Experienced Points: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

By Shamus
on Nov 5, 2010
Filed under:
Column

I’ve written quite a bit about survival horror in this space. I was always talking about some far-flung future then game designers would “get it” and make a game that set out to cultivate fear rather than just daunting combat.

It’s as if someone read those articles, and made the game according to my specifications.

It’s a good game. It’s a cheap game. It’s much smarter than Dead Space and many times as scary. I like to think that if this thing had marketing behind it, it would be tearing up the sales charts. (But maybe not. The imagery is really disturbing. I find realistic text descriptions of human torture to be a lot more frightening than gross space aliens being splattered by my shotgun in full 3D.)

As always, your mileage may vary. Do give it a look if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

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  1. Nick Bell says:

    I played the demo. Or rather, I played the beginning of the demo at night, in the dark, all by myself. Got scared enough to set it aside with the thought “I’ll pick that up later when it is sunny.”

    Still haven’t gotten back to it, but definitely want too. Maybe on a warm, sunny summer afternoon.

  2. Raygereio says:

    Amnesia piqued my interest when it was released, but when I tried the demo I was treated to a jumping puzzle in some basement with ankle-deep water and a invisible monster. That wasn’t so much tense as it was silly, so I passed it by.

    I’m guessing the actual game is better then the demo?

    • Shamus says:

      That jumping puzzle was the low point of the game for me. I might write about that sequence, but the short version is that there are a lot of things wrong with it beyond just the silly jumping.

      The rest of the game doesn’t have that sort of business in it.

      • Raygereio says:

        The rest of the game doesn’t have that sort of business in it.

        This begs the question who the bright lightbulb was that decided to put it in the demo.

        Another question: the demo had you lose sanity when you saw creepy monster and were standing around in darkness. How much of a bother is that mechanic in practice? Do you end up constantly searching for lightsources? And I also can’t see it being much fun not being able to look around if I’m being chased, because I’ll keel over dead if I do see something chasing me. Or are there enough sources of “sanity-regen” for this to not be an issue?

        • Jarenth says:

          The fact that you, when confronted with ‘this is a really scary and atmospheric game’ instantly start disecting the game into constituent mechanics is kind of telling for the state of the games industry as a whole.

          • Macil says:

            @Jarenth

            Couldn’t have put that better.

            @Raygereio

            Amnesia is more of an experience. Don’t think about it, just play it. :)

            • Samkathran says:

              Well, hey now, I don’t think it’s exactly fair to completely dismiss mechanics in a game just because it’s supposed to be atmospheric. It doesn’t necessarily need to be dissected either, but mechanics are just one of many aspects of a game that is part of the overall experience. To ignore it would be a mistake, especially when it’s clear that so much time and effort was spent to make a game whose mechanics and atmosphere worked so well together.

              “I can turn off my light to avoid detection, but lose some sanity because I’m in the dark”

              “I can hide here and look away from the monster to keep my sanity, but risk losing track of where it is”

              Both of these decisions were reinforced by the game mechanics, and because of that, it made those situations very creepy in addition to the visuals, audio, etc. I think they did a great job with that.

              (but yeah, don’t overthink it when actually playing the game :P)

              • Macil says:

                Just to clarify, I wasn’t dismissing mechanics. I think Amnesia has brilliant mechanics and I could blather on about the simple ingenuity behind them for a couple of pages.

                I do think that would be detrimental to the experience of new players, however — discussing the mechanics and their overall effect throughout the game is kind of like a spoiler. A lot of Amnesia’s terror comes out of uncertainty — even uncertainty of what to expect from the game mechanics.

                As I said earlier, Amnesia is more of an experience. I think discussing the mechanics is counterproductive to enjoying it (at least until you’ve reached the end).

                I was agreeing with Jarenth’s comment which I understood (and everyone else seems to have misunderstood) in the way that he later clarified himself further down in this thread:

                Jarenth:

                To clarify: I wasn’t making a value judgement towards Raygereio’s comment.

                … some part of our gamer minds simply can’t turn off, that keeps reminding itself that this is a game that we’re playing, not just a multimedia story, and that we have to play it right and play to win.

          • Raygereio says:

            I honestly have no clue what you mean. Enjoyment of the atmosphere of the game is wholly dependent on the mechanics. Creating a creepy atmosphere is easy, anyone who knows the basics of creating a decent setting can do that. But you can just as easily ruin the experience with the mechanics you put in. Take Doom 3 as an example. If you remove all the monsters and the weapons, walking around the marsian base is actually somewhat creepy. But the inclusion of shooting monsters completely blows that experience out of the water as you’re not walking around looking at your surroundings, but you’re looking for monsters.
            In the same way resource management (which is what collecting flints, lamp oil and conserving your sanity basically is) can also ruin the experience if you end up constantly having hurry up and look for more resources to keep yourself alive, instead of being able to just sit back, look around and enjoy what the game throws at you.

