Amnesia is generally considered to be on of the scariest games that have come out recently. Many even consider it the scariest game of all time. Yet when looking at these claims one has to ask what exactly did Amnesia: The Dark Descent do to make the game so scary? More importantly, what did it do differently to other games so that it stands out. Last, one has to wonder what exactly has to change for the sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, and what has to stay the same for this new game to stay as scary as or even scarier than the original.
Amnesia is unique when it comes to the Survival Horror genre. The game does so many things right that add to the experience of those playing, and in doing so cause the game to be nearly perfect in regards to its ability to scare players. With the release of the game by Frictional Games, the popularity of it skyrocketed. There have been hundreds of YouTube publishers posting videos of themselves playing the game, many forum users spread the news of this game, and then eventually Steam picked it up. It eventually became well known to many gamers and non-gamers alike. The reason that the game spread so quickly was due to how it was designed.
Starting with the atmosphere of the game is a great way to start seeing how this game achieved so much. When starting the game you get to see the design of Castle Brennenberg, where Amnesia: The Dark Descent takes place. The background noises you hear throughout the game add to the feeling of being in an abandoned and broken down castle. When exploring rooms you hear footsteps above you, which stops new players in their tracks so that they don’t alert whoever is making those footsteps to their presence. The wind causes doors to open slowly with a creak. Lights are snuffed out during random encounters, leaving players in an dark and gloomy looking room.
Overall the way all of these features are added cause the whole castle to feel alive even though you don’t see any actual danger as of yet. This is one of the ways that makes the game scary. Players imagination plays a big part of how afraid they are. You hear a noise, and then players must wonder what caused it, many times following a though process similar to “What was that noise? Is it coming towards me? Or was it just my imagination. Maybe there wasn’t really a monster there at all. But wait, there it is again…”
The game does a great job of causing players to scare themselves. You don’t even encounter a monster until nearly an hour of playing through the game. Even when you see the monsters you are not bombarded with them, this is what Amnesia: The Dark Descent does so well. They realize that the less you see the monster of a game, the scarier the monster is. If you start seeing a monster in any game multiple times over and over again, you start becoming less and less afraid and the fear gets replaced with annoyance. In Amnesia, you don’t get a chance to study what the monster looks like, as if you get close enough to get a good look at their appearance, you will probably die.
Another feature that Amnesia benefited from is the lack of any self defense. In Frictional Games previous titles, namely Penumbra and its sequels, players had a very limited defense system. In Amnesia, you are entirely defenseless, and you can only run away from monsters if you are seen. When you see a monster it is best to either hide in the darkness and hope that they don’t see you, or you could run as fast as possible to an exit or another room, so as to find a place to hide.
This adds a lot to the fear level of this game. Unlike many Horror games, you can’t fight back. In games such as Dead Space or Resident Evil, which many people will argue are not ‘real horror games’, you have powerful weapons and a character that packs a real punch and can beat enemies down with their bare hands. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Daniel (the protagonist of the game) cannot do anything to attack monsters. Making Daniel so weak and defenseless causes players to feel weak and defenseless, which makes everything just seem even scarier knowing that if you are seen you can’t defend yourself.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent also had a unique lighting system and sanity system. You collected tinderboxes throughout the game, as well as oil for a lantern that you received early in the game. You could light torches on the wall, candles, or even fireplaces in the game to light up the rooms you explored. You had to do this because if you stood in the dark for too long, Daniel began to lose his sanity, causing the screen to look fuzzy, having Daniel hallucinate thinking bugs are crawling on his face, and he may even stumble and fall to the ground unable to move.
The inverse effect of this is that using too much light can cause the monsters to be able to find Daniel easier. This gives players a choice between having the room be light and therefore being able to see things easier and having Daniel not lose his mind, but at the same point you lose the safety darkness brings you when trying to hide from a monster. This mechanic causes players to have to really risk lighting a room to see while also making sure you don’t run out of tinderboxes or oil so you can see in the future. This resource management system encourages players to look and study rooms closely to find hidden resources.
The Monsters in Amnesia are also something to be afraid of. There are 3 monsters in total that you can find in the game, the design of which are truly terrifying. One of which you cannot see, but only see where it is walking. This monster follows the design of not seeing what it is or where it is, therefore instilling more fear. The other two monsters are grotesque humanoid creatures that walk slow paths and when seen they run at breakneck speeds towards the player.
All of these above reasons explain why the game was so successful in scaring its audience. But there were parts of the game that could really be improved. We hope that these features make their way into Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs or even their future titles.
One of the biggest gripes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the end game appearance of Agrippa. You hear about him throughout the game and it’s cool that you get to see him. But his character being in the game and talking to you constantly really ruins the immersion and fear players felt previous to meeting him. Previously you are alone in an abandoned castle, and then out of nowhere you are greeted by a jaw-less human who constantly talks, even when you are just passing by the room he is located it. This causes the game to have this area feel safe and not scary. Nothing happens in this room that is truly scary. We can hope that such a character does not appear in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
Second, one of the downfalls of this game was the lack of penalty of dying. In many circumstances, failing to run away from a monster and dying causes the monster to disappear from that location when restarting. Even when you die in other circumstances you just restart and try again, this time knowing exactly what is going to happen and this causes the game to not be scary. In Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, they should have some sort of penalty for dying so as to not encourage dying just to skip a part of the game.
The game should have also had different ways to light an area up. Players received more than enough tinderboxes and oil throughout the game that light was never an issue. In many cases you never even needed light to progress through the game and the penalty from being insane was barely noticeable. The sanity feature should either be more severe, or the lighting feature should be more needed. Otherwise it gets rid of any reason to try to conserve oil and tinderboxes. On this topic, players should be able to use candles or other light sources they find throughout the game.
These candles, for instance, could maybe be stationary and last forever, or could be picked up and used for one minute before the wax is all burned out. Adding such features could allow the game to have less tinderboxes and oil, and make payers become more careful when choosing ways to light a room, bringing back the conservation of light as a vital part of the game. Continuing on this topic, the game should allow players to snuff out lights they previously lit in the environment. Therefore you can still be hidden if a monster comes unexpected by putting out all of the lights in the room.
If Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs followed the recipe that the original followed, and maybe even included some of these small fixes listed above, the game should still be as scary as the original. We know that thechineseroom, who are developing this title this time around, want to be somewhat original and therefore changing some features of the game so as to be more unique is expected, but we hope they don’t change too much of the core of what made Amnesia so good.