My shoulders hurt. They’ve been hurting a lot the last few days as, while playing Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I find my body contorting into an increasingly uncomfortable position. I start off sat straight, but before I know it my shoulders are higher than my ears, my elbows are off the table and out to the side and I’ve gnawed my bottom lip raw.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a very tense game.
Tense, not scary. Those are different things. To be frightening, Amnesia would have to go the familiar route of having monsters leap out of cupboards suddenly, a la Doom 3. It actually does the opposite. Rather than springing surprises on you when you least expect it, Amnesia just leaves you expecting it – immersing you in anticipation until you feel like you’re going to drown in dread.
It must have been a terrible flossing accident
It’s a more sophisticated approach to horror; playing on psychological threats rather than physical ones. The opening hours of the game are spent inching along empty corridors, being occasionally unnerved by a flicker of shadow or a random noise, telling yourself that old reassurance – it’s just a game. Eventually you might muster the nerve to make a furious, desperate dash to the next well-lit area or point of safety, but if you’re anything like me then you’ll arrive panting for air.
Then a thought strikes you and you wonder; why was that so scary? Nothing happened! That’s how tense Amnesia can be. It can make you scared at nothing, raising the thought of how terrifying it’ll be when something does happen.
Most of that fearfulness and tension is bought about by the simple fact that Amnesia never lets you get really comfortable within the game world, going out of the way to remove safe havens where you might pause and plan your next move. Story-wise you’re cast as an amnesiac man, Daniel, who wakes up in a strange castle with nothing by questions to keep him company. You’re never sure what to expect and, as the plot slowly unfolds, the questions keep on piling up. It’s like Lost, but, y’know…good.
Bunny serial killer - he hunts wabbits
The amnesia conceit is an old and over-used starting point in many ways, one where players are led on mainly through out-of-sequence flashbacks and conveniently placed diary entries, but it’s not as bad as it could be. The story is spaced out quite well and, while some of the writing is a touch ropey (and the voice acting flatter than an infinite plane), it’s also pleasantly brief. You never feel like the plot is being rammed down your throat and, while the story feels as predictable as last week’s Lotto numbers to start with, it rapidly evolves into something a lot more interesting.
If you want to get even more out of the plot then it’s worth highlighting Frictional’s expansive developer commentary too, which functions similarly to the commentaries in the latest Half-Life games. The only difference is that, where Valve has obviously scripted and recorded its comments on high-end kit, Frictional hasn’t. The result is that the occasionally poor audio quality (and sometimes tricky accents) is balanced out by the frank and lengthy discussion of the development process. Each of the main developers gets his fair share of airtime too, discussing everything from characters that were cut from the main game right through to the details of the soundtrack and level design.