            • acronix says:

              Evidently, this is not the game for you. That´s all righ´t, since not everyone can like the same games, no matter what Halo fans say.

              Said that, I disagree with you. A game without mechanics wouldn´t be scary because, in some way, having a health meter (even if it´s invisible) and being able to die is also a mechanic. But if you don´t have a health meter all fear is gone, since you can just take a bit of hearth and run forward, crashing into everything the game throws at you knowing you will never die.
              Of course, certain mechanics are better than others in different aproaches. We could argue, for instance, that looking for flint and lamp oil is a good mechanic since it creates a certain urge to have them and use them thoughtfully, besides giving a slightly higher level of interactivity with the world.

              The real problem is that the game has to push the right expectations in the player. If you notice you can´t ever die, you will never be afraid of going inside the darkest of rooms, no matter how many jump scares, creepy ambient or horrific the sights. And, as you know, expectations vary from player to player, and there´s a whole lot of us around…

              • Raygereio says:

                What? Just because I’m asking questions about how the game works, it’s not for me? o_O?

                Also you seem to have completely missed my point (What is with that lately? I’m not that vague in my posts…). My point (and question) was about the way game mechanics are implemented. If you add resource gathering to game whose sole purpose is being scary, that’s fine. Good even; as you said, it can add to the game.
                But at the same time it can ruin the game if you’re dependent on that resource and it isn’t abundant. If you die without the resource, and it’s scarce; then the creepy atmosphere has lost all meaning. You can’t be affected by what’s going on around you as you’re just running around like a headless chicken looking for more lamp oil. Cue yakity sax.
                So, to get back to my original question. Are the resources abundant enough? Are there ways of restoring your sanity – either over time, or by making progress – for instance?

                Secondly:

                But if you don´t have a health meter all fear is gone, since you can just take a bit of hearth and run forward, crashing into everything the game throws at you knowing you will never die.

                Man, I strongly disagree with that. A scary atmosphere should be scary because you as the player are unsettled. Not because you’re afraid your character is going to die.
                If the ambience is really creepy, then the question of whether or not my character can die is of no value. I – the player – don’t want to go into that creepy dark room.

                • Shamus says:

                  Sanity is recovered by making progress: Moving forward in the story, solving puzzles.

                  Is there enough light resources? There’s enough to get you through the game, although there was never so much that I stopped being stingy with it. I think there are a couple of “failsafe” barrels of oil in the game that give more oil if you’re low. At least, I suspect that’s the case, since I had tons of oil and found empty barrels, and a couple of times I was low on oil and found generous barrels. That might have been luck, though.

                • acronix says:

                  Oh! I´m sorry. I somehow understood that you had played and disliked the game for the management of flints and lamp oil, condemning it as something that shouldn´t be done with scary games. Apologies!

                  To answer your questions: depends on how scared you are, I think. I never ran out of oil or flints, but that´s because I only used them on corners and moving between lights, respectively. If you go happyly flinting every torch you´ll run out of them very, very fast. You have to think a bit about which torches to light, too. It´s not like there are lots and lots of them, but there are enough in every given room to make you choose. Should I lit the one in the corner, or the one in front of my hiding place? Should I lit a light there too, to regain sanity? Or shouldn´t do it, since a monster could spot me…?

                  Oil is more scarce, obviously, but I never ran out of it. Even when it´s basically needed for moving ahead in various parts. There were a couple of instances in which I was about to run out of it, near the beginning, but after that I used it more counciously. On the other hand, my sanity was constantly on the floor. Mmm…

                  Also: oil barrels can only refill the lamp a finite ammount of times. I think it´s a full refill for a “full” barrel, and a third for the “almost empty” ones. You can also recover some sanity by standing in a well light place (basically, stare at a torch in an enclosed room for a while). Not sure if you can recover it fully, but I´m sure I got from the very worst one to the third worst one doing that (the one that says “You are suffering a headache” or something).

                • Raygereio says:

                  @acronix: no worries.

                  And thanks clearing that up. I just bumped Amnesia up from “buy when it’s on sale” status to “buy when I have the money”.

            • Shamus says:

              Doom 3 with 90% of the monsters removed… That’s a really interesting idea.

            • Jarenth says:

              To clarify: I wasn’t making a value judgement towards Raygereio’s comment.

              I just think it’s very interesting that even when confronted with what I’ve been told is a really immersive experience, some part of our gamer minds simply can’t turn off, that keeps reminding itself that this is a game that we’re playing, not just a multimedia story, and that we have to play it right and play to win.

              It could just be an inherent limitation on horror games: while it’s true that games are unique in that they place you in the driver’s seat, this also means that you can’t really disconnect from having to be the driver.

            • Tizzy says:

              Actually, the Doom 3 people did it pretty well themselves in a couple of places, like when you (finally!) reach the Delta labs: the place has been wrecked, you see hints of demon presence everywhere, and you end up wandering around in the dark looking for some equipment to restore the power. It takes forever until you finally run into your first monster, it was really unusual and scary.

