Friday, August 1, 2014

Hiding in a Dark Corner: Analysis of Amnesia: The Dark Descent

The following is the essay I wrote for my application for a position at Blizzard Entertainment. The requirements were: 

The game analysis should demonstrate your understanding of the gameplay mechanics and relationships to the design and implementation of the game. The game analysis should be on either a computer game or console game. This game analysis should not be on a game made by Blizzard Entertainment. Please limit your game analysis to no longer than 5 pages (the average length of an analysis is approximately 3 pages).

Amnesia: The Dark Descent[1] was made famous by the fact that it scared the pants off of just about every person who dared pick it up and play it as it was intended (that is, at night, with the lights off, with headphones). It was surreal, supernatural, and terrifying. And dark. The subtitle is serious: the player spends a lot of time in the dark as well as descending deeper into it. What made Amnesia so effectively unsettling was that it removed almost every standard mechanic from a first person shooter and then replaced them with new mechanics to make gameplay even more scary and unfamiliar. Sanity, in addition to restrictions on player actions, and the game's willingness to alter musical and event triggers make Amnesia a truly terrifying gaming experience.
The most distinguishing mechanic of Amnesia is Sanity. Our poor protagonist, Daniel, has had a pretty rough few months preceding the starting point of the game. He now has some psychological damage (beyond mere amnesia) that the player will need to manage. Players are informed via tips on the loading screens that Daniel's sanity will decrease as he spends more time in the dark, witnesses a disturbing scene, or looks directly at a Gatherer. Gatherers are grotesquely deformed body-snatchers that the antagonist uses to find people for his experiments and are the most common enemy that the player will encounter in Amnesia. There are some scripted events in the game where Daniel will take a hit to Sanity. Players are also told that Sanity increases as Daniel spends time in the light without anything disturbing going on and when the player is able to solve a puzzle. 
In gameplay, losing Sanity is manifested with an increase in difficulty, as well as visual and audible changes. With low Sanity, monsters will be better able to follow and find Daniel, and there are a few situations where additional monsters will spawn in the area due to very low Sanity. Much more noteworthy, however is the visual and audible implementation. With decreasing sanity, the screen will become blurry. Additional disturbing events, such as bodies hanging from the ceiling or doors suddenly closing (seemingly without reason), will occur. And, paintings of the principle antagonist will change into a more ghastly image. Roach-like insects will occasionally begin to crawl across the screen as well. Audibly, the player will begin to hear additional sounds such as Daniel's ragged panting. Daniel's footsteps will begin to sound as though he is walking through a slime or liquid of some kind even though he is not. And, the player will even begin to hear the distant crying of a child wherever Daniel goes. Finally, if Sanity reaches the lowest possible point, Daniel will collapse onto the floor and lose health. The player will only be able to make him crawl slowly on the ground for several seconds, and then he'll get back up.[2]
To the player, this is an obviously disorienting mechanic. The visual and sound queues are very effective inducers of stress and discomfort. The player immediately learns that darkness will lower sanity, and that low sanity means the game will become even more dangerous, difficult, and scary. The obvious solution to this is to stick to the light as much as possible, but this is purposely made a very difficult task. Conflicting with this idea is that if Daniel is constantly in the light, he is more visible and easier for monsters to find and kill.
Additionally, looking directly at enemies will lower sanity, so if an enemy is encountered, the player will generally turn away when hiding. This action creates additional mystery around the danger, making it all the more uncertain and scary. Players are forced to go against their instincts of defeating enemies and resort to fleeing and hiding. While hiding, they are left to listen to the scary music, hear the sounds of an enemy shuffling around while hunting them, and frequently stare at the wall or the box they’re hiding behind through blurring effects of the screen to further disorient them. This is a decidedly abnormal state for the vast majority of games. Should the player be found, the game will most likely end with Daniel’s death, and there will most likely be nothing the player can do at that point to stop it.
Before going any further, it is important to note an early version of a surprising and significant mechanic shift. In Unreal (1998), at the start of the game, Prisoner 849 awakes in a cell on a prisoner ship that has been shot down and its inhabitants massacred. She has no weapon or any other means of defending herself. As she proceeds toward the ship’s exit, she encounters enemies but manages to avoid them without fighting (generally because they are distracted or she is unreachable in some way). With an increasing sense of vulnerability and panic, the prisoner leaves the ship and, after a loading screen, enters the second level. Right here at the start of the second level she manages to find the first weapon of the game, the Dispersion Pistol, just before an actual potentially-fatal encounter with an enemy begins. This lack of defense was a jarring start to a first person shooter game. Players were surprised to be in a situation where all they could do was run from enemies and hope for the best, and not simply face them head on as with the majority of games in this genre.
