I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for scary games. I don’t exactly enjoy playing them (I’m not sure anybody does), but when it comes to creating atmosphere and an immersive environment, you can’t do much better. Frictional Games, a group of insane developers out of Heisinborg Sweeden, have been creating games like this for quite some time. With the Penumbra series already under the team’s belt, they set out to build on that foundation back in 2010 with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Two years later Frictional is already talking about Amnesia’s sequel, A Machine for Pigs, set to release early next year. So I figured now was as good a time as any to delve into the nightmare that is Amnesia, as well as the custom stories mods that the community surrounding Frictional has been hard at work making since the game’s launch.
What Frictional has succeeded in making reminds me of the literary world’s Lovecraftian mythos. Assets created for Amnesia are used to create custom stories, a fancy name for mods, much in the same way that H.P. Lovecraft created an abstract collection of ideas that his fellow writers could use. In addition to crafting what are easily some of the scariest games of the past decade, they opened up innumerable possibilities for fans of the genre to make stories of their own. Frictional’s official site even has a wiki set up to answer common questions regarding their engine. But first, it’s important to know what Frictional does right with their own creation, Amneisa: The Dark Descent.
Developers are often afraid to completely erase player empowerment from their games. But, similar to successful attempts at horror in other mediums, they need to not be afraid to punch players in the gut. There need not be the proverbial mech suit, or turret sequence after a decidedly difficult mission if the goal of the experience is to scare the player. Corridors should be claustrophobic and dark, enemies don’t need to have a weakness, and creating a sense of helplessness should be the developer’s main goal. When it comes to making you feel helpless, Frictional knocks it out of the park. After some time, this helplessness almost becomes empowering in itself, as you eventually learn to just take a deep breath and dive into the game, forgetting that it’s something you’re supposed to win, and just having the experience.
Daniel, the protagonist of Amnesia, interacts with the world in a similar fashion to adventure games. Players click and drag to open doors, look through desks, turn cranks, and interact with other various pieces of the world all to solve environmental puzzles that allow for progress. The only “weapon” Daniel receives is a lantern, and the main enemy of the game is darkness. When not near a source of light, he begins to see all sorts of crazy nonsense. He’ll hear noises, see himself covered in cockroaches, monsters will appear behind you only to disappear as soon as they’re seen, and so on. Combine this with absolutely amazing sound design and it becomes near impossible to not freak yourself out while playing.
But more importantly, once he begins to descend into this madness, any enemies nearby will notice him. Even if the player eliminates all light sources and can find a perfect hiding spot, simply looking at an enemy too long, decreasing his sanity by the second, will alert them. Once seen, three or four hits will kill you, and you can’t do anything to fight back. But this helplessness breeds reactionary playstyles. When spotted, you flee instantly. There’s no thinking, just action.
Games like this may not appeal to a wide audience, but for those stupid enough to enjoy nerve-wracking experiences like myself, it’s exactly what we want. And a few random devs out there have taken it upon themselves to use the tools Frictional made to create some well-made custom stories of their own. A number of the stories can get pretty cheesy, but it helps give them an endearing, homemade feel. Regarding how to actually play these mods, I’ll try and point you in the right direction. Basically, you should have Desura installed for most of them. Think of it as Steam but with fewer restrictions.
White Night - Tanshaydar
The story told is one of a patient in an insane asylum. A surprisingly in-depth plot is told as you explore the asylum, but it’s far from perfect. If you can get beyond the hit-or-miss voice acting and the occasionally broken english, you’ll experience a few legitimate scares. White Night creates an experience quite dissimilar to Amnesia, giving the player different environments to explore with less focus placed on insanity effects and staying clear of the darkness. It’s more cinematic, having scenes reminiscent of the film Jacob’s Ladder, and the occasional room that looks ripped out of an M.C. Escher painting. First-person platforming ruins a few of the more tense moments, but overall the quality is above average.
La Caza - Team Ninja-Samurai
Resembling moreso the original style of Amnesia, La Caza places you in the shoes of a doctor whose plane has crashed in the wilds of Africa. After introducing you to a few outdoor areas and setting the scene, players find a mysterious ruin that, unsurprisingly, resembles much of the décor from Amnesia. Many of the scares will be a bit too familiar to those who have already played through the main game, but Team Ninja-Samurai do a much better job at providing context clues for the various puzzles found within. Overall, it’s probably the most refined story I managed to finish.
Confusion - TheForgot3n1
Confusion is the most claustrophobic of the bunch. Places to hide are at a minimum, and while this may create legitimate scares, it can lead to multiple deaths while attempting a single puzzle. This exemplifies one major flaw with Confusion and Amnesia as well. Fear turns to frustration as it often feels like there’s no way around death once spotted. Amnesia solves this by creating the occasional wide open space for the players to run and hide within. But, Confusion is only about an hour, so this doesn’t ruin the story.
What Frictional Games has created with Amnesia: The Dark Descent is amazing. Not only have they crafted high quality horror games, but the team seems to be doing everything they can to encourage a blossoming of the genre. I’m by no means finished sifting through the ridiculous amount of custom stories to be found both on Desura and ModDB, and there’s probably a few out there better than the entries I covered. What was once a dying genre has been given new life in the indie scene, and it looks like there’s plenty of people out there who want to keep it alive. My only regret with Amnesia is that I waited so long to play it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be drinking myself to sleep trying to forget the shit I’ve seen.