“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
I was upstairs with the lights out and headphones on, staring into a computer screen. My cousin was in the other room talking on the phone to his girlfriend. Suddenly, a cry of “OH MY GOD” escaped my lips. My cousin ran into the room and asked if I was okay. I grinned sheepishly in spite of my heavy breathing and told him that I was just playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent by Frictional is probably one of the best horror games I have ever played. Make no mistake; this is a true horror game. Unlike other games labeled as horror, this one will actually get under your skin and mess with you psychologically. A game like this deserves to act as a blueprint for all future horror games because way too many horror games simply fail to deliver the scares.
The hallmark of the best horror is the cultivation of dread. We all know that our minds are more capable of creating terror than anything else. That is why the fear of the unknown is so powerful; our minds take over and create the horror for us. Once that horror becomes known, it becomes far less scary.
The best horror uses this principle to turn our own brains against us, creating a playground for our minds to conjure up the worst terrors imaginable. Nothing can compete with the horror we create for ourselves. That’s why Jaws and Alien were so scary. The creature in question was shown as little as possible in order to let the audience reconstruct the horror for themselves.
In video games, the principle of dread is especially important if you are making a horror game. Players need to experience it, otherwise the game becomes a chore to get through, especially if the game relies on nothing but jump scares. There are three things that cultivate dread in video games: vulnerability, unpredictability, and immersion. Do well in each of these areas and your horror game is in good hands. The devoplers behind Amnesia accomplished the above through three smart design choices: lack of combat, limited monster encounters and a unique way of manipulating environmental objects
Lack of Combat
Players need to feel vulnerable in order to be scared. A player facing the scariest monster imaginable won’t be scared if the monster is easily dispatched with a shotgun. Without any sort of vulnerability, there is nothing for the player to fear beyond unexpected jump scares which get old far very quickly.
Before Amnesia, Frictional Games created the Penumbra series; a series I haven’t played. These games had combat, but from what I heard it was clunky and problematic. Rather than trying to fix a broken system, Frictional Games got rid of it completely. In Amnesia, there is no combat whatsoever; the monsters encountered cannot be killed. As a result, the player must either hide or run away from them.
This introduces a whole new dimension to the game. You are no longer some invincible bullet dispenser able to kill any problem that pops up. You actually have to run away, hide and pray to your favorite deity that the monster doesn’t spot you. Probably the closest thing anyone of us would do when faced with terrifying creatures in reality.
Since you can’t kill the enemies and are relatively weak (only a couple hits will kill you), you are constantly on the lookout of monsters. The fear of a monster lurking around that corner suddenly has huge implications beyond being something else you’ll need to kill.
Limited Monster Encounters
Horror requires unpredictability. When something is predictable, it stops being scary. A creature jumping out from a closet might be scary the first time. But if you have creatures jumping out of every closet in the game, it becomes tedious rather than scary.
The developers of Amnesia understood this concept well and, as a result, the game has a very limited number of monster encounters. In my 10-15 hour run, I encountered roughly seven monsters give or take a few. As a result, there are many times when you believe a monster to be lurking behind that closed door, only to find something much worse… nothing. See, making the player think there is a mind-numbing horror beyond that door when there really isn’t one is far more terrifying then actually having one present.
Worse, the game has a sanity bar that decreases the longer you stay in the dark or stare at monsters. When your sanity dips really low, you actually begin to see monsters that aren’t there. This is completely dynamic. You’ll see a glimpse of some creature that darted just around the corner; you slow your advance and slowly sneak a peek only to see nothing. Where did it go? Was it really there or what? This makes monster encounters highly unpredictable as you never really know when you are going to encounter a monster. The limited number of encounters and hallucinations make you believe there is a monster around every corner.
In the above story, I saw a monster and promptly hid inside a closet. I sat there as I heard the monster shuffle closer, make a few sounds and wander off. Once I could no longer see or hear it, I stepped out thinking it was a hallucination and ran through the hallway… only to run right into the same monster I thought wasn’t there. This was one of the very few times a game has ever made me cry out in fear.
Unlike movies or books, video games, especially horror games, require an additional element to work well. The player needs to be immersed in the game; the constant presence of an HUD or the flashing “press E to open this door” will constantly remind you this is just a game. In some games, this isn’t so bad, but in horror games this is a game-breaker. Horror games require immersion to truly be scary. Amnesia accomplishes this through a very simple yet compelling mechanic.
Here, unlike any other game I’ve played, you don’t just press a button to open a door. Rather, you line your crosshair on the door, click and hold the mouse, and then move the mouse in the direction you want to manipulate the door. If you are facing a door and want to open it towards you, you click the door, hold and move the mouse towards you as if you are actually pulling the door towards you.
This is also how you manipulate switches, levers, chests, desk drawers, etc. This single mechanic does wonders for immersion. Coupled with the lack of an HUD, you really feel like you are there in the castle running away from shadows and slamming doors behind you to prevent the horrors from following you. I honestly don’t know why other games haven’t adopted this.
There is a lot more to the game. There is a lack of background music when only a few notes here and there and a TON of ominous noise. The story is fairly decent and intriguing. There is an interesting interplay between light, darkness and sanity. All these work very well together to create a compelling horror experience. But none of this would have meant much if the foundation for the horror wasn’t so well developed. Hopefully, we’ll see how this blueprint is used in other games in future articles.