosphere it was trying hard to cook up. Weird goblin-looking thing around the corner? Whatever, I'm trying to figure out how to attach a wheel to this cannon from the other room. Find someone else, K?
My mind started to drift towards a world after Rebirth was released, when someone inevitably releases a mod that gave players unlimited access to matches.
Much of my annoyance, however, came from historical assumptions about how this game is supposed to work. In most video games, Amnesia or otherwise, when you die, you load an older save or start at a recent checkpoint, which forces players to worry about dying not just because it means failure, but having to annoyingly repeat a section all over again. Addressing how Rebirth deals with this question would be a spoiler, but it does. It's a clever solution to a hard problem. Rebirth centers its story, and always pushes the player forward. It accomplishes what Frictional promised, all without removing enemies or even downplaying their danger.
But woof, the game doesn't communicate this change in approach, and I really wish I'd known earlier, because it allowed me to approach Rebirth on its own terms, and give myself over to the world and its weirdness. Once you do, Rebirth becomes a hell of a ride.
It's got some really fascinating ideas, too. The main character, Tasi, is pregnant, but this isn't merely a throwaway part of her biography. The baby, though silent and physically unseen, is an active participant in the story, a source of comfort for Tasi during her more trying moments. Rebirth dedicates an entire button for prompting Tasi to look at her growing belly and communicate with the unborn child, which functions as a way for Tasi to open up and talk about herself in a game without other characters around. It also, functionally, calms her down. If Tasi has seen something gruesome, or just rounded the corner from an enemy, she can take a moment to clasp her hands around a sense of hope and find a peaceful feeling.
I have watched my wife experience two pregnancies and the remarkable toll it takes on the human body. It's not only emotionally tumultuous but physically brutal, making your body harder to operate. Rebirth doesn't shy away from this, either, with Tasi having to exert great effort to run or move objects. Even when you are not actively cradling the child she's carrying, Rebirth reminds you of its impact (The only thing Rebirth is missing, really, is an explanation for why Tasi doesn't have to pee every 15 minutes). This is just not something a lot of games grapple with, and there are a lot of ways Rebirth's approach could have gone wrong, but it's a real standout part of the game.
The main reason I was apprehensive about Frictional returning to Amnesia was the weight of expectations, the idea that it would feel the need to reinvent the genre. Change for change's sake, so to speak. Frictional seems to have rejected this notion, because while Rebirth is certainly an evolution of a space the studio played in for the past decade, it does not try to be anything more than a new Amnesia game, warts and all. The result is something decidedly old school, embracing its clunkiness and quirks, rather than running from them.
Rebirth is strange, scary, and unexpected. All told, that's not all bad for a new Amnesia.