        • Veloxyll says:

          Bearing in mind that my only experience with the game is from watching a livestream of someone playing through it:

          Generally it looked managable without becoming the whole game. Since monsters are to be avoided anyhow, it didn;t seem too onerous. Though I guess that depends how well you manage your flint and your lamp oil.

      • Joshua says:

        Ok, good. I was wondering what your take on that part was. I thought you had written that it was scarier to make the PC afraid that they were going to die rather than killing them outright. I got to that scene, and it was scary the first time or two.

        I managed to figure out that I needed to stay out of the water and jump from crate to crate. Then I found the switch, and flipped it, not knowing what it was doing. I made the jumps from crate to crate, scared about getting hit, b/c it only takes about 3 hits to kill you.

        After reaching the end of the tunnel, and realizing that the gate was attached to the switch, I lost a lot of respect for the game.
        It meant that I was going to have to do a timed race to flip the switch and get back to the gate before it closed, all the while doing tricky jumps to avoid going into the water, and I was probably going to die a *lot* figuring out this puzzle. At that point, I knew I was just going to get frustrated rather than scared.

  3. Andy_Panthro says:

    I bought the penumbra games a while back in a sale, but since I’m terrible for actually making time to play games (well, except minecraft), I haven’t got around to them yet.

    Definitely my sort of thing though.

    Makes me wish they’d make a good remake of the horror classic “Alone in the Dark” which is still possibly my favourite. I love playing it (especially with the CD-audio and full speech), but admit the 3D models are looking amazingly dated right now. Shame the following two games weren’t quite so good… perhaps we’ll get them on Good Old Games sometime, then people will be able to see for themselves rather than have me rant at them.

  4. StranaMente says:

    I bought it when it was on sale on steam during halloween. I played a bit, during the night, with headphones and lights off. Got a bit scared even before meeting the first monster.
    Went play minecraft… on 20mine server…
    The atmosphere is haunting. Really.
    Never been scared once during Dead space, neither I understood why should I.
    Monsters are ugly but I feel repulsion, not fear.

    • Raygereio says:

      “Never been scared once during Dead space, neither I understood why should I.”
      Dead Space is like a slasher movie. No one is scared by those, at best they startle you instead.
      That said, there were a couple of places during my first run through Dead Space where my gaming instincts told me there was going to be a monster spawn, but there wasn’t. That somewhat unsettled me, though I somewhat doubt that was intended by the developers.

  5. Talby says:

    I enjoyed the Penumbra games before this. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is very effective at creating a terrifying atmosphere and being extremely scary. Where it falls short is that it just isn’t much FUN.

  6. KingODuckingham says:

    Scary games are not my thing. The scariest game I have ever played is Minecraft.

    The first night in Minecraft for me was very scary. Exploring a cave I broke into 50 tiles underground was terrifying. Why? Because there might have been a chunky two-block monster who could waste me in a few blows (kind of what you were saying with the strong, fast, run and hide type monsters)

    Doofy graphics to be scared about, I know…

    • Shamus says:

      Minecraft can certainly be scary. Not quite in the Amnesia:DD level of fear, but it has its unnerving moments for sure.

      • Will says:

        The little sounds it plays when you’re in\near dark areas do not help at all.

        • Jarenth says:

          They’re not supposed to.

          Run, blocky, run!

        • Macil says:

          KkKrrshhiissssssss ….

        • Irridium says:

          I remember my first night. I had no idea what I was doing, so on the first night I managed to build a one person “pod” if you will. I closed off all sides except the top so I can tell if it was day or not.

          I could hear the monsters walking around outside of it, waiting…

          • Will says:

            That’s nothing, that little violin chord it loves to play every now and then has caused me to leap out of my chair more times than i can count.

            • acronix says:

              The new ghasts in hell make some of the most hideous sounds, too.

              • Will says:

                Yeah, that screaming noise they make is compounded by the fact that it has no drop-off, so it always sounds like they’re right behind you and the fact that they only scream when they shoot fireballs at you, so you know that if you don’t work out where it is fast you’re going to eat a fireball to the face.

                Also, i’m not sure if it’s a bug or not, but i had one come through the portal after me and destroy a large chunk of my house when i came back and found it bobbing around my living room.

                • acronix says:

                  I´m quite sure I head them mumbling and crying or…something…while inside my stone vault where I have the portal. I went outside and saw the damn things floating around a good distance away. Then I changed the difficulty to “Pacific” and the ghasts dissapeared, along with the creepy noises. They do a distinctive sound when they spit, though.

                • Sumanai - a grouchy ball of bile and cynicism says:

                  IIRC, it’s not a bug. Portals create Ghast spawn areas.

            • Jarenth says:

              I too feel this way.

              More than once I was happily digging or climbing out of my mineshaft when TWANG, followed by me cursing Minecraft for ten seconds.

