(Note: This was originally posted here on my Destructoid blog, Level 3 Blues)
Last Spring, Roger Ebert famously stated that video games could never be art. Of course, his post was immediately inundated with comments from gamers and non-gamers alike, some foaming at the mouth in retaliation, some agreeing, and some (like me) who felt that he was, despite his status as a critic, no judge of something he didn’t understand. I could write pages upon pages about the status of video games as cultural products, or about why Ebert is insufficiently prepared to arrive at any conclusion regarding art in general.
But this is a video game site.
So instead of launching into a self-important rant about the meaning of art, or the philosophical and moral implications of choosing a definition that excludes what may be my favorite form of media, I’ll just talk about the fantastic Amnesia: The Dark Descent, from Frictional Games.
First, I want to put out that what almost every review of this game has agreed upon: It’s scary. At times, it is startling (a la jump-out-and-yell-boo) and at times it is disturbing (vicious scenes of torture percolate throughout the last quarter of the game) but the underlying chill of the game is the real draw, and what makes it so brilliant.
But let’s start with the story. You play as Daniel, who apparently lives at Mayfair and is being hunted by something. And that’s all you know at the beginning of the game. He has Amnesia (get it?) and it’s up to you- the player- to figure out what you’re doing and how to get out of wherever you are.
Throughout the game, you find scraps of Daniel’s diary and other notes, which serve to reveal more of the story. You are in Castle Brennenburg, and for whatever reason, you’re supposed to kill a man named Alexander.
Soon, however, a new element of the story begins to emerge: You are being hunted by something supernatural, which manifests itself in the form of a fleshy growth on the walls and ground of the castle. Whatever it is, you know it is dangerous and you continue to flee further into the castle to avoid it.
Along the way, you learn of the horrors of Castle Brennenburg, and of your place in them. Also, aside from the “Nightmare” that is chasing you, the castle hosts a variety of creatures willing to tear you to shreds. And there’s the clincher, because you have absolutely no way to defend yourself.
The only items you carry are tinderboxes (for lighting candles) and a lamp (which can and will run out of oil), plus whatever tools you find in your adventure. But nothing can be used for defense. If you see a monster, run and hide, because you stand no chance.
That helplessness lends immensely to atmosphere, which is by far the most magnificent aspect of this game. You see, especially in the early game, there are very few monsters. You won’t see any for quite a while. But the threat is always there, and every sound or shadow will send you running for the nearest hiding place, extinguishing your lamp and trying to breathe quietly. Okay, maybe only I did that.
Of course, having Daniel crouch in the dark for too long is a terrible idea, because in addition to the various horrors awaiting Daniel ahead and chasing him from behind, Daniel also is going insane.
Witnessing disturbing events, seeing monsters, or just being in the dark too much all contribute the the sometimes-rapid degeneration of Daniel’s mental health. The more insane he goes, the odder things you begin to perceive: doors slamming on their own, paintings changing to more gruesome ones, and so on.
This presents an interesting meta-resource-management aspect to the game. Do you carry your lamp, burning your rare oil, attracting whatever monsters may be around, but preserving your sanity? Or do you run across the castle from candle to candle, hoping to not trip over something monstrous in the meantime?
To return to the topic of atmosphere, I want to say that Frictional has created one of the most beautiful, engrossing environments in memory. Castle Brennenburg is gorgeous itself, in a Lovecraftian, fantasy-inspired ancient castle kind of way that geeks love. The scarcity of light lends to the beauty of the occasional window, the luminous stream pouring through a reminder that there is a reason to try to escape. The soundtrack is also astonishing. At times, it highlights the broodiness of the castle- dark, slow, and subtle. Sometimes, you stumble across a pleasant scene, and the music changes to a bittersweet, seemingly-reminiscent piano theme.
I would not classify Amnesia: The Dark Descent as a survival horror game in the traditional vein. This is an adventure game, one of the best I’ve ever played, though one with distinctly horror themes. The gameplay revolves around exploration and interacting with the environment. The puzzles are never difficult, but they actually help to pace the game. You should never be “lost” in Castle Brennenburg, because the game takes place in fairly closed environments, meaning that you should never have to go far to solve whatever puzzle is impeding your progress.
Finally, I’ll return to the story. I won’t give much away, but know that the narrative of Amnesia is superbly written, and the way in which the game drops small chunks of Daniel’s past into your lap, without any way to correlate them until the end, is brilliant. All you ever really know is that something is terribly wrong, and you have to fix it.
So, to return to my issue with Roger Ebert. Personally, I define art as any creation purposely made to impart an emotional experience unto another human being. By the end of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I was gripped by a deep sadness for Daniel, who (very very slight spoiler) learns some awful things about himself. By the time the credits rolled, I had experienced more emotion as this character than I have in most books I’ve read, or movies I’ve watched, or paintings I’ve seen.
Roger Ebert, go play Amnesia. You’ll thank me for it.