Last night I sat down, alone in the dark, to play a critically-acclaimed horror game widely recognized as an early leader in the genre, and I prepared to be scared. And…I wasn’t. While I did have a scattered few satisfying moments of dread, Amnesia: The Dark Descent brought me mostly annoyance and frustration. Given this contrast between expectation and reality, it’s worth considering what about the game does make it scary, and also why it mostly fell short for me.
Professor Jan-Noël Thon of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology provides a useful framework for understanding the emotional experiences of playing a digital game. In his article “Playing with Fear: The Aesthetics of Horror in Recent Indie Games,” Thon draws on prior work in film studies to distinguish between two types of emotional experiences that can contribute to the feeling of fear in a horror game. First, fiction emotions are those directed at the audiovisual and narrative depiction of entities and events in a game. This kind of emotion is shared between interactive and non-interactive media: a shot of a grotesque monster evokes similar reactions of fear and disgust whether on a computer screen or a movie screen. On the other hand, gameplay emotions are those in response to the player’s “ludic interests,” i.e. the feelings the player has in the role of an agent in a game system. For example, a monster may evoke fear not only because it is audiovisually disturbing but also because it is a “threat…to the player reaching their game goals.” When these two emotional experiences work in tandem, the result can be a far greater sense of fear than in a non-interactive medium like film.
Which brings us to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a classic work in the canon of horror video games. In Amnesia, the player takes on the role of Daniel, a nineteenth-century archaeologist who is haunted by a vengeful supernatural entity known as the Shadow. Daniel awakens with no memories in a mysterious castle and finds a note written by his past self, warning him of the Shadow and directing him to kill the baron of the castle, Alexander. From this point on, Daniel must navigate the halls of the castle and solve puzzles to reach Alexander, hiding from monsters and trying to stay sane while the Shadow manipulates the environment around him.
As Thon points out, Amnesia is at its best where its mechanics and aesthetics align, creating a “convergence between fear as a fiction emotion and fear as a gameplay emotion.” This is particularly notable in the interplay of light and dark. The castle is often poorly lit, eliciting fear audiovisually, from the eerie sounds and vague outlines in the dark areas, and narratively, from the threat of monsters in the dark and the fact that the Shadow may be manipulating objects just out of sight. The game mechanics reinforce this fear as a gameplay emotion, too: the player’s sanity meter gradually drops when in the dark (potentially leading to Daniel’s death), and solving the puzzles to progress through the game requires being able to see. At the same time, light is a scare resource: Daniel has a portable lantern which consumes his scarce supply of oil while lit, as well as a limited number of tinderboxes which can light permanent but immovable light fixtures, such as candles or torches. The dread of walking into a corridor with no light in sight is a function of both the fiction fear of the dark and the gameplay fear of consuming valuable resources, and the inverse is true for the relief of encountering a well-lit room.
The game performs the most strongly when the player’s focus is on this moment-to-moment gameplay loop of exploring a dark, unknown space and managing limited light resources. Unfortunately, the gameplay experience often fails to deliver on this immersive potential. Amnesia is mechanically an adventure game, where the player must solve a series of diegetic puzzles to progress to successive levels. These puzzles tend to draw the player away from the light-and-dark focus and detract from the sense of fear.
As an example of this, in one segment of the game, Daniel must fix an elevator by going into the Machine Room, which is at first locked. In my playthrough, I went to the Guest Room to find the Machine Room key, only to discover that the key lay behind a door with a broken lock. After an examination of the area and a failed attempt to break down the door by throwing a chair repeatedly, I assumed the method of opening the door was elsewhere, so I went to the Study to look for a key. Instead, I found a machine control rod, which I didn’t yet know I needed to fix the elevator, since I hadn’t been in the Machine Room to know the control rods were missing. After several minutes of wandering around and retracing my steps through previously-lit areas (and eventually peeking at a walkthrough), I finally discovered the crowbar sitting on a table back in the Guest Room that I missed the first time, which allowed me to pry open the door and get the key.
Moments of friction like this—where the attention shifts from “I’m in a dangerous, unknown space” to “I’m stuck, and now I need to check every drawer to find the one item the game wants me to find”—transform the gameplay emotions from fear to frustration. This can diminish the fiction emotion of fear, too, as the player’s focus is forced to shift away from that of Daniel wandering through the castle to that of a player attempting to solve a preprogrammed puzzle in a computer game. Amnesia suffers from far too many of these points of friction. It feels a bit like watching a horror film while someone in the theater is repeatedly texting. You might get engrossed in the experience for a while, but soon enough another moment of friction breaks the immersion, confronting you with the fact that this is all a constructed piece of fiction, not something worth getting scared over.