(Bewaaaarre: contains spoilery description of scenes in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Also, mild peril.)
No game has had the ability to freeze my body in my seat, make me clench my teeth in anxiety and squint my eyes in fear of glimpsing something that was usually not even there, until Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
I love the horror genre, like many others I like the rush of feeling scared of something on a screen which is fictional and cannot harm me. My first taste of a proper horror game was at the age of 13 with the Resident Evil remake on GameCube and from then on I've always sought out scary games, often those with dark, disturbed content. So, yes, good wholesome stuff!
So it was inevitable once I started getting into PC gaming that I would eventually discover Frictional Games, Swedish developer of just the type of games that I love: survival horror adventures with intensely macabre atmospheres and themes. I played through all of their earlier Penumbra games before trying the demo of Amnesia, consisting of the first 20 minutes of the game including a section with some of the most tense, panic-inducing gameplay I've experienced...and it left me wanting more, but at the same time dreading what else I would find deeper in Brennenburg castle.
"Keep Out of The Water..."
The last section of the demo begins with you entering a dark corridor flooded knee-deep with water. A couple of steps forward though, and the music kicked in, which is never a good thing. A strange, blood-red substance materialised on the walls, and I heard splashing footsteps coming from around the corner.
Then I saw them. Just the splashes in the water, nothing else. Nothing there. At that point you'd expect Fight-or-Flight to kick in, but I remember just standing there, wide eyed and paralysed as whatever-the-hell-it-was approached, let out a horrible, otherworldy screeching noise and proceeded to slash my face up. I'm not sure why I didn't think to move, maybe I had expected (or fervently hoped) it to be a hallucination of my character, that it would stop before it reached me and discover I had blacked out.
But no, I would have to live through this particular nightmare. The game provided a hint after I died: "Keep out of the water...". So after I restarted I jumped onto the crates piled up against a wall. It appeared again, still lacking a visible form, and it stopped just in front of the crates apparently unaware of where I was. Another thought had crossed my mind: had the game glitched? Was the in-game model for water_monster1 missing from the games files? It quickly dawned on me though that it was probably simply invisible, and the presence of the water convinced me of it. How else would you tell where an invisible monster was?
That was a stroke of genius from the designers, I think. Stalked by something that could be mere feet away from you and that you can't see? Strangely, that water-dwelling Kaernk scared me more than any zombie had in spite of, or perhaps a result of, the lack of visible teeth, claws or indeed anything to suggest it posed a threat.
Night in the Castle
The game was hyped up substantially as an experience guaranteed to make you scream in terror, as the many "Watch People Play And Scream In Terror At Amnesia" videos on YouTube showed. I'm always a bit sceptical of those kinds of claims, as I was with the recent Slender game (which was a bit disappointing.) Nevertheless I went into the game expecting to be scared, though I wasn't prepared for how much it would affect me while playing.
I think the pacing in Amnesia was done very well, with the first actual threat not appearing until I had explored a while and solved the first challenge. This was effective in that it left it to my imagination torment me. I feared the worst and dreaded that each door that blew open unexpectedly and every distant howl were precursors to something appearing to bugger up my night in the castle.
I didn't even get a good look at the monsters until I looked up pictures of them after I finished the game, (besides the ones that you actually cannot see!). They were just too much of a threat to try and catch a glimpse of up close, and you were at risk of diminishing mental clarity from staring at their mutilated features. Which was brilliant; the best kind of terror is the unknown, one you don't fully understand and that you have almost no defense against, and to try and look at it blurs your vision and damages your mind.
This is something that separates the shambling, moaning creatures of Amnesia from the Necromorphs in Dead Space (which I also loved) or even zombies in Resident Evil. In those games you know, or can take a good guess at what they are and you are well equipped to tackle them therefore the threat is somewhat diminshed.
Of course, Dead Space counteracts that by sending groups of them at you at once and having them jump out of space-closets for surprise attacks, while Resident Evil forces you to tackle enemies in claustrophobic environments as a character that controls like an M1 Abrams. In Amnesia though, you have no weapons. The best you can do for yourself if you are spotted is maybe a futile attempt to lob something heavy at the grunting monstrosity stomping towards you, before running away and cowering in a dark corner.
It's a different type of fear that Amnesia's enemy encounters give; a desperate, panic-inducing "oh fuck what is that, did it see me?!", Flight-not-Fight situation as opposed to a jump scare followed by an adrenaline filled gun-versus-claw battle. Amnesia's brand of horror is one I find much more palpable.
The constant feeling of unease and wariness that Amnesia evokes is unlike anything else I'd experienced. It seldom lets you up from the mire of despair and anxiety to take a breath of relief and repose. Even in the "safe zones" where all you do is solve mechanical puzzles, I was distracted by paranoia. I would constantly turn my suspicious gaze toward the doorways behind me, just to check nothing had followed me inside.
As the game took me further into the depths of the castle, the feeling of foreboding increased as did my unease of venturing any further. But I'm glad I did, glad I conquered the fear and thankful I had the opportunity to do so. Even if I couldn't sleep for a few nights afterward.