I remember as a child reading a set of Ladybird Well-Loved Tales books that all came with an accompanying audio cassette. There were plenty in the series including The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, to name a few. There is quite a dark side to children’s fairy tales however, and the two that I found most harrowing were The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids and The Three Billy-goats Gruff. Something about the imagery in those books, the sinister plotlines and the style of painting – so different from the cutesier modern day look of children’s books – made my hair stand on end. At one point, during a car journey, I remember turning a page of The Billy-goats Gruff to be confronted with an image of a lurking Troll waiting in hiding under a small bridge to eat the goats. I was so scared I actually vomited all over the page.
One of the games I’ve recently been playing, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is scarier.
Being an adult I now have a degree of control over my bodily functions however, and have not, as you may have thought, been puking all over my computer monitor. That said, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is THE scariest game I have ever played. In fact I don’t think I would be exaggerating when I say it is the scariest experience of my life. Now I, at the risk of sounding too immodest, have done some pretty scary things in the past: Skydiving, Shark diving, Bungee jumping, getting lost in Cape Town AT NIGHT (all of which, incidentally, were experienced in the same two week holiday to South Africa). Yet Amnesia tops them all, and by a long shot.
Amnesia, from the very start, gets under your skin, crawling like an unknown parasite. All we know from the start of the game is that the protagonist, that’s you, is desperately trying to reassure himself of his own name and where he lives. From there the game oozes a dark sense of foreboding and uncertainty. You move cautiously through dim stone corridors, lit sporadically with flaming torches and candles. You tread carefully, trying to understand this new place, reminiscent of the bowels of an old stone castle or stately home. Cliché you say? The term will most probably not even enter your mind as the atmosphere is absorbing enough. The environment will make you cautious; the sounds and ambience give the impression of something sinister and alive just beyond or around the next corner, but what, or when it will rear its ugly head, is unknown. Footsteps and distant sounds of movement can be heard which often make you stop in your tracks, fearing what horrors wait around the next corner. It takes every ounce of will to continue onwards. On top of this, Amnesia subjects us to the sudden, shock, surprise tactics that we’re used to in plenty of horror games and films. Doors will snap open suddenly of their own accord, lights will unexpectedly extinguish and swirling mists will appear from nowhere.
The real ace up the sleeve of Amnesia however is the fact that there are no weapons. Yup, that’s right, no weapons. This is not your typical survival horror game, ala Resident Evil or Silent Hill. You will encounter creatures, or monsters, or whatever it is you want to call them, but it was not the intention of the developers that the player would engage in any kind of combat. In fact they even give guidelines at the start of the game on how to play. This includes running away from whatever moves, wearing headphones, playing in the dark and eventually shitting yourself.
Not only are you subjected to a nightmarish environment, but you are also completely defenceless within it. You are powerless; you have been demoted in the hierarchy of this world to be less powerful than the rest of life within it. This aspect of Amnesia is a big part of what makes it so terrifying. Wielding some kind of weapon in our traditional survival horror games gives a certain sense of security; not just using it, but simply by carrying it around. We feel safe and confident that the designer has essentially told us: I’ve given you this weapon, it should be enough to dispatch whatever danger comes your way. We walk boldly forward, keeping ourselves faced towards the unknown. The weapon-less Amnesia however, gives a different message: run, and don’t look back.
If you’re not convinced by its power to scare you yet, then check out this gameplay footage:
I’m sure most people have experienced, as I have, the games of hide and seek, played as children, or the tricks that other kids would play on us by jumping out from behind a wall, or chasing us down a corridor. Being chased can be a terrifying experience, even if we’re just playing. The idea in Amnesia that we now have to run from the boogie man and hide in the cupboard instead of shooting him in the face reduces us to the equivalent of children in a dark, very scary world.
One of the great aspects of Amnesia is the power of uncertainty. There is a belief that fear is due to the unknown, what we don’t understand. If that is the case, then Amnesia exploits this idea very well. As an example, when I first started playing Amnesia I foolishly decided to do it at around 3am with the lights off and headphones on. This was a bad idea. I hardly lasted fifteen minutes before I had to turn the damn thing off; it was too much. I decided then to experiment with my own emotional reactions to it and play during the day, in a bright environment. This was much better, but still disturbing. It was also during this time, however, that I encountered the first monster. At that moment I could have been sitting playing it on a bright summer’s day in a playground full of puppies and it would have still scared the crap out of me.
I was walking cautiously towards a long hallway when I suddenly heard a low roar. I bolted back the way I came, diving in to a room and slamming the door behind me. Heading back I crept up to a door at the far end of the hallway. I heard the roar again, closer this time; I turned around and found myself feet away from, some… thing that certainly didn’t look friendly. My whole body reeled, my skin prickled and surged with emotion, and like a little girl I half-screamed “OH… FUCK… ME!!”
I pretty much collapsed back in to my chair after that, panting. That was it, I’d had enough for the day, that was all the fear I wanted for another week.