On the twenty-second day of Christmas my true love erased my memory and dumped me into a nightmare hell-place of insanity. That was a fun gift.
It's.... Amnesia: The Dark Descent!
Quinns: Let me tell you about my duel with the monster in the pump room.
I first caught sight of it when I entered the chamber. I mean, I didn’t actually see it- it was invisible, like many of Amnesia’s monsters. Some of these things, they’re little more than a bump in the night that wants to bump you off. The pump chamber was divided into a series of narrow brick walkways over a body of opaque, cold-looking water. Up on the walkways, I saw a telltale splash of movement. I peered down into the water. Something was down there.
As I made my way across the room, I heard the creature in the water stalking me. An angry splash here, a mad gurgle there. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, reminding myself that the thing couldn’t hurt me. This was my way of getting through Amnesia. You tell yourself that the monsters can’t see you, even as they’re punching holes in the cupboard you're hiding inside. You tell yourself that they can’t harm you, even as their mangled, leathery, searching hands find purchase and pull your head apart.
After picking my way down the length of the room I made it to the valves on the other side, the ones that would drain the nearby sewer and allow me access. With a twist of the mouse, I turned the valve. There was a sound of rushing water, providing me with the miserable thought that the water in the pump room would rise, bringing the creature up to my level. I watched the dirty water. It was stationary.
Cautiously, I picked my way over to a second valve, deftly dropping a raised walkway with a thrown stone. Again, I turned the valve, and again there was a sound of rushing water. Then came the third valve, which I activated with as little trouble as the other two. I was done here. But on my way out of the chamber... I don’t know. I stepped out where the bricks stopped, or something equally fatal.
My heart leapt into my mouth as I landed with a great splash, causing such a disturbance in the water that I couldn’t pick out thing's footsteps. Oh, God. I was down there with it, and I was a bundle of matchsticks and no match for its hunger and hate. I waited, knee deep in the water, for almost a minute. Invisible monsters are usually blind, and it didn’t seem to have detected me.
Frozen, I planned my escape route. There was a bit of crumbled masonry that I could scramble up to get back on the walkways. With no other options I set off, my feet dragging through the water. Splash, splash, splash, and- oh Christ! No, no! I was hearing too much splashing! The creature had found me. With a maddened leap I flung myself onto the fallen stones, only to slide straight back off. The surface was too sheer. Knowing a second jump would have the same result, I stayed facing the rock and waited for the inevitable scream and boneslurp as the creature caught me.
Whole seconds, each of them fattened by fear, passed in silence. What was going on? I turned around to see a large patch of perfectly still water, and saw that I was alone.
I realised that there had never been a pump room creature. Or rather, there had been, but he lived in my head. I’d misinterpreted some signs and accidentally given birth to some shapeless horror that couldn't survive an investigation. Shellshocked, I found a better climbing spot and left the pump room.
And that’s how Amnesia built an encounter for me out of nothing but running water and fear itself. Gaming doesn’t have all that many horror masterpieces, but this is one of them.
John: It's funny how many clichés Amnesia gets away with. Just the titular one to begin with - a main character who has lost his memory! Lordy. Then a series of dark corridors in a spooky, haunted building. It doesn't shout original. And yet it really is. Frictional's first-person horror creates an environment of genuine scares, along with forcing you to play in a way that seems contrary to the theme.
You're not charging around blowing things up with shotguns. In fact, you have no weapons at all. Your only tactic in a combat situation is to run and hide. Progress requires puzzle solving, whether that's as simple as finding keys, or as complex as manipulating large machines through a series of physics puzzles. And all the time you must avoid contact with anything else alive, and do your best to stay in the light.
The use of sanity is really fun. Darkness leads to insanity, fear leads to insanity. But light is a very precious commodity, and can only be sparingly used. Lose too many of your marbles and you start slowing down, until you're eventually dragging yourself along the ground by your arms. Progress will rebuild your mental confidence, so you just keep going.
What I'll most remember is the water sequence. Were Amnesia a AAA game from a major publisher, the water sequence would already be spoken of alongside Thief: Deadly Shadow's Cradle and BioShock's Fort Frolic. It deserves it. Pursued by an invisible monster that can only detect your location whenever you make a splash, the panic induced in trying to scrabble for dry surfaces, or dashing through water to reach safety, is heart-destroying. I end up laughing at myself as my fingers get all tangled in my frenzied attempt to jump back on a bookshelf, my heart racing, the game's heart sound effect racing, the snurgling, growling of the invisible beast, and then the hideous red slash across the screen as I fail.
I also have a question about the save cannisters. They're the same that appeared in the Penumbra games, and the same creepy thing happens - the white screen with the weird message. I think they scare me most of all, possibly because they're in both games, and seem to exist outside the reality of both of them. What are they?
Kieron: So, you may be starting to get the feeling that Amnesia is a little bit on the scary side. And you're right. Yeah, some people will prove immune to its anticharms, but some people... well, some people get a special kind of frightened.
You'll probably have seen this.
That is a special kind of frightened. And I don't just mean "So scared that you start blurting out a series of absolutely meme-worthy lines" (my favourites are "that's not traditional fire" and "Oh shit! I have a bag of milky waysOHWAHHHHH!!!!!"). I mean that it's scary in that special kind of way that afterwards you think it's a good idea to upload it and share with the world how absolutely gibberingly insane with fear this game drove you. That's a deeply sincere compliment. You want to share.
With Amnesia, Frictional went for their big pop single, putting everything they learned in Penumbra into a tightly honed machine. It shows a consummate understanding of pacing, setting and writing, of how you can get so much from aspects which you may think overfamiliar. It's lean, brutal - and smart enough to realise that if it pretends to be more brutal than it actually is, it becomes more intimidating (i.e. Scary) and generally one of the best games of the year. I can't think of anything in first person that I enjoyed more, including the obvious one you're thinking of.
Of course, the oddest thing about Amnesia is that I kept on forgetting its name and calling it something else. That's its own kind of scary.