Samstag, 9. Februar 2013

Horror story: a dark descent into Amnesia

We all know hype. A well recieved series continues, a long awaited game shows up on the horizon, anything along those lines. And it does not happen rarely that what you get in the end is a small, disappointing piece of junk compared to the expectations you sheltered.

But alas, some videogames live up to what everybody claims about them, and sometimes, it seems to be for the worse. Especially when they say a certain game will make you shit your pants, one hundred percent refund if it doesn't.

There may be some people out there who still claim, it had been a piece of cake for them, making progress through that game. I've heard people say, they just weren't affected by gruesomely warped human bodies, jumping at them out of airshafts from any possible direction (Dead Space). There ain't nothing scary about moaning, slowly but steadily walking dead corpses, tenaciously homing in on your position until they've got you cornered and ready for dismemberment (Resident Evil).

But the game I'm talking about - "Amnesia: The Dark Descent" - seems to have shattered these armies of noble, fearless paladins into disarray, like the mounted hordes of the Takeda clan preferred to treat their enemys on the plains of feudal japan. When I started playing, it felt like a bad omen, that nobody dared to complain about the non-existant shocking potential of the title which was about to suck me in. And spit me out. At least that was how I felt when I concluded another fifteen minute session - my preferred way to play the game without descending into darkness.

Are you feeling moody?
"Amnesia: The Dark Descent" sure does.

I decided to not get into a scientific discussion about how this game works, rather I'm going to tell you about the individual horrors I experienced and the feelings which awakened while playing the game. There are spoilers ahead, so beware, soon-to-be player. I won't spoil the development of the story, but describe a major scene in the game, which might suffer intensity loss once you make the connection while playing yourself. But I'll warn you in time, so please feel safe to read on.

Our story takes place in a giant, magnificient but old and seemingly forsaken castle, including what's underneath. We will stride through large, intimidating halls, spooky wine cellars, repulsive sewers, ill-foreboding torture chambers and more.

The game manages to enhance even the least scary occurences to produce something that makes you gasp for air. One scene in particular comes to mind, nothing big really. (very minor spoiler ahead)
Once I opened the side panel of a writing desk in which, for no apparent reason, human bones were stored. These bones loosened in that exact moment and poured out of the case. It would have been a cheap jumpscare, if those *things* were not blurred long enough for me not to realize that something harmless is happening. Could have been anything and everything, and the fact that the room I had crossed before housed dead, stuffed dogs did not soothe my spirits. (end very minor spoiler) As I said, nothing big. But the tension builds up and either results in something as minor as that or in something much worse.

But that and all the other minor scares were nothing compared to the sprint of my life I had shortly before. It's a famous and well-known part of the game even alot of non-gamers must have heard about. One word is enough to trigger remembrance for those who have suffered through the game long enough: water. (major spoiler ahead)
Water? Water. Just imagine you completed what felt like the first chapter of the game, by removing an obstacle and proceeding through a red-carpeted corridor, just to enter a gloomy hallway, filled with knee-deep water. You assess the situation and come to the conclusion that this is not so bad, except you would like the water to be a bit more transparent... but ok. At least no scary sounds or movements.

So you move forward, slowly. You listen to the sound of your movements in the liquid... until this is not the only sound you hear. But you see it before you hear it anyway. Splashes in the water, uncomfortably close and dead ahead, coming towards you fast, with no entity visible to produce them. Background music kicks in and accurately illustrates the staccato of a fear cannonade, torturing your brain. "What to do? What to do?!" You barely start to ask that question as that SOMETHING already starts to hurt you, until you are dead. Well, good luck next time. For the sake of my readers who did not yet play "Amnesia: The Dark Descent", I'll leave it at that. Just one more thing: after you have figured out what to do, it won't get any better. (end major spoiler)

I mentioned that the game builds up tension. Like a series of pictures featuring adorable men or women makes you horny, playing "Amnesia" has an unsettling effect which makes you want to quit right away. One minute after starting the game, when you hear the wind complaining about the assembly of stones in its way and the tantrums of ancient, possibly rotten wooden boulders while exploring dusty rooms, lonely halls and other places so dark and daunting just the mere sight of them frightens you, just leaving and focusing your attention on something more amiable seems like the most reasonable reaction to your emerging state of mind.

The feeling I just described is the fat, the blood, whatever liquid or substance, holding the pieces of meat together, which finalize what the game has prepared you for. Like a not-so-guilty participant of the french revolution, your intent to continue the story is tried and executed by one of the many climaxes which make you call for your mother faster than a clown with red eyes, sharp teeth and the voice of tim curry.

The meat. The bloody meat.

And then there's the key element of "Amnesia",  which is infamous for two reasons. It never ceases to frighten you, and it NEVER fucking STOPS. You are being chased. You play an archeologist person who unknowingly and without purpose stirred something up, and now It is seeking revenge or... whatever. The point is, it follows you, stalks you, relentlessly searches for you, wants to kill you. Up to the point of the story where you discover what it is, it seems to have many faces and none of them are peachy. If it is a shadow, or walking remains of failed experiments, it always appears to be where you are, just barely not. You are within reach always, but somehow manage to escape.

That is done by hiding. Oh, didn't I mention? There are no weapons in the game. You pick up items  that could have been weapons in other games, but in "Amnesia", they just resemble objects necessary to progress the story. Your best chance of survival is hiding in the darkest corner you can possibly find, hoping for the best. At that point, another mechanic kicks in: the player character's sanity is being drained while he remains in the dark. His vision becomes distorted and he starts hearing scratching noises, like there were termites eating away at his skull, up to the point where there actually are insects crawling all over the screen. His heart starts pounding, and in time, the poor soul will produce wimpy, miserable sounds of agony, which point the bane he's hiding from to his secret-no-more hideout.

-When- another one of these moments arises, is just a question of time. Of course, once you have played through the title, you can distinguish certain patterns, but I won't illustrate them of course, because that uncertainty is one of the major pillars carrying the horror this game tries (and manages) to achieve. You search your surroundings for a clue, finally manage to solve a puzzle or enter a room, anything can be the trigger. Similar to the siren in "Silent Hill", a characteristic sound makes very clear that your life is forfeit if you don't find a safe, concealed place within the next couple of seconds.

Now, vulnerable human imp, you are put to the test. Whichever location you chose as your hideout, usually your nemesis is an arms length away, breathing, shuffling, growling, and of course, searching for you. There are no illusions: the best you can do, is what you are doing already, right now. Crouching in the obscure spot you put your faith in, a little, unimportant excuse for a failed archeologist, unfortunate enough to have been in the wrong place of this earth to initiate the hunt - as prey.