Oh, The Insanity! – My Thoughts On Amnesia: The Dark Descent

January 18, 2011

Oh man, where do I start? Seriously. How can I even begin to describe the horror and the absolute delight I experienced this long weekend, playing one of the scariest games in recent memory?

Let’s just put it this way — Amnesia: The Dark Descent was unexpected surprise, something I probably wouldn’t have gotten for myself, so I have fellow blogger Victor Stillwater to thank for gifting it to me over Steam as my Secret Santa this Christmas. After playing the game, all I wanted to do was rave to someone about it, as I am wont to do with any good game I feel passionately about. My husband, being closest to me at the time, fell prey to my impulses as I stormed into the living room, wide-eyed and holding myself and babbling about how creeped out I was. I also told him that if he can somehow manage to tear himself away from World of Warcraft for long enough, he should really take a day or two to give this game a try.

He asked, “Why, is it scary like Resident Evil?”

Um, not quite. It’s scarier. At least in games like Resident Evil you’re given an arsenal to defend yourself against the hordes of zombies, and there’s enough explosive action to keep your mind off the frightening atmosphere at times. I’ve played many survival horror games in the past, but none like Amnesia. For one thing, this game gives you no access to any weapons — none at all. First and foremost, it is a game of wits, which you must keep about you in order to escape from the many grotesque monsters roaming Brennenburg Castle. That, or you can turn tail and run like hell.

Lord knows I did plenty of that.

Second of all, Amnesia features a stat called your sanity, which is a factor separate from your health status. Encountering monsters, witnessing scary events, or even staying in the darkness too long will deplete it, making it harder for you to move or see or until you pass out. So, think hiding in the shadows will offer you safety from the horrors? Think again. Surviving this game is a delicate balancing act; you are constantly gauging in your mind how long you should spend in the light or in the dark, and how you can get the most out of your limited supply of tinderboxes and lamp oil.

Before I played this game, one of my commenters warned me not to underestimate its ability to scare. In his words, the game is “atmospherically horrific like a mofo” and that it’s “what you don’t see that will freak you out.” Well, he was absolutely right about that. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will find many homages to the author and his works in the Amnesia’s plot and structure, and the theme of losing one’s mind plays a central role in the mounting horror as the tale unfolds. The story is revealed almost backwards in flashbacks, Memento-style, as you play the main character trying to piece together the past events which landed you in this nightmare.

At its heart, Amnesia is a first-person adventure game, with a heavy focus on exploration and puzzle solving requiring the player to manipulate and interact with objects in the environment. I’m no stranger to this sort of gameplay, though the horror angle can be rather unsettling. The puzzles themselves aren’t too difficult, but they’re not really meant to be. The developers, Frictional Games, even tell you not to play to win — indeed, the enjoyment I had came more from the creepy experience than anything, and keeping a clear head can be tough when you’re in a room being distracted by mangled corpses or horrifying torture devices, all the while trying to keep your sanity intact and dodge monsters at the same time.

But just as I was warned, it’s what I didn’t see that made my skin crawl with the heebie-jeebies. That’s not to say the game itself isn’t full of frightening visuals (because as you can see from the screenshots — it is), but that alone usually doesn’t suffice to scare me. But the game doesn’t resort to cheesy action sequences and cheap jump scenes either — it doesn’t have to. What really did it for me are the horrors that are implied rather than shown, the kinda stuff that sends you packing on a fun and twisted all-expenses paid mind trip.

For best results, do as the game suggests and play in a dark room with a nice, comfy pair of over-the-ear headphones. Allow the sound effects and the spooky environment to take you away, let yourself become vulnerable and completely immerse yourself, and you’ll find the experience all the more terrifying.


  1. I am so not getting this game anymore.

    I thought I wanted it, but I’m too chicken to play! AAAAAAAAAAAAH!

    • If you can’t take suspenseful horror games, I’d say yeah, stay away 😛 I can generally take scary games, but this was still much scarier than I thought.

