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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.