      • acronix says:

        The scares of Minecraft are completely random, which means they work every single time, even if they are basically always a creeper coming out of a dark cave. The ones in Amnesia are better, certainly, but some parts are too heavily scripted, like the monster reactions to the player and the “forced camera” scares.
        Sound and ambient are superb, though.

      • Kdansky says:

        Have you been to the Nether yet? I cannot stay there for too long or else the soundbites will drive me insane.

        Also, I didn’t manage to get through the demo. While I think it’s a great game, I cannot play it, because I’m too much of a wuss. But then I regularly die in any and all games because I get startled.

  7. Crimson18 says:

    Speaking of survival horror, how ’bout that “Obscure: The Aftermath” guys? Pretty scary, right? Right?

  8. Jeff says:

    far-flung future then game designers
    I imagine the ‘t’ was intended to be a ‘w’. I don’t do horror myself. Over-active imagination.

  9. Sanguine says:

    Played the demo, found it very boring.

    The game’s primary method of instilling a sense of fear seemed to be to make the player both awkward and powerless, which to me kind of removed all traces of fun. If the player can’t do anything, why be interactive at all? Why not just a movie?

    Perhaps I’m just not getting it.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      You aren’t. If you can kill something with ease, it isn’t scary. This game puts you in shoes just like your own, real-life shoes. If you were in that situation in real life, you would run and hide, or you would die.

      This game is terrifying, and EXTREMELY fun to play. If you find being scared fun.

      • Nidokoenig says:

        There’s a difference between being able to kill something and being able to do something to stop it being an imminent threat. I haven’t played it, but this game sounds like a stealth game with the occasional chase scene and invincible monsters.
        I love a good chase and running and hiding from something invincible can be valid gameplay, like the SA-X sequences in Metroid Fusion, but to me that’s just an adrenaline booster, it’s not actually frightening. It doesn’t bleed, I can’t kill it, I just have to find the path the designers laid out for me and I’ll be safe as houses. It’s telling my fight or flight response to always pick flight, which isn’t much better than telling me to always pick fight like every other game. Indecision is the thing that puts me on edge, the lack of a guiding light, even a hidden one, to bring me to safety.

        Basically, I’m a munchkin. If, mechanically, the game’s about running and hiding, I’m gonna run and hide as best I can without a second thought, same as I run and gun or hack and slash. It’s in games like the Fallout series or Morrowind, at low levels, when I’m crouched and sneaking the whole time, not knowing whether a random encounter and detection will mean death, a fight for my life or mowing down some mooks and looting their gear, that I get really on edge. The unknown’s a whole lot less scary if you know what to do when it finds you.

        A procedural horror game would wreck my shit. Has such a thing ever been attempted?

        • thebigJ_A says:

          It’s not a stealth game. It’s not even survival-horror in the traditional sense. It’s sort of its own thing. And it’s good.

          Also, though you can’t kill the enemies, there ARE things you can do to protect yourself, or at least impede the enemies. But that just isn’t what the game is about, at all.

          Honestly, it’s cheap. If you are ever in the mood to be scared, and you’ve got a few extra bucks, pick it up. It’s interesting enough mechanically that it is worth playing for that alone. There’s no other game quite like it (except their earlier games, the Penumbra series, but this time they perfected what they were trying with that).

    • acronix says:

      You suffer from FPS syndrome: if something is First Person, it needs guns!

      You can throw furniture and ranodm appliances to the monsters, though, and block doors with furniture to make the monster take longer to get to you. And crouching into a ball in the darkest corner you can find, looking at the floor hoping the monster doesn´t notice you qualifies as doing something, too!

  10. Hugo Sanchez says:

    I bought the game but it runs at a constant 12 fps on my machine. Which doesn’t make any damn sense. It doesn’t matter what the settings are on, or how low the resolution is. I have a Nvidia 260 GTX, and on low at 640X480, I still can’t play this game.

    Shame really, everyone says it’s fairly good.

    • Fists says:

      I don’t know anything about this game in particular but often when graphics settings don’t affect frame rate it’s a problem with the engine not supporting your dual/quad core processor and there might be a fix for that

  11. Gandaug says:

    This is normally not my sort of thing. I can’t imagine being scared by most things. A video game? Surely not. Given everyone’s glowing opinion on it though I decided to download the demo and give it a shot.

  12. thebigJ_A says:

    This game is excellent. I have never, ever jumped out of my seat in fear from playing a video game.

    I jumped twice playing this. But the game isn’t about jump-scares. It’s about a pervading sense of fear and dread. The pacing is excellent. There are times when things are calm and bright, and it feels like an adventure game. Then you happen back through the area to find… well, I’ll leave it for you to find out.

    If you want play a true horror game, I’ve never given a higher recommendation than I do for this. But it is a specific taste. It’s not for everyone.

    Oh, and play at night, with the lights off and sound up. Preferably with surround-sound (it both adds to the effect, and really helps you survive).

    • Will says:

      Don’t play with the lights off. For the love of god don’t play with the lights off!

