Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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Game review: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

An Environmental Storytelling “adventure” is essentially naught but an investigation.  I love investigations, and am currently penning one of my own, so the rules of investigations have been on my mind.  As enjoyable as Amnesia may be, its investigatory conceit is about as limp as they come.  To iterate:

An evil sorcerer’s naive protege drinks some sort of amnesia-granting tincture and tries to escape Castle Brennenberg, where he’s been engaged in murderous rituals for months or years. Upon trying to exit he realizes he is trapped inside – and, now apparently filled with curiosity, retraces his steps and relearns everything he’d forgotten. This takes probably the course of a day, which culminates with him re-encountering his master and either killing him, or being killed himself.

By the time we’ve reached Alexander’s Inner Sanctum, the wheres and whys of Daniel’s amnesia don’t feel particularly pressing, do they?  And are never explicitly dealt with in the narrative – not that I encountered – save surprisingly brief and late-stage mentions of some “amnesia drink” Daniel imbibed.

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So, that sin out of the way, we can engage with the actual narrative.  And it’s enjoyable to learn about how deeply the naive (and wincingly poorly-voiced) Daniel was involved in the savagely inhuman schemes of the would-be warlock, Alexander, communicated to the investigatory avatar via a series of purposelessly expository notes strewn, really, everywhere.  It occurs to me now that this lazy development choice could’ve perhaps been avoided if, instead of getting all this information via these incredibly laid notes, it perhaps should’ve come from those strange, alien cylinders that Daniel finds periodically tucked away inside desks through the castle.  Whatever intelligence was interacting with Daniel, it could’ve been rousing the parts of his brain that had suppressed his recent memories, thus explaining why his process of relearning was so gradual, linear and emotionally weighted.

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The other design flaw is the game’s length.  By the time I reached a labyrinthine area filled with cells, my patience had apparently reached its end and I put the game down for a few weeks.  Without a concerted effort I would not have returned – simply didn’t want to leave something unfinished – and after returning, I was again engrossed for the remaining few hours of play, as the story became more grim and the stakes got higher.  The castle is too large, there are too many fetch quests and menial tasks – at least, too many for the amount of narrative with which we’re presented, and given the game’s limited interactivity.  I’m new to writing anything critical about games, and these comments of mine are fast making me aware of how much is taken for granted when developing games.

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I paid $3 for Amnesia, via some sale – paying the full $20 tag would’ve, shall we say, compromised my sanity meter.  I’m very glad I played through the game, as a horror and Lovecraft fan.  The design was always very pleasing.  A major inspiration for Amnesia‘s story was undoubtedly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and speaking as a large enough fan of that work that I once attempted to detail the scope of Curwen’s Catacombs, I did find myself wishing Amnesia would have cleaved a bit closer to reality; some of the lairs you encounter in the depths are too mammoth to be believed, without, say, exposition detailing some sinister historic precedent for the scope of the lair of evil, the work of some eldritch sect, e.g.  More Curwen inspiration seen in the tasty Agrippa angle of competing sorcerers – who will come out ahead?

As a work from an indie developer of very modest size, it’s an impressive, immersive, and very faithfully Lovecraftian product.  I wish the reputation of its sequel was such that I felt the need to seek it out, but we can’t have everything.

written by David Ashley

 

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