While monsters certainly make life miserable, there’s really a much greater foe to overcome here: the dark. Each time you walk through a door into an unexplored area, you are faced with a wall of darkness with only your tiny lantern in hand and a few tinderboxes in your inventory, knowing that you must press forward, dreading what might lie ahead. Light and darkness are essential parts of any horror experience, but few games have made light so precious and darkness so terrifying as Amnesia. Most of the game is blanketed in near-total darkness. Candles, torches, and lanterns occasionally pierce through, but for the most part the best source of light in the game is you. Daniel can pull out his lantern that projects a much-needed but relatively tiny aura of light, but it rapidly consumes its limited oil reserves. Oil refills are scattered throughout the castle but are quite scarce. The same goes for tinderboxes, which you can collect and use to ignite any unlit candles or torches you come across, none of which you can carry with you.
Light doesn’t just serve to make things easier to see, either. Daniel’s psyche is in a fragile state, and too much time spent in darkness drives him closer to a total breakdown. For the player this means that as your sanity decreases, your vision will warp and become clouded, and your movement will grow sluggish. The game warns you that if your mental instability reaches a critical low point, you’ll die, though this never happened to me despite some fairly prolonged stretches in the dark.
All this means that light is a valuable resource you have to carefully manage. Every candle you light now is one you won’t be able to light in the next area, which might be even bigger and darker. Every second you have your lantern out is one second sooner that it will snuff out—maybe right when you need it most. The constant decrease of lamp oil in the inventory screen is a reminder not to be too greedy for illumination. The other tradeoff is that, while light restores your sanity and allows you to better explore the castle, it also exposes you to the enemy. Darkness saps your mental health but is your only escape from an enemy. The interplay between light and dark in games is nothing new, but Amnesia breathes new life into the concept and wrings every bit of anxiety it can out of it.
The combination of limited resources and an auto-save system might seem to be a recipe for frustration—after all, what do you do if you run out of oil and tinderboxes in the middle of a darkened area? Yet I never experienced that for the duration of the eight or so hours the game lasted, in part because I learned to ration my resources but also because the game is perfectly paced so that you are always almost out of items but never seem to completely run out for long. I’m not sure what the game is doing under the hood, whether the designers have supernatural powers of foresight or whether the game tracks your inventory and adjusts item placement on the fly. My vote’s on magic. Either way, it works incredibly well and adds enormously to the overall tension in the game.
The physics element in the first Penumbra game helped set it apart from its contemporaries, and it has remained a signature of Frictional’s work since. While opening a door in most games is a matter of a single click or button press, in Amnesia the player must grip the handle and draw the mouse back in order to swing the door open. Just about every object lying around can be picked up, moved, and thrown. This leads to some unique gameplay possibilities that are not explicitly called for, such as slowly opening a door to peek into the room ahead, or leaving objects on the ground as markers to denote which paths you’ve already explored. This freedom of interactivity goes a long way towards immersing the player more fully than usual.
Physics also feature prominently in Amnesia's puzzles. While some of the puzzles are fairly vanilla “use x on y” inventory sorts, many incorporate the physics engine, such as throwing a chair through a cracked window or placing weight on a drawbridge that is stuck in place. These puzzles feel like a natural part of the environment rather than something cooked up by devious game designers. The problems are always logical and often intuitive—locked doors are not kept shut by ingenious slider puzzle mechanisms or esoteric codes, they are padlocked or blocked by debris. More often than not, a solution to a given puzzle is pretty close to what an actual person in the same situation might devise instead of some hackneyed Rube Goldberg-style concoction. The more traditional inventory puzzles also consistently make sense, often involving collecting ingredients for some kind of formula and then finding the correct place to mix them. These puzzles, while nothing amazing in isolation, are never frustrating due to bad feedback or illogical design. If you’re looking for intricate brain-teasers, Amnesia might not deliver, but the emphasis on real-world obstacles and solutions is a nice change of pace from standard adventure fare and fits well in a game that values immersion over all else.
While the gameplay would probably be terrifying even with dated graphics, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Amnesia’s visuals are fantastic. The Penumbra series was always a little on the rough side graphically, so I was surprised when I booted up Amnesia to find a vastly improved display on par with bigger budget games. Detailed textures and moody, realistic lighting help sell the macabre architecture of Castle Brennenburg as a real place. Every room is richly detailed, be it a padded cell, a sewer tunnel, or a lavish study. Even as the game progresses to increasingly nightmarish locales, it remains firmly rooted in recognizable reality. You can see the mildew growing in the stones of the sewer, watch roaches scatter over rotting food, follow every trail of blood from foreboding start to grisly finish. The castle is convincing, often darkly beautiful in its ravaged, ruined state, and always creepy. It’s also more varied than I expected—despite always being shrouded in darkness, each area feels distinct and unique. The only place the graphics falter is in the character models, which look rather dated up close and lack major details such as lip-syncing, though you only run into people a couple of times. Thankfully, the prowling monsters remain truly haunting, caught only in fleeting glimpses, obscured by the darkness.
Even better than the artwork is the sound design, which is stunning. I can’t praise the work here enough. There is very little music, but what’s offered is understated and moody. For the most part, though, it’s just you and the oppressive natural soundscape. Everything sounds exactly as it should in a creepy castle: doors creak ominously, bugs skitter across the floor, torches crackle and spit sparks. With headphones on, the sound is totally immersive. The wind rattling the windows made me feel chills, and more than once I jumped for real when I accidentally bumped Daniel into a desk, knocking something to the floor with a sudden thump against the floorboards. And those are just the sounds that you’re expecting to hear. The further you progress, the weirder things get, and before long you’re hearing pounding footsteps from the floor above you, distant whimpering, and inexplicable thuds. Unsettling ambient noises play in certain areas, not quite soundtrack and not quite part of the game world: walls of white noise, low rumbling tones, gut-wrenching shrieking. These sounds lend a sense of futile claustrophobia to the adventure. As you run through the darkness, an enemy on your tail and blasting white noise in your ears, making random turns in an attempt to lose your pursuer, you feel trapped and hopeless. It’s perfect.
The very first time you start up Amnesia, a message from the developers appears, informing you that the game is best played at night with headphones on. They tell you not to worry about where and when to save, but instead to focus on immersing yourself in their world. It’s telling that they chose to include this message. It shows an understanding of what makes something scary—it’s not just having tons of gore or things jumping out at you. Horror is about facing the unknown and feeling helpless against it. For that to work, the player needs to be as fully immersed as possible in the experience, yet Frictional understands that such immersion requires effort from both the developer and the player. They’ve done their part exceptionally well. I’ve played countless horror games over the past decade or so, and only a few have managed to be as consistently and relentlessly terrifying an experience as this. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys the rush of simulated terror, follow the developer’s advice: wait until sundown, put on some headphones, and start up Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I'll see you at the bottom.