    • Eddeman says:

      Playing with the lights off at night sure does add to the experience. I played about 3 hours of the game when I first got it, then later I finished it in a 5-hour sitting at night. Lights off, pitch black, headphones on at a high volume and I had my window open when it was rather windy outside, so occasionally a breeze would roll in and slam my door a bit :P

      Excellent game as it really manages to make you feel uneasy almost all the time, even when there’s nothing scary moving about.

  13. Neil Polenske says:

    I just saw the trailer for this on steam. You will NEVER see me play this damn game! Good GOD…

  14. Amnestic says:

    I’ve got the Amnesia demo on my hard drive and the Penumbra games on my shelf, just waiting for the opportune moment to play them- when it’s dark, I’m awake, alone, and not busy with anything else so I can really dive into it. I’ve heard great things about these games (including now this article) so it’s probably best to make them as good as they can be by adding to the atmosphere. Don’t have surround sound, but I *do* have a headset. Gonna be fun when I find the time to do so.

  15. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “I can’t think of any other genre where the central purpose of the game is to make the player feel a specific emotion.”

    Not really a genre,but I think the central purpose of fable is to make you feel angry.

    • Freykin says:

      Best description of Fable I’ve ever read. Molyneux has let me down too many times for me to even give his games a passing glance now.

      • Will says:

        The best part is that Molyneux realises and acknowledges that the games he makes are never even remotely close to how awesome he originally pitched them as. There’s even a gravestone mocking this in Fable II.

        • acronix says:

          My only wish is that someone sometime made him sit down in front of the console and forced him to play Fable II from beginning to end with a custom player character model that resembles him. Because that´s the only way he´d know how much brain damage it causes.

          • Amnestic says:

            I’m sure he does know. Molyneux strikes me as a guy who really wants to bring good games to the masses and they always fall short despite his best intentions. The hyping is annoying, yes, but I can’t bring myself to hate the guy since he seems so sincere in wanting to release a game true to all his predictions and statements.

            Also, I really didn’t think Fable 2 was *that* bad despite all the hate it gets. I actually thought the last ‘boss’ was hilarious, and great from a story standpoint. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t everything Molyneux said it was going to be – but I didn’t expect it to be. To me, the Fable series so far (not played 3 – yet) has been good. Not great, not average. Good. Solid. A nice buy if you can get it cheap but not really worth a day-one purchase, though I rarely buy games on Day One anymore anyway.

            • Irridium says:

              Couldn’t have put it better myself. Although I disagree about the last boss. It just pissed me off.

              But I also just find Moleneux endearing. He seems like he’s the only person who truly believes in himself and his games. Where others just say the same old PR speak over and over again, Moleneux says it with emotion and just makes it believable.

              As a result of this, I’ve found that there’s a correlations between how much you listen to him, and how much you enjoy the games. The more you listen, the more you hate the games. The less you listen, the more you like the games.

              Its because of this I avoid any news on the Fable games. And it works. At least for me.

              • PurePareidolia says:

                I agree, Fable 1 was what really got me into RPGs and I knew absolutely nothing about it ahead of time. Fable 2 I only got when it was free and Fable 3 I will probably never buy, mainly because not only do I know a lot about them and how they never really got more complex after the first one in terms of role playing, and the aforementioned “let’s force you to undergo ridiculous trauma on a constant basis thing”.

                • Amnestic says:

                  The whole “trauma!” business is a pretty common trope – in games, movies and literature alike – on the whole. Far easier to give your character motivation for doing something when they’ve got a death or something in their backstory. I’m not a huge fan of it, but my DnD characters will still get it every now and again.

                  Having it be the starting point of all three (I’m assuming, I’ve tried to ignore most of the talk for 3) Fable games is a bit iffy, yeah, but not that unexpected. Bioware use this one a whole lot too.

  16. Abnaxis says:

    It’s already on every wish list I got, but….Amnesia:DD isn’t a sequel is it? I hate playing sequels before the originals…

  17. Drew says:

    One of the most frightening games I’ve played was Anchorhead. And it’s a text adventure. Sure, it doesn’t have the startling jump-out-of-your-chair moments, but it’s brilliantly atmospheric and really builds beautifully.

    http://www.wurb.com/if/game/17 if anyone’s willing to play a game with words instead of pictures.

    • Katesickle says:

      Thanks for the link, I’m having fun with it. I don’t play many horror games due to being a complete and total wimp, but I think I can handle a text game. Text isn’t scary, right? Right!

      …This is gonna end with me curled up in a shivering ball of terror, isn’t it?

  18. PurePareidolia says:

    I did really enjoy Penumbra: Overture, but yes, it went downhill from there. Black Plague was still OK I thought, and aside from everything involving the Black & White conscience thing, but Requiem sucked BADLY.

    • Will says:

      Amnesia is much better.

      imo, Requiem stopped being scary and started being just plain wierd. By the time you got to Requiem you pretty much had everything worked out, so the scare factor was markedly reduced.

