Amnesia: The Dark Descent is scary. Very scary. Brown pants scary. Crying under the table scary. Just ask the uncountable victims of YouTube Let’s Plays. There is a certain schadenfreude involved in watching those poor players loose their bowels at the shocks Frictional Games were able to conjure onto the screen.
The first thing that hits the player is the creeping sense of impending doom. The world of The Dark Descent is ripe with decay, with the very environment seeming to be set against Daniel’s progress. The putrescent atmosphere stifles, oppressing with every breath. Creaks and moans in the distance play on the mind, hinting at a much greater evil in the dark. Darkness is a bane and a blessing, with extended periods in the dark driving Daniel to insanity, or concealing him from searching eyes. You know Amnesia’s world is cruel, but you must endure.
Scare factor two is the creatures that inhabit the world of Amnesia. Amnesia knows that terror is in the unknown; the half-glimpsed horror in the corner of the eye. It’s what could be, rather than what is, and Amnesia never overdoes it. Amnesia has the player skittering at sharp sounds, and running for cover at the slightest musical change. The creatures themselves are unsettling body-horrors, distorted and mutilated almost beyond recognition.
To top this heady cocktail of fear is an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Daniel is a weak character, lost in the dark of the mysterious castle. As you progress, there are no weapons to fight with – your sole resort is to remain unseen. Power is taken away from you – weak, helpless, unable to fight back, you are forced to hide in the dark, hoping that thing will just go away and find someone else to disembowel. Those moments, alone with your own terrible imagination, looking away from the creatures and slowly growing more and more insane in the dark make Amnesia: The Dark Descent a truly unforgettable horror experience.
The framework Frictional have provided – the engine – fulfils its purpose outstandingly. While not a particular marvel in the visual department, the HPL 2 engine’s specialty is its physics system and environmental interactivity. A persistent barrier to losing yourself in a game is the filter of the control scheme. Pressing a key or clicking a button to use an item or object is a conscious act that can remove the player from the game world, and in a horror game, that removal is fatal. The way Frictional handled this is rather ingenious – opening doors or drawers, dragging objects, or interacting with items is all controlled by clicking the mouse to grab hold, and dragging the mouse in the direction you want it to move. It sounds simple, but having to pick up boxes or barrels to create barricades, or circling the mouse to frantically open a closed valve, or dragging the door of a cupboard closed while the single-minded monsters hunt for your tender flesh all adds a real tactile interactivity that draws you in. It’s immersion through mechanics to an almost unprecedented scale – discarding Frictional’s previous Penumbra series, of course.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is set to be the next instalment in the Amnesia series, and looks to continue the tradition of psychological survival horror established by its predecessor. In addition to an absolutely fantastic name, A Machine For Pigs also brings with it a new development team – namely, thechineseroom. The UK team, best known for their Half-Life 2 mod and later standalone release Dear Esther, have been tasked with helming the semi-sequel to the original title, on behalf of Frictional.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs will take place in 1899 England, telling the story of industrialist Oswald Mandus. After a tragic expedition to Mexico, the returning entrepreneur experiences illness and strange dreams filled with bizarre machinery. Cue hell, damnation, and unsavoury goings-on, all revolving around Mandus’ exploration of this unexplained machine – the eponymous machine for pigs, perhaps?
Core mechanics will mostly remain the same, while AI will receive tweaks to keep the game unpredictable. Levels reportedly have more variation, with a range of settings that include large areas and outdoor sections. Since the enemy of horror is familiarity, the main difficulty will be with balancing the familiar gameplay elements that enable the singular experience, with the need to break away from the known and deliver an unpredictable horror factor.
Not everyone agreed with the approach to story and gameplay that thechineseroom took with Dear Esther. I personally loved Dear Esther for its gentle and wonderfully realised atmosphere, and its unique approach to constructing narrative within a game-space. It offered a unique story experience, one that was both passive and player measured, allowing the player to take part in the interpretive experience at their own pace. Additionally, the trigger points could choose from a range of narration, ensuring that each person’s playthrough was particular to them.
The main criticisms of Dear Esther lay with the level of interactivity it allowed. Some would argue that the lack of player agency contributed to the thematic beats of the narrative, which focused on ideas such as inevitability, death, and lack of control. Others claimed it was a boring walking simulator that didn’t have a plot or anything to actually do, and was it even a game at all? One thing hardly anyone denies is that Dear Esther had atmosphere in spades, and that will be the biggest boon for the new Amnesia developers.
I have confidence that thechineseroom have the ability to marry their penchant for storytelling with Frictional’s chilling fiction and mechanics. I have confidence that the team will approach the task with the utmost respect. I have confidence that the underlying gameplay mechanics are strong enough to deliver yet another fascinating, engaging, and most of all terrifying survival horror experience.
In a world of survival action games, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs looks to be a refreshing draught, recalling old feelings and tensions that only true survival horror can provide. Fleeing from the implacable towards the unknown, players set to be caught in Amnesia’s trap yet again – like helpless pigs in a dreadful, hungry machine.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is due for release some time this year. Halloween trailer below.