Feature: Two weeks ago we sent horror virgin Adam Harshberger on a quest to seek out and survive the scariest game in the world. Now, he’s returned – and he’s ready to tell his tale.
I started at midnight, because it felt appropriate. With headphones on, lights off and doors closed, I plunged recklessly into the abyss. Remember, these were untested waters for me.
In case you’re just now joining us in “Time to Make Adam Defecate in His Undies,” then allow me to catch you up: I was on a quest. A damned fool one, at that. You see, I was charged with the task of not only determining the scariest videogame ever made, but playing it, too. So I reached out to some industry heavyweights – developers, journalists, academics – and used their opinions to determine the most terrifying game in existence. The verdict? Amnesia: The Dark Descent, from Frictional Games.
Did I succeed? Is Amnesia: The Dark Descent that scariest game ever?
I’m not sure – but I’m positive that it was an experience I won’t forget any time soon.
Postcards from Brennenburg
One thing that Amnesia does not do, really, is make you jump out of your skin. It’s not a frenetic, quick kind of horror; Frictional deliver more chills than exclamations. The developers are very, very good at making you feel like you could be scared to death at any given moment – but the actual delivery of frights takes a backseat to a more subtle and refined creepiness.
This is apparent right from the beginning. You may see a closed door, look away, and upon looking back find the door hanging open – little touches like this can really unnerve a player used to being in complete control of their game world. And the setting – Brenneburg Castle, in Prussia – absolutely drips with dread and despair.
Then there’s the darkness. Amnesia, as its subtitle implies, uses the dark as major game mechanic. You learn to fear it. When you’re in the light – which you create via a lamp or tinderboxes, both of which are limited resources – you’re relatively safe. Spend too long in the dark, though, and your sanity starts to dwindle. This probably goes without saying, but the more insane you become, the more disturbing things get.
The most brilliant part of the dark in Amnesia is that it is truly dark, not fake videogame dark where everything is still pretty much visible. You can’t see much at all without a light.
If you haven’t played it, I don’t want to tell you much more, but know this: there are enemies. You cannot kill them; you just have to run and hide. At the beginning, you’ll find them terrifying. But by the end of the game, they lose a lot of their scare-inducing effectiveness. Once you learn their tricks, they become easy to evade. However, any area involving waterborne creatures is absolutely brilliant and tenser than hell. My body went stiff as a board as I played them.
Again, I think you need to experience Amnesia in an uninitiated state to get the full effect, but the story needs to be mentioned. In a nutshell: it’s pretty good. The atmosphere, alongside the booming, stirring score, really brings it to life. But the narrative and writing are good enough to intrigue you, creep you out, and propel you through the game. In terms of tone, it leans more towards something from Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft than Saw or The Hills Have Eyes.
A whole new kind of terror
Like I said, I wasn’t terrified, but I was certainly on-edge, tense, and not without shivers down my spine. I’m not willing to fully declare Amnesia the scariest game ever based on my experience, but I am more than confident that it is a brilliantly designed and extremely immersive.
In fact, I was pretty terrified, in retrospect, by how much the game drew me in. I played the game in two halves – roughly four hours each – over two nights. The first night, as I was still learning the game’s tricks, was much more intense than the second.
As I went about my responsibilities on the day after the first night, I realised that it didn’t even feel like I had played a game the night before. Now, certainly, it didn’t feel like I had lived through the events of the game. But as I recalled my initial adventures, it didn’t feel anything like what remembering a gaming session would.
Things were more vivid, more exact and more enriched with emotions. I can safely say that my first night with Amnesia was probably the most immersive gaming experience of my life. Why? I think it is because Frictional Games so tastefully created a thick atmosphere of creepiness , and then let it envelope me. An overabundance of “jump out of your skin” scares would have sucked me out of the game – but instead, the nuance only drew me in.
And, well, that’s pretty terrifying. Think about what I’m saying: it’s like the game stopped being a game and almost became real life. Is that what we want? Games are in many ways a form of escapism – but a game coming so dangerously close to convincing you that it is real is completely unnerving.
The horror of uncertainty
So, then, the conclusion. Is Amnesia: The Dark Descent the scariest game ever? It depends. If you want to jump out of your chair and hit your head on the ceiling, it probably isn’t for you. The game’s a subtle, almost morbidly beautiful thing. It isn’t without its flaws, though: towards the end, the chills wear off, the plot reveals itself to be a bit thinner than it appears in the beginning, and things start to feel a little tedious.
But those first four or five hours will eat you alive. Like I said: I spent most of the day after my first foray into the darkness wondering if maybe, just maybe, I was actually in Prussia the night before. The atmosphere is dense, overwhelming and lusciously spooky.
I haven’t played enough examples to boldly proclaim this to be the pinnacle of horror gaming, though I can definitely say it is an important and excellent game that you need to play. Do it for the gorgeous, spine-tingling music and the dread-inducing graphics. Do it for those water sequences, because good lord are they tense. Do it because Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a truly unique and inspired game.
There may come a day when I pick the quest up again, to see what else these strange horror games have to offer. If Amnesia is indicative of the quality of the genre, then I’m very intrigued. But now?
Well, as I write it is 2:30 in the morning. I finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent about three hours ago. I’m sitting in a dark room, a little cold, typing away. And I just heard a very strange noise come from the other room.
Needless to say, I’m scared shitless. I think I’d better lay off the horror for a while, lest I plunge too far into the dark. Or, worse, wake up in Brennenburg one day.
Thanks so much to Frictional Games for going out of their way to help us piece this feature together. Your assistance was unnecessarily brilliant.