      • Sean w/o an H says:

        Yeah, Requiem was just filling in story holes, an odd puzzler about being caught in limbo (metaphysically?) rather than being stuck in hell (metaphorically). That said, I enjoyed the mechanics, and the story conceit wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t Black Plague.

        Let’s talk about this – I kinda felt like Overture was scary until I turned the lights on in the mines. After that, it was creepy, and at times brutal (killing dogs with pickaxes is a Lord of the Flies-esque experience), but not necessarily scary. Black Plague plays like a test for Amnesia – running and hiding, environmental cues, etc.

        Any thoughts?

        • PurePareidolia says:

          Yeah, getting the timing right on those pickaxes made the dogs a joke. I don’t think I could find Overture scare anymore, though I absolutely did when I first played it.

          That said while I like Black Plague’s removal of weapons entirely, and while it was plenty atmospheric, there were a couple of things that broke the immersion for me. First off, the considerable more humanoid enemies were ugly, but not as threatening as hellhounds. They were like slow zombies – you could topple one over and it probably couldn’t get back up – they never seemed to have any intelligence behind them, so why can’t I just punch them in the face? You can’t punch a rockworm or a rabid dog in the face.

          Also: Clarence. First – it’s named Clarence. That’s not a threatening name, that’s a “I’m an idiot and don’t know I named myself after a girl” name, especially when we’re told “hey, it’s a reference to A wonderful Life”. For me that broke immersion in two ways – I’ve never seen A Wonderful Life, meaning I identify less with Phillip now, and the phrase “a wonderful life” does not a disturbing visual make – it breaks the atmosphere. There’s a lot of stuff he does that could be terrifying, but they’d be far scarier if they happened without you being told, and then you slowly discover what might cause your symptoms, then you start reading side effects, realizing how screwed Phillip really is, all done through moments of revelation rather than being told it outright.

          I didn’t even bother with Requiem’s story, even if it did have one (I’m skeptical) it was just boring and tedious and abstract and with needless sci fi elements that made it feel like it was saying “here’s a puzzle game as opposed to part of the actual story”. Despite the fact Penumbra games have always had puzzles, often very good puzzles it still felt the need to just throw a bunch of stuff together that I felt killed the atmosphere even further. I mean, they weren’t even trying to be scary which felt like it retroactively lightened the mood of the previous games.

  19. Klay F. says:

    I remember trying to play Silent Hill 2 on the PC. I got as far as the Apartments, and I shut it off after I started hearing the whispers, and haven’t been back since.

    It seems Willpower and Constitution are my dump stats.

    • Sean w/o an H says:

      I wholeheartedly agree… ran into the *first* monster in Shattered Memories and shut it off. There’s definitel a lot of mind-screw going on in the Silent Hill series… in this vein, anybody have thoughts on Silent HIll 3? I have a copy of the PC version floating around, but I’m not sure if I can invest in it fully without quitting very quickly…

  20. X2-Eliah says:

    It’s not for me, then. I don’t enjoy being reduced to a gibbering pile of drool by fear, and I would very much like to slep during the following nights.

    Ravenholm was bad enough for me, a whole game based on atmospheric persistent terror – no thanks.

    • Someone says:

      I kind of feel the same way, but what is strange is that I fondly look back on the times when I unwittingly got into a really scary part of a game.

      Ravenholm was terrifying, but I still love it. Shalebridge cradle was in a pantswetting league of its own, but I look back on its masterful manipulation of my emotions and want to go back and give it another spin.

  21. (LK) says:

    “far-flung future then game designers” is likely meant to be “far-flung future when game designers”

    I’ll have to give this game a try. I haven’t really felt alone and scared in a game since System Shock 2. I was a kid at the time, so I actually got so creeped out I played with the gamma set to maximum so there wasn’t any darkness for monsters to come out of.

  22. swimon says:

    I doubt I could take this game I mean I got scared shitless by Morrowind (damn cliffracers, they’re jump scares but the jump never stops scaring and you can’t predict them so after a while you start to dread them). Seriously that’s one of the scariest games I have ever played, Ocarina of time is similarly scary but I think part of that is that I was 7 when I played it.

    Then again when VtM: Bloodlines actually tries to be scary it was enjoyable but hardly scary so maybe I’m just underestimating Morrowind’s unintentional horror.

    • Nidokoenig says:

      I’ve got a wall of text somewhere up the page where I have a ham-fisted bash at this: basically, with a big open world with no level scaling, doubt and indecision seep in. You don’t know whether fight or flight is the best option, and you know the designers didn’t really give much specific thought to how you’d deal with this one thing here in this tiny patch of a massive world at your specific level with your current gear. You could get mauled without a second chance, but you don’t know that until you’re dead. Not knowing what to do and knowing there’s no pre-ordained solution is the frightening thing.

  23. somecrazyfan says:

    I have played the game for one hour and a half at night with lights turned off, after that I have turned them on.My heart was pounding to fast and the pressure was unforgiving.
    BTW, you may recover sanity when standing into the light.Will you write a whole article about the game, analising the way the elements of it create a psychological response?How can a game that barely has any monsters in it generate such fear and anxiety?

