Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Thoughts on Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Amnesia: Justine

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a game in which you explore a shadowy Gothic castle full of forbidden secrets with a lantern, so naturally I like it quite a bit. But while it succeeds at creating a constantly foreboding atmosphere through an excellent mix of unsettling sound design and a great use of light and darkness, I’d be lying if I said Amnesia fully lived up to its reputation for me. Chiefly, the experience just didn’t spook me as much as I thought it would. Don’t get me wrong though, Amnesia has some great spooks and is certainly an extremely tense experience. For one thing, it does jump scares well, often staying its hand the first three times I expected to shit my pants and then turning me into a jittery, jumpy mess unable to properly function on the fourth, unexpected time. I also like the way the game’s mechanics play off of each other. For example, if the player stays in dark areas for too long, they begin to lose “sanity” which leads to vision and control problems. Staying in the light keeps one sane but also exposes them to roving monsters. In order to stay out of sight of a creeping horror, you often need to hunker down in the darkness as you slowly, unnervingly lose sanity. Neat trade-offs like this add to the overall tenseness of the experience. Speaking of creeping horrors, perhaps my favorite part of Amnesia is how it handles its monsters. You can’t fight back in Amnesia, so your only option is to run or hide. Monsters almost always appear when you least want them to and when they spot you, they shamble towards you at a deceptively quick pace. But what I really love about them isn’t actually the creatures themselves but everything that accompanies their presence. You are penalized for looking directly at them by a blurry, disorientating screen and a loss of sanity (which you’re going to want to keep in order to effectively run away and hide), which I think is just brilliant. In fact, if it wasn’t for the internet, I wouldn’t even really know what the creatures looked like besides being vaguely humanoid monstrosities. My favorite aspect of monster encounters, however, is the brilliant, intensifying dissonance that blares into your ears as they lurch closer and closer towards you, which never failed to unravel my nerves and make me clench my teeth as I accidently hit the ‘crouch’ key instead of the ‘sprint’ one for the seventeenth time.

There’s a lot done very well in Amnesia but when going into it, I guess I expected a deeply unnerving psychological horror experience; I expected to be wandering scared and delirious and alone in the dark while being hunted by barely glimpsed horrors, never really sure what was going on. And while the game comes close to this type of experience at times, Amnesia is ultimately a lot more formulaic and “gamey” than I anticipated, especially after its introduction message sets it up as, and I paraphrase, an “immersive experience that shouldn’t be played to win”. The experience is divided up into several hub areas, or large safe zones, with several sub-areas branching off of them, and the game soon falls into a formula of getting to a new hub and going around its areas, collecting notes and items, solving puzzles, and occasionally having a monster thrown at you. There are also “interim” areas between each hub that contain some of the best moments of the game, as well as a few other curveballs that shake the formula up a bit. This all isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I actually quite enjoyed the experience’s traditional survival horror elements, but it all just felt a little too “safe” a lot of the time. And while I have a lot of love for the way the monster encounters are handled and while they are still very effective, sadly evading these eldritch abominations is often far too easy (at least the standard monsters); hiding behind a couple of boxes at a dead end was often enough to confound them and I only was caught by them once (after which the game dumped me in a random room I hadn’t been in yet, which confused me greatly…do the monsters actually kill Daniel? Or is he being revived somehow?). Once in a safe hiding place, one only needs to stay put for a few minutes until the creatures shamble off and disappear entirely.

There are other factors as well that kept Amnesia from being the scariest of scares for me. The Gothic castle setting is something I have too much affection for to be truly unsettled by (the game brought to mind both Dracula and Castlevania for me, and sometimes while skulking through a dungeon with my lantern lit, I was reminded of something out of The Legend of Zelda or some other comforting fantasy experience). The game is also very chatty; what is supposed to be a dark and lonely atmosphere is often interrupted by campy voice acting, whether in the entries of Daniel’s diary strewn about or the frequent flashback conversations between Daniel and Alexander. Besides this, Amnesia is a game composed of both brilliant scares and laughably goofy ones. Creepy statues suddenly appearing inside of bloody fountains and then being mysteriously gone the next time I look in their direction is a fantastic way of freaking me out, and dashing through a water-logged basement labyrinth being chased by loud, invisible horrors is one of the most purely terrifying moments in any game for me (along with a few other similarly tense moments in the game). But then there are the times when you turn a corner and the screen contracts accompanied by a spoooooky noise and some spoooooky dust clouds puffing about which are decent enough in the early sections of the game, but when these tame “scares” still happen occasionally even late in the game, it reminds me of a cardboard ghost popping out and saying “BOO!” in a haunted house. The sound design, for that matter, is mostly good and sometimes brilliant (mainly during monster encounters), but is also sometimes far too busy and consistent. What I mean is that while exploring some areas, the same random background combination of disembodied footsteps, fluttering paper, and soft whimpering chatters in my speakers constantly until it’s no longer unsettling but just mundane background noise. The same sound effects and musical cues are recycled throughout the game, so by the end they did little to disturb me. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by the masterful transformative sound design in the early Silent Hill games, where often you’ll hear a very specific creepy noise in one specific location and never hear it again…and never forget it again. Even though Amnesia is unpredictable on a moment to moment basis, it has a predictable nature to it in the grand scheme of things and this goes a long way in diminishing the horror for me. Ultimately, Amnesia just didn’t get under my skin the way I expected it to; it’s more of an in the moment “oh boy I’m having fun being spooked in this game” experience than a lingering kind of horror that I can’t help but ruminate on when I’m closing my eyes trying to sleep at night. In a game with a sanity meter, that is seemingly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and subtitled “The Dark Descent”, I expected this experience to get to me more psychologically than viscerally, but the opposite is true. This is both a disappointment and a relief, if you catch my drift. Also, full disclaimer, I only played this game alone late at night with all the lights off with headphones and the sound turned up, as it should be, so I certainly made myself vulnerable to the experience’s frights.