  2. I thought the Lovecraft reference was fitting.

    One of the reasons why I love H.P. Lovecraft is his ability to scare with the unknown, and the unseen. In fact, he seemed to be in love (no pun intended) with the idea of not knowing, or with the idea that a person CANNOT know everything. I remember reading a quote by him once that said something to the effect of “A human mind is convinced it is the center of the universe. If it were to discover the truth–that it is merely an infinitesimally minute speck in the vast, unending blackness of the universe–it would be unable to comprehend such a thing, and would descend into welcoming madness.” At the Mountains of Madness, The Music of Erich Zann, even The Call of Cthulhu, all used the tactic of explaining without really explaining to perfection. Lovecraft was skilled at teasing the reader, showing you something to make you think everything fit perfectly within the rigid standards of human thinking—then he just flipped you upside down by introducing something you couldn’t conceive of with a human mind (non-Euclidean architecture, full of “spheres and dimensions apart from ours”; the nebulous abyss outside Erich Zann’s window, and the unseen horror which his odd music was keeping at bay; the thing beyond the mountain, beyond the ancient city in AtMoM, which drove Danforth insane just on sight alone).

    Atmospheric horror is so much more effective than shock, when done right. The tricky part is, it is hard to do right. Lovecraft did it by appealing to our desire to know everything, then showing us that we probably know nothing, or at least nothing that has any bearing on something as eternal as the universe.

    Amnesia really achieves atmospheric horror, and in no small part thanks to its design. Like you said in the blog, Amnesia doesn’t let you get distracted from the horror around you. By design, you have to take it into account at all times. The absence of weapons just makes you feel that much more helpless; if something were to get you, no weapons means game over. Plus, the designers did a good job of letting you see just enough, but not nearly as much as other games. One of the more effective scares in the game was the part where you had to jump across boxes on the water. You never really see what is in the water chasing you, but seeing the ripple effect is enough to give you a bit of a scare.

    It really seemed as if the designers took a “Horror by Lovecraft” training course.lol I was impressed.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the game. I have to admit, Amnesia is something quite different from your usual modern horror games. I’m sure that’s why it has gotten such positive word of mouth publicity. Atmospheric horror is not easy to achieve these days with all the sight gags and stuff, but Amnesia definitely achieved it.

    • Having only read a couple of his stories, I’m only vaguely familiar with Lovecraft, enough to know about some of the common themes in his work, like descent into madness and fear of the unknown/unseen. Your descriptions about him really make me want to read more of his stuff now 😛

      Amnesia definitely did it right with atmospheric horror. I agree that it’s hard to do — I’m very sensitive to it too, at anytime something distracts me from the horror, it becomes less scary. Probably explains why I’ve never found any horror movie to be truly scary — when too much happens on screen, overdoing it with the action or having too much blood or gore in a scene, something just turns off in my brain and I’m no longer scared and I just can’t get back into the mood anymore. Same with games like Resident Evil and Dead Space. The games become less about the horror and more about blasting the crap out of monsters. With Amnesia though, it’s ALWAYS AND EVER about the horror. That’s what I love about it. I may have bitched and moaned about being scared all the time while playing it, but the truth is, that’s what I was looking for. I like creeping myself out sometimes, but forever the challenge has been trying to find something that actually, truly frightens me while experiencing it. Amnesia has come the closest.

      • I’m sure you will enjoy Lovecraft’s work, just be aware that he is a noted anglophile–and that informs his writing.

        The first time I read some of his stories, I needed a dictionary at certain parts.lol But his ideas are ahead of their time.

        Hey, check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcHmWLYmwgo

  3. Love this game as well…although I was so freaked out that I had to go watch Mamma Mia to relax the crazy at one point. 😀

    • LOL yeah this game really puts you on edge. I screamed twice while playing this game — ironically it had nothing to do with the actual game. The first time, my husband came into the room and put his hand on my shoulder, because I couldn’t hear him with the headphones on. The second time, my dog came in quietly and put his wet nose behind the back of my knee. I jumped a mile that time too, lol.

  4. I have been hearing a lot of good things about this game from around the web.

    • Yeah, I think most of the publicity surrounding this game has been generated by word of mouth online. I’d never heard of it, until Victor gave it to me as a present.

  5. […] MMO Gamer Chick — Oh, The Insanity!  My Thoughts on Amnesia: The Dark Descent “My husband, being closest to me at the time, fell prey to my impulses as I stormed into the living room, wide-eyed and holding myself and babbling about how creeped out I was.” […]

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