Similarly, Amnesia subverts the expectation that a player will be able to defend themselves. The only thing Daniel will ever pick up and hold between himself and danger is a rustic oil lantern. The lantern’s only function is to light up nearby surroundings; Daniel can't even swing it at anything. This persistent offensive and defensive limitation is in direct contrast to almost all other first-person games for adults.  Daniel never finds a way of dispatching enemies. If Daniel should turn a corner and find something dangerous, he has to run, hide, and hope to be overlooked. The only way he can escape danger is to avoid enemies effectively enough to survive as long as it takes to solve the puzzle in the area and move onto the next area, leaving enemies behind. Daniel's danger is real and (as far as the player can tell) constant. This mechanic is not only novel, but is effective in inducing stress on the player throughout the course of the game. The player will constantly be reminded of their inability to defend themselves and their perpetual vulnerability.
This lantern also requires oil to continue to burn, and the player is forced to keep a sharp eye out for more oil and tinderboxes (which can be used to light one wall fixture per box). While needing to collect a scarce resource is nothing new in this sort of game, the oil and tenderboxes are in very short supply. Unless he is very, very conservative, Daniel will be running out of both constantly, leaving him in the dark for longer and longer amounts of time, leading to lower and lower Sanity. Thus, the player is forced to make a choice with lingering and unsavory consequences. Does the player to spend their resources on more light and more Sanity now and hope they find more resources later? Or, save them for greater light and Sanity later when they may need it more? Either way, the reality is that Daniel will probably need to spend more time than they player would like in the darkness.
Another way that controlling Daniel is very unique is the mechanic to open and close doors. In the majority of games, when a player encounters a door they press an "activation" button and the door opens. In Amnesia, there are two ways to open a door, both of which are much more purposeful. The player will left click and hold to grab hold of the door's handle and then can open/close the door slowly and quietly by moving the mouse forward or backward until the door is completely opened or closed. Alternatively, the player can left click and hold and press the right click to slam a door open/closed.
This greatly affects gameplay in two ways. Firstly, opening a door is changed from a thoughtless, one button, affair to an active procedure that actually takes a little getting used to. The player is now in control of not just when a door opens, but how it opens. Secondly, the player becomes psychologically tied to the opening of the door and whatever may be lurking behind it. This change in control adds an enormous amount of suspense to the game and players will begin to fear every door they encounter. At each door, the player will have to decide to just stay put and progress no further in the game, or to continue and risk additional dangers by proceeding to the next room.
The last mechanic is the game's willingness to alter previously-established mechanics for dramatic effect. Generally, this fluidity of established rules would be called a "cheap trick," however, the primary design goal of Amnesia is to scare the player, so anything that will more effectively incite fear is valid. There are many instances of this later in the game. I will focus on two, music queues and enemy spawns.
In the beginning and midpoint of Amnesia, there is a certain musical track that will play when a Gatherer is nearby or on the attack. It consists mostly of string instruments and distorted drums. During general gameplay, this music means that Daniel is in immediate peril of dying and escape is unlikely. Much like Pavlov's dogs, players learn very quickly to associate this music with stress and will automatically begin to panic and (at least in my case) start screaming at the computer monitor. However, at some points of the game, similar music will begin to play for entirely different reasons, sometimes just for entering a certain room. The effect is jarring and scary. Players aren't in any immediate danger, but the player does not know this, and will play as though each step is a step closer to peril, building greater and greater suspense indefinitely.
Another instance of mechanic alteration is based on an early portion of the game where the area that has been flooded with about two feet of water. In this water dwells a water monster of some kind that will injure and eventually kill Daniel. Interestingly, there is no visible threat at all, the player can see and hear the distinct splashing of movement in the water as well as growls and hisses. The player is forced to navigate the area on top of boxes and bookshelves to avoid the water, and sometimes must create a diversion of some kind to distract the monster while Daniel sprints through a door or down a watery hallway. In a later portion of the game, Daniel is again forced to travel in a semi-submerged environment. As he makes some progress, that distinct splashing and growling is again heard, but the monster never actually appears. The player's knowledge of previous danger is again used against them, causing stress and fear, even when no actual danger is present.
Amnesia was a truly unique experience at the time of its release. Sanity was, and is, such a unique mechanic that it made for a gameplay that had never been seen before and scared the players to great effect. Amnesia is a model for how to play on the status quo, the mundane, and the “already been done” with the result of achieving incredible drama. Sanity, a restrictive yet more deliberate set of abilities, and a willingness to stretch mechanics make Amnesia a great example of unique mechanics and design. 

[1] Frictional Games. Amnesia: The Dark Descent. 2010.
[2] "Sanity." Amnesia Wiki. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.