While Amnesia isn’t the kind of horror I was expecting, and maybe isn’t even the kind of horror I feel it’s going for a lot of the time, it’s not a bad horror experience. I quite enjoy its Gothic atmosphere and its traditional survival horror/adventure game elements and while I criticized it for diminishing the fright, I also enjoy its campiness to an extent. It also undoubtedly succeeds very well at momentarily tense and terrifying moments that made me want to just give up and curl up in a ball in the corner with a blankie. And since I most often didn’t quite know what was going to be around the next corner or at the bottom of those stairs leading into a dark void, it also did a nice job of keeping me on edge most of the time even outside of those sharply intense moments. I found the narrative intriguing enough as well, if not a bit muddily delivered. Exposition is fed to the player in so many different ways (scattered notes, flashbacks, random whispers, weird memory canisters, snippets of random text thrown at the player in the game’s brief loading screens and so on) that it becomes a bit overwhelming. I also feel that the game’s writing simply does a poor job of conveying information at times; some notes are unclearly-written while others seem to contradict information presented elsewhere and even within their own text. It’s not that the text is purposefully vague, but rather it just seems awkwardly written in places, and for me at least, some pieces of the story don’t seem to add up. The game’s finale also kind of infuriated me at first as well. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling too much but basically one’s ending is decided by what they do in the last three or so minutes of the game. I sort of predicted something like this would be coming, and I knew what I wanted to do, but the ending sequence was just very unclear to me my first time encountering it and there is a very brief amount of time that decides whether all your hard work throughout the adventure will pay off or, like in my initial experience, be rewarded with the most horrible ending I could have asked for all because I stalled for a few seconds and wasn’t exactly sure what I should be doing to achieve the goal I wanted. After the credits abruptly rolled to my extreme annoyance and confusion, I was able to think clearly and figure out what I should have done. I was then able to reload my save and get the other two endings, but I was still frustrated by the first ending that I got. I can accept an “unhappy ending”, especially in a horror game, but when I have the agency to make a choice, and it’s unclear what choice I’m exactly making or rather how to make the choice that I want to make, and then something happens that I absolutely didn’t want to happen and the game frames it like it was a choice I consciously made, it’s quite frustrating. Maybe this is more on me and not entirely the game’s fault, but I feel like there could have been a little more direction in the finale at the very least, not so much that it feels like I don’t have to figure anything out, but just a bit more of a nudge so I don’t unwittingly make a huge mistake.

I realize that a lot of my issues with Amnesia are based purely on it not living up to my expectations, but that’s just the experience I had with this game. But even if I attempt to view the experience through a lens divorced from those expectations, while I feel Amnesia is a strong experience, I still don’t think it’s a remarkable one. But looking back, there is truth in the notion that I built this game up in my head for years to be some kind of horror masterpiece, and naturally, it didn’t quite live up to those lofty expectations. But it’s still a very good horror experience and a very tense one for sure. “Terrifying” as opposed to “horrifying” is the word I would use to describe Amnesia. It’s not an experience that gets inside my head too much, but it’s still a worthy, atmospheric, and terrifying experience I quite enjoyed partaking in.

But there is also the matter of Amnesia’s free DLC add-on, Amnesia: Justine. Mechanically, it’s basically the same deal as the main game, and while I haven’t managed to finish it, I find its plot (which seems to be no more than tangentially connected to The Dark Descent) to be interesting. Essentially, you play as an unknown protagonist who wakes up in a prison cell and proceeds to be subjected to what seems to be a series of psychological experiments set up by the eponymous Justine, all while being hunted by some kind of creature (or maybe just a really messed-up human being, because it coherently talks). Why haven’t I managed to finish it yet, you ask? Well that is due to what is undoubtedly Justine’s most notable feature: perma-death. There’s no saving. You have one chance. Once the “monster” catches you, that’s it. After a fade to black and some creepy squelching sounds, the game simply boots you back to your desktop. This makes Justine an even tenser experience than The Dark Descent and an almost unbearably stressful one. If you do fail, you need to get back to where you were previously, and since the game remains the same each time you play it, this can be quite tedious and also obviously drains the tension out of the familiar bits. Predictably, the perma-death approach can also lead to frustration. I’ve attempted Justine three times now and all three times have died in the same area (for those that have played it: the flooded “Dungeon” area right after the Library), which seems to harbor a sudden and steep difficulty curve (and I might even go so far as to say it just feels cheap). My most frustrating death wasn’t the first one, but the second one, where the game seemed to glitch out somehow and put me in a seemingly unwinnable situation. That’s great; why bother wasting my time slogging through a game with perma-death again and again when it might just unexpectedly screw me over, at no fault of my own? I could probably succeed if I kept trying, but I simply just don’t have the energy to keep getting to my dying point just to try again; I know exactly what to do there at this point, but actually accomplishing it is a whole other story. There are a few aspects that make replaying Justine a bit more bearable though. For one, I hear the game in its entirety is fairly brief; an hour or so seems to be the average, though in my experience it took me longer than that just to get to where I keep dying. Also, the game’s different “levels” (at least up to the point I’ve reached) each involve a puzzle that doesn’t necessarily require solving in order to proceed with the game, so going back and trying again to figure these problems out (note: I still haven’t despite my best efforts) made my replays a bit less tiresome. All the same, maybe I’ll go back to it one day, but for now I’ve given up on Justine. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m really sick of the Amnesia experience right now and I have other games to play. And yes, I’ll admit that the game is just stressful as fuck to play and I’m tired of subjecting myself to it.

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