When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.
When I first loaded up Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the game informs me that I should not try to win the game and if I ever see an enemy don’t fight it, just run. I cannot remember a game that has produced a more visceral response in me than Amnesia. The game also encourages you to play it in the dark with headphones on which only increases the terror–I nearly abandoned playing this way several times but somehow by sheer determination, I was able to make it all the way through playing primarily at night and always with headphones.
Amnesia kept me interested primarily because of a very simple game mechanic that it employs brilliantly–sanity. Your character who suffers from amnesia explores an ancient castle trying to recover the memory of who he was and what he has done. The castle is very dark and the more time you spend in the darkness the more insane you become. You are equipped with a lantern with limited oil and a limited number of tender boxes with which you can light various candles and wall-hanging torches which will temper your plummet into insanity. Given your limited resources, such plummets are inevitable and when they come they are incredibly emotional experiences.
What I loved about it was how unique it always felt–mostly because of the game’s use of sound effects during plummets into insanity–if there were sound tracks that were repeated I didn’t notice or couldn’t notice because the sound continually unnerved me. I was always hearing whimpering, whispers, crying, and rushes of wind. I don’t know if anyone else had this experience–but I didn’t see an enemy until probably 2-3 hours into the game–but for that entire time I was sure I was being followed by them. The more I lost my sanity the more it seemed I would hear footsteps and strange noises. My character’s vision blurred and its almost as though I was seeing things.
This brings me to the moment I nearly quit playing the game–it was in one of the final areas called “The Choir” and it was a vast area with very fast moving monsters–ones that you could not outrun. Given that the game had trained me to run from monsters every time I saw them, this was just too much. Its hard to explain monster confrontations to anyone who hasn’t played the game so I won’t try but they are so unsettling that I worked really hard to avoid them and mostly managed to do so up to this point. The Choir forced me to come into contact with a monster that I could not run away from and sadly I got killed several times and each encounter was so awful that I seriously considered abandoning the game in its last segment.
I managed to finish the game–perhaps because I wanted to be able to say I finished it or maybe because I had already invested roughly 10 hours in the game and I was too close to finishing to give up. Perhaps I was able to finish because I realized my fears were irrational. I like to think I completed the game because it forced me to summon a little courage and determination. Some would understandably choose not to subject themselves to these sorts of experiences, however, life does introduce us to horrors we must face bravely if we hope to face them at all. Amnesia simulated horror so well, that I truly struggled to finish it. This struggle might have been for a kingdom that doesn’t count but it was a real struggle for me that asked me to summon real bravery–if only to complete something that I was too chicken to complete. That in and of itself was worthwhile and I don’t think any other medium could have challenged me this way.