Amnesia: The Dark Descent Review and Thoughts

Note: For some reason, all of my own screenshots turned out blank, so all pictures in this blog have been taken from other sites. Each picture links back to its source, so be sure to click through and check out some other Amnesia resources!

Synopsis

Amnesia: The Dark Descent follows Daniel as he attempts to regain his memory after waking on the floor of the dilapidated Castle Brennenburg. By finding notes and journal entries throughout the castle, Daniel slowly learns who he is, why he is there, and why he is being pursued by an invisible monster simply referred to as “the Shadow.”

The game is exploration-based, with no combat whatsoever. There are monsters, but they are much too strong for Daniel, and the game explicitly emphasizes running and hiding over trying to interact with them in any way. There are puzzle elements present throughout the castle, often involving object manipulation in order to fix broken down machinery. There are also a number of pseudo-puzzles that require exploration in order to receive a necessary key.

Arguably the least creepy place in the castle.

Setting
Castle Brennenburg would be a creepy place even without any supernatural elements. It is dark and dank, unkempt and falling apart. Drafts creep in from the ancient stone’s cracks, moaning in the halls and screeching through foyers, blowing out what precious little light is available. Darkness climbs the walls and drips from the ceiling, encroaching on the small, safe circles of firelight scattered throughout the castle. It is a darkness that hides many secrets, and is so deep that the light feels paltry and insignificant, almost worse for being there because it allows for some semblance of hope.

The dank setting is depressing and dreary, perfect for the story taking place within it. The numerous blind corners hide secrets and monsters, and the multitude of nooks and crannies create the ever-present sensation that Daniel is missing something. Even if everything were well-lit, it would be difficult to hit every room available. With everything darkened and hard to see, it becomes even more of a challenge.

A corridor of darkness.
The castle serves not only as a setting for Daniel to explore, but a mirror for his internal struggles. His mind, after taking the amnesia drought, is a darkened castle, the light of understanding that once illuminated it extinguished. The castle is unfamiliar to him, just as his sense of self is now unfamiliar to him. He is wandering the corridors of his past, finding new information, opening new rooms of experience and understanding within himself.

And as he explores and opens more of these rooms, descending deeper into his own past and memories, he moves deeper within the castle. He moves ever downward, deeper into the earth, returning to his roots and discovering his foundation just as he discovers the foundation of the castle and the foundation of the nature of the events that have occurred and continue to occur within it.

Spiraling into madness, or not.
Before playing the game, I assumed that the subtitle The Dark Descent referred to a descent into madness. However, it is the opposite. While Daniel descends, he learns more about the events that are occurring to and around him and knows that they are happening for a reason. In the beginning, Daniel feels mad and seems mad to outside viewers because he sees things that cannot possibly exist. Things that defy logical explanation. But with the accrual of knowledge, it becomes clear that Daniel is not mad, but rather an unfortunate victim of supernatural circumstance.

Though learning more about these events could very well lead someone into madness, this is not the case with Daniel. He has to deal with aspects of his past that he does not like and confront things that seem insane, but he is not making them up, they are not a figment of his imagination, and only through this descent into the darkness of his past can he ascend to sanity.

The first note.
Character
Daniel begins his life in Amnesia as a blank slate. He does not know much about himself — only the basic facts such as his name and where he lives — so he does not know the inner workings of his mind and personality. He has no past experiences to base future encounters on. He has no backlog of facts and information that would allow him to place his current experiences into a broader context. Because the player also has no familiarity with the world of Amnesia, this makes the two equal. There is no question of the player’s actions not matching what the character “would actually do” because the character is being invented in real time. This means there is no threat of an immersion break due to an act that is out of character. It’s impossible for a character to act odd if he has no actions to compare his current state to.

But the same removal of previous experiences that allows Daniel to be discovered also makes him a non-character. Because he has no past and no concrete future, he does not feel real. Every person has a story that has led to their current position in life, and if that is removed, they no longer feel like a true person. Rather, they feel like a hollowed-out sculpture of a person. As a player, I found myself willing to expose Daniel to a lot more risk in the beginning than in the end. As Daniel began to learn more about himself through his past journal entries, I cared about him more. No longer was he some object to manipulate, he became a person.

Scattered pages, scattered mind.
Because the player sees the world exclusively through Daniel’s eyes, other characters are similarly discovered through play. They begin their lives in the mind of the player as blank slates similar to Daniel, but become fleshed-out as information about them becomes available through Daniel’s diaries. While this allows for a deeper sense of connection with Daniel, it does open the door to a great deal of bias. Other characters become only what Daniel sees them to be, not what they see themselves to be.

