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Sheppard’s Video Game Pie

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Amnesia is a first-person horror game with no combat, which is not to say no danger. You play a man named Daniel with no memory of who he is, who wakes up next to a note and an empty bottle in a largely abandoned, collapsing castle.

by Stephen Lea Sheppard
Aug 23 2011, 12:00am

AMNESIA: THE DARK DESCENT
Platform: PC
Publisher: Frictional Games

Summer gaming drought will be ending soon enough—I've already got a copy of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron sitting on my desk, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution downloading via Steam as I type this—but for the last week I've been spending my gaming time with an older title that's been sitting in my library for a while. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a PC game released in… what the heck, September 2010? (I just looked that up.) Almost a year ago? This is older than I thought!

Well. I'm sort of committed to reviewing it now, since I haven't played anything else for the past week. Maybe if I'd actually looked up how old it was when I started I'd have gone with something else, but it's a game I'd wanted to get to for a while that I figured I would probably have something interesting to say about. Onward!
Amnesia is a first-person horror game with no combat, which is not to say no danger. You play a man named Daniel with no memory of who he is, who wakes up next to a note and an empty bottle in a largely abandoned, collapsing castle. The note, apparently written by Daniel before he drank an alchemical mixture from the bottle that erased his memory, instructs him to travel to the center of the castle and murder an old man. Notes found along the way make it apparent the game is set in the late 1800s in Prussia, and that Daniel mucked about with occult forces and helped to call up something he couldn't put down.

I used to be susceptible to scares in video games, and it made it hard to play horror games, which I liked, so I deliberately desensitized myself to the idea of personal danger in order to be able to finish Resident Evil 4. This turned out not to be the best choice as my appreciation for horror games has sharply diminished ever since—I can now focus on the mechanics to the point that the game's atmosphere and appearance become a non-factor. On that note, I have to congratulate Amnesia for basing its horror effects on a really vicious resource management problem and actually being frightening even to someone as jaded as I.

Daniel has two health tracks—health, and sanity. He loses health from taking physical damage. He loses sanity from spending too long in the dark, or looking at monsters, or looking at unsettling environmental features. If he runs out of health, he dies. If he runs out of sanity, he dies. He cannot fight the monsters, because he's just some guy. He can only run and hide from them.

The best way to hide from the monsters is in the dark. Which drains sanity. You can't even look at the monsters safely, you have to watch them from the edge of your screen.

The two major important item pickups are lamp oil and tinderboxes. Lamp oil powers your mobile light source, while tinderboxes light stationary candles and torches. Lamp oil is rare and monsters can see you while you're walking around with your lamp lit, so when you go exploring it's best to do it with the lamp extinguished. But this means exploring is sanity-draining. You can create a safe area by lighting, say, two separate torches or candles in a given room, someplace you can retreat to safely when your exploration has yielded no progress and your sanity's low, but on the other hand, because those stationary light sources stay lit, doing this just creates a room you have to stay the heck away from if a monster's on your tail.

It's beautiful; it's just an excellent piece of system design. And, I mean, the atmosphere is good, too—the game uses this really unsettling chewing sound, like termites eating wood, as an indicator that your sanity is draining, and there's blurry screen effects and everything else you'd expect. The lighting engine is good, everything looks pretty, the story is a respectable Lovecraft pastiche which makes it fantastic by video game story standards—but I have to praise the designer for tying the mood of the game so strongly to the mechanics.

Go check out Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's old and inexpensive and looks decent even by modern game standards and hella-well designed.

Reviews of actual current games resume next week.