  24. Someone says:

    The scariest game I have ever played was Pathologic.
    Given proper execution, a display of horrors men inflict upon other men can be more gutwrenchingly horrifying than any mysterious eldritch power, at least for me.

    • somecrazyfan says:

      Excuse me, but What “horrors men inflict on other men” are you talking about.As I remember, there was only one scary thing in the game, the albino, the general feeling being not one of dread but hopelesness.It really gave me some bad thoughts, it gave me a … it seems black, empty and hopeless, and all that is life seems worthless.That’s the feeling you get.
      And there is disease in the air.Yellow, brown air of death and disease and there is no hope no meaning for anything.

      • Someone says:

        The unwashed, witchhunting locals, oblivious to the orphaned children in the streets, children collecting razorblades, playing doctor and killing each other with deficit medicine. The town’s “powers” greedily exploiting and manipulating others. The bandits and marauders prowling the streets and plagued buildings. The doomed “sanitary workers” sent to bury diseased corpses, protected with nothing but a stage costume. The Abbatoir’s workers, locked away and forsaken. The shopkeepers driving up the prices in time of crisis. The Inquisition bringing law of its own making, without much regard to its subjects.

        And you, the Player Character, murdering the diseased, marauding, searching dumpsters to find dirty dull razorblades to sell children, harvesting organs…

        Yeah, this game isn’t “fun” in a traditional sense…

        • somecrazyfan says:

          I completely agree with you.I have forgoten about this parts.
          Only corection I want to make is that the sanitary workers didn’t use masks from the theatre, but costumes that were used in Europe during the Black plague, the ones looking like beaks, those beaks were felt with smelly herbs and they were also used for air filtering.

  25. Daimbert says:

    Fatal Frame. Just that.

    I generally divide survival horror into three types:

    1) Intense: Resident Evil type games, where you have a lot of resources to kill things but are at risk for getting swarmed under all the time.

    2) Disturbing: Too many enemies and too big an environment to just be scary, but it spends its time freaking you out, up to the end. Silent Hill 2 fits this category for me. There are creepy moments — when you go into certain apartments — but when you’re walking around it drifts back to 1, since you run into monsters very, very frequently. And usually have things to deal with them.

    3) Scary by atmosphere: You don’t have very many resources, enemies are infrequent, and you aren’t really the sort to go about slaughtering monsters anyway. But you don’t really know when anything is going to happen, and the game spends its time reminding you of what’s out there, and popping up harmless instances as well as harmful ones.

    The last one is the Fatal Frame series for me. In the first game, you’re a teenage girl who can see ghosts walking into a haunted mansion trying to find her brother — and last surviving family member — with a camera that can capture ghosts. Things happen that are creepy. Not all of them are dangerous, at least at the time. But it just has an entire atmosphere of creepy, and you never really know when you’re going to run into something. The sound really makes it a scary experience, especially since it’s understated at times. And you get to know all the stories of all the enemies you face, and so you know why the ghosts are that way.

    Now, take all that, make it a village, and add a twin following you around that starts talking really, really oddly, and that’s Fatal Frame 2.

    So, yeah, Fatal Frame.

  26. Brandon says:

    I played through the first little while of Penumbra: Overture over the summer. It was excellently creepy, but the controls felt clunky to me. I actually kind of quit because of that. I would be so annoyed with the game if I needed to do something really quickly, and couldn’t because of the controls, and died as a result.

    Horror games are a genre where players are going to want to react quickly and effectively to things, if its doing its job right anyways, so it just feels kind of cheap to me if the player is handicapped by poor controls. On the other hand, maybe if the player has the ability to react in an effective manner, they won’t be as afraid… Deliberately bad controls?

    What do you guys think about this? Controls for horror games in general, not Penumbra in particular.

    • Nidokoenig says:

      Well, for any game, you know that the challenge, and thus true threat level, assumes a level of dexterity a little or a lot smaller than the maximum dexterity the control system supports. Basically, if your performance is being throttled at all by the controls, you know you’re at maximum power, at least in terms of control, and you run into the problem of trying to scare the space marine. So it pays to let the player control as well as their skills allow, and then make them doubt that they can deal with threats. The key being doubt, outright telling me to always run just makes the game about running and hiding, and I’ll bury myself away beneath the depths of the earth and put my feet up, happy and smug in achieving victory.

      The problem is that being killed by bad controls is always a bug to be worked around for the player. The designer is admitting that the game can’t handle the player even on the uneven playing field he built. Flattering me only works for suspense if you use it to set a trap, then I’ll be seeing devils behind every compliment. Could be a good opening for a horror game, let you start out as a well-armed, bunny-hopping space marine. As soon as you realise your skills and equipment pretty much allow you to throw care to the wind and just blast everything, something wrecks your shit and you restart as someone with slightly more limited skills and you have a crippling fear of doing anything too showy.