For example, Alexander is painted as a monstrous man, willing to do whatever it takes to gain personal power and prowess. While that certainly appears true when examining his actions, we must remember that all of these actions are being recorded and analyzed by Daniel. It’s unlikely that Alexander sees his actions as monstrous and it’s also unlikely that he views his sense of purpose as mere greed. He probably thinks he is acting for noble interests and that his actions are simply a means to get to an end. An end that will justify them.

Had Alexander’s viewpoint been explored more fully, he would have become more sympathetic, and therefore more of a trial to overcome. Killing pure evil is simple. Because Daniel is convinced that Alexander is evil and therefore the player is convinced that Alexander is evil, killing him holds no tension. There is no hesitation, no sense of guilt, no moment of second-guessing. There is simply walk in and kill.

If Alexander been painted as a more complex character, the ending of Amnesia would have been much more powerful. To be fair, the game makes some attempt to show that Alexander had a few good qualities. After all, he took Daniel in, knowing that he was putting himself at risk. But then we hear from Alexander’s own lips that he is not doing this for Daniel’s sake. Alexander possesses the admirable qualities of a great scientist with his high intelligence and insatiable curiosity, but puts those qualities at work doing reprehensible acts. Each time Alexander is allowed a moment of goodness that could, potentially, make him more than just a wicked man, it is struck down.

Poor bun.
Gameplay
Amnesia has held up well to the test of time. So many PC games break immersion by feeling old and clunky compared to newer titles, but I was pleasantly surprised by the actual gaming experience of Amnesia.

The lack of a HUD was an excellent design choice, because immersion is never broken by the display. However, it also means that Daniel’s health and sanity must be monitored via the item menu, where their levels are pictorially represented. Players can gauge Daniel’s relative wellness by cues within the game, but for more precise readouts of the stats, some menu interaction is necessary.

Sanity, Health, and items menu
I never had much of an issue with Daniel’s health because with most of the enemies in the game, if you get hit once, you die. You’re not designed to fight them, you’re designed to run away and hide. The only times I lost health and needed to monitor my levels so I could apply restorative items were during some platforming bits, as there is fall damage in the game.

The much more interesting stat is Sanity. Daniel is lost in a creepy castle filled with monsters, so his mind is going to have to make it through some tough situations. Sanity drains when standing in the dark, looking at a monster, or experiencing an “unsettling event.” Basically, anything that makes the player scared is something that’s going to drain Daniel’s Sanity. Sanity can be recovered by advancing the story or standing in lit areas, making tinderboxes and lamp oil precious commodities. They can be found hidden in nooks and crannies throughout the house and can be used with modest regularity.

Jackpot
Losing Sanity causes a number of detrimental effects. As may be expected, Daniel begins to hear and see things that aren’t there, adding levels of fear to the game. Daniel’s loss of Sanity can cause players to doubt their own mind, as they are unsure whether they really just saw a monster out of the corner of their eye or not. But worse than seeing things, to me, is hearing things. I cannot quite describe the sound that Daniel hears when losing touch with reality, except as a kind of chittering. It’s a clicking, scratching, rustling, horrible sound. That sound was the single most disturbing aspect of the game to me. I hated it so much and it made me so tense that I often made horrible decisions and couldn’t think straight.

This could have been avoided, because I played fast and loose with Daniel’s Sanity, saving my tinderboxes and lamp oil for “emergencies.” Basically, I wouldn’t light anything until Daniel’s sanity got to dangerously low levels because I was afraid that I would run out of resources at a crucial moment. My caution was unnecessary, as I ended the game with 42(!) unused tinderboxes and four extra bottles of lamp oil. Playing the game this way made things even more frightening than they needed to be because I was adding imagined horrors to the ones the castle already contained.

A grotesque mockery of humanity.
I did occasionally experience trouble when trying to pick items up, as some of them had a very small click-box. It wasn’t frequent enough for me to think of it as a true gameplay problem, but it was frustrating whenever it would happen. Particularly when those items were part of a puzzle. Nothing gets me madder quicker than knowing exactly what to do to solve a puzzle, but being unable to make the necessary steps happen.

Recommendation

I would recommend Amnesia: The Dark Descent to anyone who enjoys a good scare. Its gameplay is basic enough that inexperienced gamers will find it accessible, while remaining an entertaining immersion for those comfortable with PC gaming. The classic horror elements play out admirably in the well-designed setting and the story — while occasionally problematic — is engaging.
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