Saturday, November 27, 2010

Amnesia. A trope, yes, but also the key... self-inflicted heart attacks.

Big ups to M0RG0TH13, bane of elves, dwarves, and men across the entire breadth of Middle Earth (not to mention my first commenter). To be honest I was terrified that this early in the lifespan of my blog, I wouldn't get a single suggestion for today's article. One is a pretty sweet step in the right direction.

Anyway, the suggested topic for this post is a little game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent by Swedish developer Frictional Games, creators of the Penumbra series. If you look around the internet digging for reviews and details about Amnesia, you're going to see a lot written about the efficacy this game enjoys as a constipation aid. THIS IS MY ONLY REFERENCE TO POOP IN THIS ARTICLE. It's been overdone and I don't want to be that guy.

Fight or flight after the jump.

As you'll find will probably be the case often, I want to give a little personal background gravy which is fitting since...I dunno...something about Thanksgiving (note to self: find better words for this later). There are a lot of adventure elements in Amnesia. Make no bones about it though, this game is a survival horror title at its heart. It's a genre I have a love-love-hate relationship with. That is...I love survival horror. I love it again. Then I hate it because my psyche is so fragile and I get so terrified playing these games that I can usually only play them in one to two hour blocks at a time AT MOST before needing significant time to stop whimpering. It started with the incredibly awesome Haunted House for the Atari 2600. After I got my first Nintendo in 1986, Horror, video games, and myself sadly took a long break from each other but that was probably for the best because I was only 5 and I turned out messed up enough, thank you.

Shut up, this was nightmare fuel.

There were creepy games in the coming years, sure...Super Castlevania IV in particular I remember experiencing a profound sense of unease playing at night or during a thunderstorm. Give me a break! I was still only like 10 at the time and very delicate. It didn't help matters much that my sister used to terrify me in the interim by hunting me through the house with this hideously terrifying Halloween mask that scarred me for life. I swear, I would hide everywhere when she brought that god damned thing out. Toy chests, clothes hampers, under beds. Didn't matter where I went, she'd find me eventually, sniveling and blubbering and OH MY GOD WHEN MY THERAPIST ASKS, I'M BLAMING YOU SIS.

Anyway. Eventually we moved along to the Playstation-era and hello Resident Evil. I was blown away. Games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame followed. Sure the controls were terrible, but we were breaking new ground in the 3rd person perspective in the 3D space and this was progress, dammit. Actually, in my opinion, this made the games all the more scary. Imagine trying to survive the zombie apocalypse but instead of being able to move know, a normal person, you had to stand in place and rotate fully in the direction you wanted to travel before you slogged off on a given path. Those agonizing seconds of swimming-through-molasses-futility were a terror factory that didn't really get "better" until Resident Evil 4 decided people had enough with scary and instead wanted capability. Unfortunately, that's basically where we stood for awhile. Horror wasn't scary anymore because now the player had a fighting chance. Unless something new came along, the genre was dead.

Now, I'm not one of those hipster kids who claim the only products worth enjoying are those created by organizations or companies with the "Indie" label emblazoned proudly upon them. What I will say is that the great thing about Indie developers is that where the AAA companies are, as a rule (of successful business), risk-averse, these little darlings are all-in at the casino. When you already have everyone at the table like a Capcom or EA might, you don't want to alienate anyone. When your paying customers total few or less, the more "out there" your concept is, the greater your chance of grabbing some attention.

Frictional has been working up to this for a while. The Penumbra series features some pretty terrifying locales and situations all from the perception-narrowing (and thus fear-increasing) first-person perspective. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, they move forward by taking a step back. You can no longer defend yourself. Your only chance for self-preservation lies in trying to balance keeping your surrounding environs illuminated enough to keep your sanity and hiding in the shadows and cupboards whenever a shambling, awful body-horror rears its (very, very) ugly head.

Frictional takes an extra step, and it's a gutsy one, of adding ambient sound effects your brain IMMEDIATELY interprets as the presence of a threat behind you or on the other side of that door or just around the corner. That creak of the floorboard was CLEARLY a footstep, right? That thump sounded like someone moving something in the next room! Add to this the ability to manipulate physics to the degree where you can slowly push doors open, maneuvering yourself to cautiously peek through them, and the ability to lean around corners to present as little of yourself into the next corridor's field of view and you get some of the most intuitive, organic tension that's ever been seen in the digital world.

I don't mean this to be a review, nor do I mean to go on all day and turn everyone off with a wall of text. Instead, a salute! Here's to you, Frictional! Here's to your wonderfully terrifying work on Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Get it, love it. Be scared witless by it. You won't be sorry! Well you will, but in a good way. Thanks for reading!


P.S. Prior to 2010, the most scared I'd been in a survival horror title was in Silent Hill 4: The Room (I know, boo hiss, amirite?). You escape from Otherworld and wind up in your bed. Oh god, safe and sound right? I sat up and suddenly heard a baby crying. Okay. Creepy. I get it. Unnerved, I turned to get out of bed. There, in the closet, was a shadow on the wall of a child. That's all. Nothing was physically in the closet. Just the sound of an infant's tears and the tenuous outline of a toddler emblazoned on the wall. Watching me. I almost had a panic attack. My home was no longer my castle, but a pathetic fortress since breached by untold horrors and spirits and reduced to a smoldering sad facsimile of its former self. I was broken. Amnesia beats that. In the first hour. Without having you encounter enemies.

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