Amnesia: Dark Descent, Mini-Review
Posted by Alex Jordan on
Actually, see that title? I'm kinda lying. Well, not really "lying" so much as understating the "mini" part. That's because I have very little to say in an Amnesia "review", per se, as I do about its mechanics.
Here's the review part: this game is fucking scary, and that makes it fucking awesome. It's the scariest game I've ever played, although that probably isn't saying much. It's well-designed, of decent length (my playthrough took 10 hours), and is marvelously paced. Not only that, but it has an incredibly engrossing story that perfectly compliments the scares that the game sends your way. Oh, and did I mention the game is fucking scary? Your character is tasked with descending into the lowest levels of a dark, rundown castle while battling encroaching darkness, diminishing sanity, and some very nasty former servants.
Got that? Suffice it to say that's a wonderful game and a real fright, so you should buy it, now. But I also played the game while taking copious notes. I really want to design a scary video game at some point, and I recognize that doing so requires a hell of a lot of resources (graphics, characters, ambience, sound design, music, etc.) that must be brought to bear to elicit horror. Yet, here's an indie team of just five guys that managed to terrify me while keeping to a minimalist design philosophy. So, here are my notes on what they did well, and where there's room for improvement:
- Monsters batter down doors in front of you: I like this because it's a jump scare without feeling cheap or unearned. Plus, a good portion of the scare comes from the combination of closeness (you're almost always right next to the door when the pounding starts) with ambiguity (you can't see what is pounding on the door since the door is still closed.) Also, as my brother - a hobbyist Left 4 Dead 2 level designer - loves to point out, close encounters and claustrophobia are great for scaring people.
- No combat options: Horror games usually involve death and destruction, and the presupposition that the player will be causing his or her fair share of it. To keep the player's ability to defend themselves in check, the game usually limits access to weapons and ammunition, causing them to be afraid of running out of ammo, especially when a zombie horde is bearing down on them. Well, what if there were no combat options available to the player? What if they were defenseless? That'd be even scarier!
- Fleeing: As a result, the players have to spend time fleeing, which is terrifying because enemies are usually faster than you are! Your only hope to slow them down is to throw objects in their path and slam doors behind you, eluding them long enough to find a dark corner to hide in until they disappear. This concept is incredibly effective.
- Tight level design: Amnesia's level design is a throwback to a bygone era, where players were expected to not only explore labrynthine levels, but to learn them as well. These days, most game levels are either sprawling sandboxes or tight, undemanding linear paths. It's been that way for most of a decade. So imagine throwing all that away, forcing the player to cope with old school level layouts, and then trap them in those layouts with things that are trying to kill them.
- Resource Management: Like I said, resource management gets scary when your supplies start to dwindle. Although you're not managing weapons and ammo, you are managing tinderboxes and lantern fuel so that you can hold the darkness at bay and keep yourself from going insane. Furthermore, lighting your lantern or nearby candles isn't always a great idea... sure, you'll stay sane in the light, but that same light is also drawing attention to yourself and depriving yourself of hiding spots. If that tradeoff doesn't scream "simple but elegant", I don't know what does.
- Threat of dying doesn't increase further in the game, which allows the player to learn the behavior and patterns of the only two or three enemies they actually encounter. This causes the scariness of the game to decline towards the end.
- Most encounters with monsters are scripted. I've heard other Amnesia players say otherwise, but that's how it felt to me. Although scripting is important to scaring the player (a specific, concerted attempt by the developers to cause fright), once find out where a monster appears, you're likely to memorize it. Also, you're less likely to be worried about random encounters with monsters if there's no actual randomness.
- There are few encounters with monsters. That means less occasions to be scared by them, but I know why the developers did this (discussed below).
- Too many undisturbed periods. Every horror game should allow the player to feel safe from time to time, but there are too many segments of Amnesia where the player is never threatened by anything, allowing them to run around in peace.
- Relatively easy, obvious ways to avoid monsters. Although the running and hiding is occasionally terrifying, I found that I could evade monsters with relative ease. In fact, I was only caught and killed once during a chase sequence. That one occasion sure was memorable, though.
- The major setpiece scare is done too early. Games usually have one major scare up their sleeve, be it dogs jumping through a window or a flaming zombie flying at you from a closet. Amnesia's one main scare is very impressive, but it's presented in the first 1/3 of the game. Everything after that is encounters with the same recurring monster type.
- Monster presence is obvious. At first, Amnesia will scare you simply with its ambient noise. The blowing wind, the creaking floor boards, those noises that sound suspiciously like moans... they're all very effective in unnerving you. That is, until you hear the sound that a monster actually makes, which is different enough from the surrounding ambient noise so that there's no ambiguity between the two. The result is that you're seldom surprised by monsters, because you can usually hear them coming.
- Monsters aren't constrained by the levels. You actually catch brief glimpses of the monsters a few times before you actually have to face them. You see a silhouette move through a doorway in the distance, for instance. And thus, you stay in fear of them until you explore the full enclosed level (again, the old school design) and realize that they've simply left the level. Maybe that's scary for your average player, but for a developer, you realize that the game actually deleted the monster from the level after it was briefly seen and it got its desired result. This continues happening in later levels, even if you know that keeping the damn monster in the small, tight level with you would be scarier.
- Bad models, bad animations. The weakness of the five-man development team finally shines through. Monsters are intimidating because of the way they behave. Actually looking at their models, or seeing them move in a jerky fashion, kind of removes the tension. Fortunately, most of the time the game obscures monsters from you until the last possible moment. Unless...
- Observing monsters from a distance. A few of the levels have wide-open areas, and a few of those areas have monsters in them. It's not particularly scary to watch them from a safe distance, shuffling slowly with their jerky animations until they, cough, disappear around a corner and just kind of leave the level. Hrmm.
As stated above, when I noticed that you have relatively few encounters with monsters, I thought that was a net minus. However, I fully understand why the developers did it: if you can't fight the monsters, you also can't overexpose them to the player. Fighting monsters builds tension through weapon and ammo management.
If that's not an option, you can't keep flinging unbeatable monsters at the player, because the player will either grow accustomed to them and less afraid as a result, or will become too good at avoiding the monsters. And if the monsters aren't easy to avoid, then the player will die a lot, which... as I stated when discussing the Cthulhu game... just pisses off the player in the long run, rather than scaring them. Death has to be infrequent enough to still pack a punch, and encounters with monsters have to be infrequent enough to keep them scary.
Well, there you have it. I nice cross section of what to do and what not to do when designing monster encounters for a scary game. I'll probably have more thoughts on Amnesia's small development team later, but this'll do for now.