Amnesia, Fear, and the Reversal of Power

My save in Amnesia: The Dark Descent sits stalled at just shy of an hour, ripe with potential but damning in brevity. The fact that I haven’t yet “pulled it together” long enough to make progress says a lot about my relationship with Amnesia, though mostly that I have the composure and constitution of a sick kid on a roller coaster. It is just a game, one that people have purportedly conquered alone and in dark rooms, but scaling its scares without peals of alarm and a quick surrender is above me.

There’s a reason I can’t get back into Frictional’s first-person horror crawl, some formless, surface-level threat I associate with the experience that keeps me at length. The curious part of me wants to plunge in without reservation, but the situation never plays out so cleanly. The prompts of the save select screen show when and where I lost it last time, laying out data that suggests I won’t tread much new ground before making a hasty retreat. Sitting at this impasse and considering another powerless go-round in the game drags me back to whatever trauma led to me dropping the whole affair before, and putting distance and time between it and myself.

This inability to work through Amnesia is a matter of forced intimidation. Like it or not, I am, as a flappable player taking part in intricately programmed content, set up to fill a determined role. In Amnesia, the role is Victim. My exasperation, lip biting, and frequent over-the-shoulder glances come as part of an experience structured to banish any semblance of or possibility for power on my part. Gleaning the most from what Amnesia offers arguably requires being made small in this way, and painfully vulnerable, but the pressure of playing that trapped part often proves too much for me. Amnesia is the browbeating constant, dealing nonnegotiable horror from all angles; I am the quivering variable, bullied into fear, always on the cusp of slamming shut the laptop lid.

Amnesia compromises me faster, and with less, than any other interactive experience. Without having to throw a world of violence or noise or misanthropy at me, the game cuts my fortitude to do anything against its advances. I accept this outcome. I respect Amnesia for getting under my skin and doing what it does to me so often and so dexterously. I understand I may never see it finished of my own power. But repeatedly succumbing to its blows leaves me wondering if, and how, this kind of treatment is reciprocated. There’s certainly no shortage of experiences that let a player wield power against a game’s creations, but do any create a reversal of Amnesia’s predetermined domination?

Amnesia’s position of authority above the player comes from an immediate and rigid unbalance. From the moment I assume control, fighting swimming vision and the thundering menace of my surroundings, certain outcomes are inevitable. Moving forward means facing the dismal, the deadly, and the unpreventable. Backing away means surrendering to Amnesia’s clinging dread, and accepting my place as a pliable target of the game’s whims. Either path leaves me subject to a certain abuse: I can choose to take or leave the coarse treatment, but there’s no circumventing it without filling the position Amnesia designates for me.

Yielding to Amnesia’s skewed arrangement of power can still lead to a tense and rewarding experience. There’s some merit in playing the punching bag, set up to suffer the game’s dark affront to a comfortable mental state and sense of ability. Its experience is designed for just such strict delivery; like a good roller coaster, Amnesia has an aggressive, subjugating ride, and only one kind of seating.

Where Amnesia yokes the player to reinforce vulnerability and trepidation, others empower by reversing the roles. Many games with an emphasis on stealth lean toward a notion of complete supremacy over constructs of the game, and reach that end by arbitrarily gifting the player certain conveniences and abilities within the world. Modern series like Hitman and Assassin’s Creed are built around this kind of purposeful enabling, and the doors for confident, inspired play it opens. The design of both series, and others like them, creates a predatory experience like Amnesia’s, though with the player in the top spot and pieces of the game oppressed or left at a disadvantage. Shored up by provided advantages, the player can more readily embrace the intended power role, and, ideally, have a more engrossing moment-to-moment experience

This empowerment, though, is still allowed on behalf of the game. I never gain the upper hand on Amnesia out of sheer will, because I’m not supposed to—there’s nothing hard-coded in to allow me to shove back against its pressure, even if I manage to suppress my panic. Being the victim is my prescribed role, just as being the aggressor is elsewhere.

While playing Hitman or Assassin’s Creed elevates me a little closer to the dominance Amnesia embodies, my turn in the role isn’t as total. I can die, or lose; the game can overtake me again if I reach too far and let my guard down. In Amnesia, all I can do is survive until the ride winds down. Or walk away.

One Comment

  1. Horror is the only genre where an audience is regularly expected to wonder if the protagonists will survive at all. As such, it has a fundamentally different contract with the audience to any other genre. We have become used to games which make use of a diluted form known as “survival horror” in which the player is given the means to survive, and even to triumph. In a pure, undiluted horror story, the main character may survive but they will not actually win: the evil will usually have, at best, suffered only a temprary setback. Many times, it is implied that the protagonist has suffered only a temporary reprieve. So comparing Amnesia to Hitman or Assassin’s Creed is rather like comparing The Evil Dead to Commando or Raiders of the Lost Ark: they simply don’t play by the same rules.