Sunday, June 17, 2012

Amnesia: Because a dark scary castle is a great place to spend a Saturday

I'll admit it: I'm a scaredy-cat. I don't do horror movies or haunted houses (unless I'm working them). I jump at little sounds and still sometimes get spooked by things that go bump in the night. This is why I didn't actually play Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a first-person survival horror title from Frictional Games, for myself - I watched as a friend of mine, Alex, played. I should get credit however for not running away screaming (and helping with puzzles).

Amnesia starts you in an apparently empty castle. You can't remember anything, but you find a note addressed to you directing you to kill Alexander, who is in the Inner Sanctum. It's signed by you, so it's gotta be legit. Assuming that your previous self knew what was going on, you proceed gaily through the castle to find him. The rest of the story is disseminated through pages of your torn-up diary and, interestingly, the load screens. (There's a minimum time set to display the message, in case you're playing on a really fast computer.) They do a good job of keeping you in the dark, but informing you enough that you remain intrigued. And, yes, amnesia is a well-known crutch of writing, but they work with it quite well.
Because when I steal and rip apart a diary, I leave all the pages in a convenient order for him to follow.
Amnesia's got a couple of interesting mechanics going for it. The main one is a balance between light and dark: enemies can see you if you're standing in the light, but standing in the darkness for too long makes you lose your sanity. You also have no weapon, so your only options when you see an enemy are to run or crouch in the darkness, praying it won't find you. Oh, and don't look at the enemies too much - you'll lose sanity. You also lose sanity by experiencing "unsettling events." Lack of sanity makes it harder to control your character and your vision will shift and warp. Eventually you just crumple to the ground in what I assume is a blubbering mess. Solving puzzles and staring at light regains sanity.

Another interesting mechanic is that doors are opened and shut with click-and-drag with an option to slam them quickly with the right mouse button. While it took Alex some getting used to at first, he tells me it was eventually pretty intuitive. It allows the player to swing a door open for a peek into the next room (which we didn't use much), but more importantly, it impedes a player who is running away flailing. Running from an enemy is that much harder when you have to remember which way a door swings and spin around quickly to slam it shut.

I didn't expect the game to be as puzzle focused as it was. Overall, I expected more enemies, but it turned out to be a good balance given the no-weapons part, and contributed well to pacing. The castle was reasonably linear without feeling like it - because you're never given a map and have to rely on limited tinderboxes and lantern oil to find your way around, it feels bigger than it is. It's also nicely impossible to get too lost or wander forward without all the tools you need. A few times we had some difficulty tracking down the last cog or pipe because Alex had a tendency to pick up and throw them around, but overall the puzzles weren't too bad. The game will generally give you a hint if you try to use an item but need something else as well. Many puzzles were fairly trivial, though - the game is relying on the horror mechanic.
Next up on our scenic tour, the sewers...
I think the sounds are actually the scariest part of the game. I know many people *cough Jeremy cough* who couldn't make it five or ten minutes into the game, and it takes about ten to find the first enemy. (Though you do catch glimpses of things moving before then and frequently try to go the other way only to have the game force you to Even longer before you're in actual danger - the game uses the first encounter to teach you how to hide from them. The aesthetic is very well done overall, becoming scarier as you descend deeper into the castle and uncover the more gruesome parts of the tale.

The sanity mechanic worked reasonably well, though both sanity and health are described on your inventory screen with a series of descriptors rather than any numerical scale. While this was a reasonable choice for the game, it was a little frustrating for seasoned gamers who wanted to make sense of it. Sanity, for instance, ranges from "Crystal clear" to "..." with descriptors in between like "A slight headache." This system didn't seem to correspond with the aforementioned warping of the screen, though. I suppose it is somewhat appropriate that we spent the game not understanding the insanity scale.

As far as enemies go, while there were less encounters than I expected, the various encounters were well designed. There was never a time we felt that getting by was impossible, though many were close calls of slamming doors behind us and crouching in a corner as the creature pounded at the door. A few times we got by because an enemy simply didn't spawn, though we're unsure whether that was a glitch or the game pitying us. When something kills you, the screen will bring up a message, which is generally something like "You must carry on..." but ocasionally explains a new enemy trick for you (like the helpful "Run!"). While it was clear after dying once what needed to be done, it was a little odd to have to die to get it. I suppose an observant player could figure it out in most cases, and luckily death didn't set you back too far. The pacing was mostly good, with high points and lulls, even if it got a little predictable. We still got spooked though, to the game's credit.
You've - you've got something on your chin there, dude.
Overall, Amnesia does a lot of things about survival horror right. While it isn't a genre I play often, I do think it's perfectly suited to video games due to interactivity. Amnesia, possibly because it lacks the graphics budget of a AAA studio, goes back to survival horror's roots in early 3D gaming, which relied more on darkness and surprise than impressive and creepy enemy models because they simply couldn't be rendered. Amnesia's enemies look a little goofy when you stare at them for a while, but they'll still make you jump when you turn around to find one right behind you. I recommend it to anybody who's at all interested in the survival horror genre, even if you get scared. The triumvirate for beating Amnesia (only 2 required) is to play in daylight, with a friend, and/or without sound. Mix and match so that you can get through it, but I do recommend enjoying the sounds - they add a lot to the experience.

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