    • Will says:

      The Penumbra control system does take a little getting used to, but it works quite well for the physics puzzles.

  27. S. Richmond says:

    Really? I just played through the majority of the game and that water scene with the invisible monster was, by far, the most scary scene in the game, or any game for that matter. That specific scene is actually the one I choose to use as the champion scene for anyone I’ll tell the game about. In short, fantastic scene.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      I agree completely. That scene Freaked. Me. Out.

      Everything was quiet and calm (spooky, but calm), and then it OMGOMG!WTFisthatohcrapit’safterme DEAD.

      Then you figure out what it is, or, not what it is, exactly, but how it works, and you are terrified of the water.

      Great scene. There are much better ones, though.

  28. someguy says:

    Uh, judging by the Demo… I am interested “in that sort of thing”, but this one reeks of Call of Cthulhu: game mechanics tampering with my vision, clunky movements, trial and error, whereas error means Game Over screen… Nah, thanks.

    • acronix says:

      I found it incredibly hard to come to the Game Over screen. I had to be purposedly reckless to get to the Games Biggest Immersion Breaker Ever.

    • somecrazyfan says:

      No, someguy, I’ll explain.
      The tampering with your vision is made so that at the limit of your field of vision objects seem to move and shift, looking like monsters (in the darkness many things look like it, even in real life, if you are in dark and scared the shape of the objects seem threatening) and when you bring them in the middle of the FOV seem to stabilise themselves and look normal.Or that’s how the effect seems to me.
      Trial and error doesn’t exist, except for one scene, monsters being random and not having any discernable patterns of patrolling.They don’t even seem to patroll, you see one, you hide, then when the monster goes away you continue your path and the monster sometimes is there and sometimes it isn’t.You can hear him though and sometimes it really is there some others he isn’t.
      Game over screen is a black screen with white letters giving you a piece of advice.You don’t see the save/load options, as the game puts you earlier in the area you explore, with a few minutes earlier before you died.
      And movement is smooth.

      • someguy says:

        yeaaah, I had a second run, this time in proper settings (no distractions and in the dark) and with the post-effects turned off… it was nice. Can’t say that I’m sold on it, though. But then again, given that the demo-level seems to be a bad example of what this game is, I might give it a try

        (btw, for the strange uneasiness which is pure fear: Silent Hill The Room. [And maybe – back then – this one scene in Quake where you have to fight this huge Wampa/Yeti kinda thing;]}

  29. Blake says:

    The only game to ever scare me was ‘Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem’ on the gamecube. Probably the best sound work out of any game I’ve played ever, the enemies were sparse but every time one saw you you’d lose a bit of sanity (which caused things to go bad before eventually also draining health) meaning that even basic easy to kill zombies were still best avoided if possible.
    The game also had probably the best story of any game I’ve ever played, it spanned centuries, you controlled different characters for different chapters, a decision at the start gave you a different antagonist for the game (which changed the types of enemies you’d run into and both endings (the regular ending and the beat-the-game-once-against-each-baddy ending) were quite satisfying.

    To anyone out there who still hasn’t played this game, find a copy, turn down the lights, turn up the sound and settle in for a nice night of awesome.

  30. ghost4 says:

    There is one extremely glaring flaw in the mechanics that I have not seen anyone point out (apologies if someone here did in fact point it out).

    Every time a monster kills you, both of you literally respawn. The monster will eventually spawn far away from you or vanish entirely. The player character’s spawn points vary, and I was once even spawned at my next objective. How convinient!

    This means that every time you encounter a monster you just need to run into it until it goes away. And seeing as how the monsters are the game’s only “threat” (with the exception of a couple of scripted sequences), you have nothing to fear. The game just uses the monsters, and the sounds and other effects, to fool you into thinking you should be afraid. But there is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing can threaten you.

    Amnesia is not a horror game, it just pretends to be one.

    It also makes little sense that the player character can’t attack the monsters. They seem to be flesh and blood, and there are all sorts of blunt and sharp instruments laying around, so what’s the problem?

    • The problem is you, actually. This is a late comment, but I’ll say it anyway.

      In any horror game or movie, the audience or player has to buy in to it. In other words, you get out of horror what you put into it.

      If you’re focusing on meticulously taking apart the game mechanics, finding ways around them, reminding yourself it’s a game, then the game can’t help you. That’s not the game’s fault, that’s yours. Also…

      “The game just uses the monsters, and the sounds and other effects, to fool you into thinking you should be afraid.”

      This is the ESSENCE of horror. With ANY horror movie, horror game, or horror book, NOTHING can actually hurt you. Even the absolute best can’t actually DO anything to you. What they do is use sound, lighting and imaginary threats to fool you into thinking you should be afraid.

      Basically, what you just claimed this game does.

      If you have no suspension of disbelief, then there’s nothing the game can do to help you. And this is obviously your problem, not the game’s, as the vast majority of players say this game is frightening. I suggest trying a little more of that; imagination is important.

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