I first played Amnesia: The Dark Descent during my freshman year of university. Easily terrified and afraid of the dark, I knew from the start that the horror of it wouldn’t be lost on me. But I remember Amnesia with far more nostalgia and humor than pure fear. Looking back on the game now, I find my experience playing it interesting for one particular reason: I originally played this single-player game as a co-operative one with a dorm friend, and found the game to be incredibly enjoyable this way. I know I’m not the only one to have played games this way, especially scary ones; many people I’ve talked to have shared stories about things like passing off controllers between them and a friend, or watching as a sibling played. This idea got me thinking about how co-operative horror experiences with games impact the emotions those games make players feel, and how these experiences are different from, say, watching a scary movie with friends.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an indie first-person survival horror game released by Frictional Games in 2010. I played many years after that, in 2017, a few months into my freshman year. The game had since been critically acclaimed and regarded as a classic in the budding horror genre for games, especially psychological horror. The game was renowned for its atmosphere, slow pacing, jumpscares, gameplay mechanics, and the impact its success had on the presence of psychological horror in the video game industry. In it, players take control of a character named Daniel, who has lost all of his memories and finds himself in a very dark and seemingly desolate castle. The player must explore the castle, picking up Daniel’s diary entries, regaining his memories, and puzzling his way through the castle, all the while hiding from grotesque monsters that wander around the place and suffering from the madness that a malevolent entity called The Shadow inflicts on him. My next-door neighbor Calvin, who I had discovered in the first few weeks of university also loved playing video games, introduced it as a well-known scary game that he had seen playthroughs of, but never played himself. We had at that point developed a streak of selecting single-player games to share with each other or play in a tag-team fashion, and he suggested that Amnesia be our next game. I took the helm for much of the game, but we switched off in having control every once in a while (or when certain bits got too scary for me).
The game was, as it was meant to be, horrifying. It had jump scares left and right, and kept me anxiously waiting for something to run from in between. I have, since then, put effort into easing my fear of the dark, but at the time the intentionally dim halls of the castle had my mind spiraling in wonder at what could pop out of them. Even Calvin, who knew a bit about what we would encounter, was frightened and unsettled by the creepy environments we found ourselves in. Every room we entered we made sure to shut the door behind us and open a closet in case a monster tried to break their way in. We kept careful track of our lighting resources. And when a monster inevitably came for us the one controlling Daniel ran screaming as the other held onto their chair stiffly hoping that we could lose it. Well, actually the screaming and freezing was mostly me. Still, the game was good at accomplishing its job for both of us, and having someone else in the room had a weird way of making me less scared and more reactive at the same time.
This last bit here illustrates one thing that I think is interesting about how the emotional experience of playing a horror game is different when playing alongside a friend. In our case, we alternated between holding two roles: the role of an active player and that of an observer. In each of these roles, we had differing levels of control over any given gameplay situation we were in.
The observer had slight control over the gameplay – more than they would if they were watching a scary movie, but less than the active player did. They could influence the gameplay with their words and reactions. The desperate advice that people yell at the protagonist of a horror movie when watching in the theatre (“Don’t go in there!” or “Run!”) can actually work here, as they did in our playthrough. The reactions of both players elevated the fear, urgency, and flight response of all people involved. As an observer I felt scared, but still not as scared as I was when I was playing. I could look away from the creepy faces of the monsters, and didn’t feel the crawl up my back that I typically did as the active player when we were being chased. There was a bit more metaphorical distance between myself and the threat of monsters onscreen. Given that I didn’t have any actual control though, in the scary situations I just screamed and in the times in between I always had an eye out for potential scary things to come. It felt more like watching a scary movie in that way. The active player, on the other hand, had complete control over the gameplay. They got to make the final decisions on what steps to take, and their live reactions to jumpscares or the presence of a nearby monster were the ones that directly affected the outcomes of the game. They also had a more direct experience of fear because they were the one who had to run. There’s an interesting effect that having agency in a situation raises the stakes and makes you feel that you have to be ready at all times to react. It’s one of the reasons I think horror games are so effective at scaring people, because they simulate actually being in the horrifying situation these games portray and engages people’s instinct for self-preservation.
Playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent with Calvin wasn’t as scary as I believe it would have been if I had played alone. Still, the experience was a great mix of frightening and fun. We had a lot of moments where we screamed and then laughed, just like we would likely have had watching a horror movie. In a way, when you play with a friend you’re creating two streams of experiences that mirrors experiences you’d have with a scary movie. There’s one in which you two are interacting with the game and the horrifying experiences it has to offer. And then there’s another where you two are interacting with each other, and creating a meta space where you process your collective experience with the game as you go. At the intersection of these two streams is a pool of memories that you generate throughout your co-operative gameplay. From this playthrough almost four years ago, Calvin and I have moments that we still reference. For example, there’s a part of the game that requires you to wade through a flooded room and toss a rock far away from you into the water to distract a monster. At the time Calvin was controlling Daniel. He wades out into the room with the rock, gets ready to throw it, and suddenly his finger slips on the keys and Daniel just drops the rock right in front of him. The rock makes a loud SPLASH in the water. We both look at each other for a moment and then panic (I’m yelling “go go go go go” and gripping the seat) as Calvin books it for the edge of the room where we hoped the monster we knew was coming wouldn’t catch us. After we reach it we turn around and… the monster didn’t even notice. The rest of the game had us so on edge that we just assumed we were done for the moment we realized the rock hit the water. We laughed for a good long while after that. I don’t think I would have laughed like that if I were alone. There were many more moments like that, and Calvin had a good time watching me flail down the hallways bumping into things in my attempts to run away from monsters. Regardless, the point stands. These are the kinds of impactful experiences that you don’t get so much from horror movie watch parties, and don’t get from horror games played alone, but do get from games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent when played with a friend.