Horror Highlight – Amnesia & Resident Evil: Adventure Games with a Pulse
All October, I’m taking a look at some fright-filled horror gems. Next up in the month-long series, let’s discuss the indicative merits of adventure games, specifically Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Resident Evil, and how they allow these titles to survive the dreaded test of time.
Early on in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I find myself fascinated with a burning fireplace. I grasp at the metal door and swing it open, permitting a glimpse inside at the cackling fire. Sitting next to Daniel, the playable protagonist, is a sort of wooden crate, unopenable but manipulable by hand.
It only seems appropriate to try and stuff it into the oven.
Physics in game engines is such a universally intriguing phenomena; something every one who picks up a controller can and will play around with when allowed the chance. After Half-Life 2, shooters suddenly became playgrounds for imaginative ventures; all the way up to Just Cause 2, where the very notion of fucking around with any and all in-game objects is essentially the entire premise.
Folks applaud ‘realism’ in games, a buzzword which often really equates to the authenticity of the physics engine. What these critics are really pining for is that quenching ability to hurl a chair across the room, and feel the real weight of it as it shatters a window to allow players’ progression.
Frictional Games grasp that psychological concept with an air of menace. The player can feel that weight wherever their cautious, lumbering steps take them along their descent into the heart of Brennenburg Castle. Interacting with the narrative-conscious environment is itself an act of disturbing the past; while amnesiac, Daniel’s effects may be personally forgotten, their stains certainly remain. They adorn the walls for eternity.
This foregrounding blueprint nearly necessitates adventure game logistics. The Dark Descent acts as a first-person survival horror infused with puzzle game systemics, which themselves breath storytelling methods into their design. As a result, the experience is quite linear; the game guides one’s path with restrictions like locked doors, misplaced items, and a multitude of increasingly harrowing enemy encounters.
All of this might appear at first tedious, or rather hinder replayability as a consequence. If not for the Sanity system which, while rudimental, is the crux of shaping Amnesia’s experience into an individual nightmare for whomever involved. Causing shifts in the environment, as well as prompting the player to carefully manage light resources without attracting the lurking monstrosities; the meter allows for the linear plot to ebb into an experience all their own, simultaneously remarking upon the universality to the game’s central arguments.
Arguments of which are plentiful and beautifully prescribed within the contexts of the game itself. Daniel’s self-imposed amnesia status is meant as a buffer to obtaining the truth of his horrific actions; but as the scenario plays out, our gradual descent into the past proves the impossibility of eliminating guilt, plus the human insistence to obtain the truth no matter how revelatory. Wisdom through experience, one might say, given the everlasting consequences of any act made, no matter how insidious.
And that’s where the true horror stems from throughout Amnesia: TDD. Coming to terms with grief and punishment; revealing yourself to be the real monster all along. It’s not enough to feel bad for one’s actions and attempt to forget it ever occurred. The victims, their environments never forget; and according to the hallucinatory visions constantly recalling Daniel’s past, neither can the wrongdoer.
TDD effortlessly bridges its protagonist’s motivations with that of the player’s, and it’s easy to determine how much of an effect its genre has on constituting that success. One look no further than the classic Resident Evil on the PS1 to exemplify the roots of horror-centric implications sprouting into the branches of adventure game-style scenarios.
Or perhaps it is the adventure game methodology itself which breathes horrific Life into the enveloping connotations? RE is entirely based around the egocentric willingness to survive. Each puzzle solved, every decision made is evidence of a human struggle to adapt and maintain one’s well-being; an experience entirely situated within the confines of a madman’s labyrinthine mansion, which extends into a domineering government’s secretive plot to manipulate nature through scientific experimentation.
Part of the game’s lasting appeal is the manner in which specific player interaction transforms the outcome. The diversions are subtle, but effective enough to warrant numerous playthroughs; as well as the iconic setting, whose memorable plot becomes locked in a player’s head after an extended stay. Backtracking for puzzle items and solutions demands an earnest understanding of the mansion’s outline, which in turn forces the player to grow familiar with the house, positing the ‘resident’ in the title.
Meanwhile, the ‘evil’ stems from the philosophy. Much like Amnesia, Resident Evil personifies its environment by requiring the player to manipulate their surroundings. The weight of the obtainable items in-game is also relevant, but through different context. Physics aren’t there to almost literally exemplify struggle (as in TDD); instead, Capcom demonstrate the corruption of the mundane by associating present interactivity with the abstract enigmas placed around an abandoned environment. In other words, layering the familiar with an understated sheen of menace.
But between these two notable titles, a crucial difference in survival horror methodology lies within the framework of gameplay initiative. While cheesy line delivery and dated graphics have aged Resident Evil considerably, its overarching air of tension allows it to sustain in accordance to its genre. All thanks to inventory management; a rather brilliant twist on classic adventure game tropes involving item collecting.
Rather than create an impossible space for storing collectibles both necessary and practical, RE condenses that space as a means of forcing the player to question the necessary modes of progression. Storing an extra round of bullets for more space for a specific key can mean Life or death in the thick of an enemy encounter (which is intensified further in the 2002 REmake).
But Amnesia completely deviates from this method of promoting tension, opting to eliminate inventory management almost entirely. Items are obtained throughout, but they are mainly puzzle-involved, or concerning medical aid. Whereas weapons in RE provide the experience with a core precedence of tactical speculation, Amnesia forfeits offensive/defensive methods, positioning the player in a run-or-hide scenario. This in turn abandons the need for superfluous item management.
But the ever-present Sanity meter proves just as mentally-taxing to maintain. Instead of governing limited ammunition supply a la Resident Evil, Daniel must grapple with the effects of cultivating a stable mindset as a direct opposition to the Shadow beasts which so fruitlessly stalk him throughout. Simultaneously evoking a haunted simulator and establishing a personal experience bridging from Daniel’s own linear plotline, the game acts as a conduit for negotiating the principles of the past with a newfound revelatory glance towards the future. All that’s needed is an inherent desperation for survival, no matter the horrific circumstances.
Amnesia remains a tantalizing horror experience all these years later. Few moments in games capture the dreaded sense of hopelessness which TDD offers in spades. It’s more than a jumpscare-laden haunted house; the game is a convoluted hall of mirrors, linking the grotesque beings to the figure whom they mercilessly stalk (consequentially the player, as well). Their frequent awkward movements, plus a lack of overall design polish which suits so many indie projects, in a way only further encompasses their menacing lack of humanity.
Horror titles across most mediums are only as frightening as their implications. But video games offer an experience completely unique to the individual player involved. Amnesia scares you by presenting its terrifying villains in a state of impotence and adding context to their aggression. Its adventure game functionality, meanwhile adds a gravitas to the numerous instances demanding player interaction. The proof is in the experience itself, so to say, allowing Amnesia to excel as an argumentative masterpiece regardless of the player’s individual emotional responses.
So I’ll keep toying with that fireplace. I’ll seek out more items to stuff into it, even as they continuously refuse to catch fire themselves. Because often distractions are meant to distance ourselves from responsibilities or regret, to mask over the atrocities or mere mistakes we’ve dealt in the past. But often they can serve as plain good Fun; like laughing at a hideous monster as it glitches out crossing a bridge. Proving your significance by merely manipulating the world around you. Settling your tingling spine with a hearty chuckle, if only to relax the situation for but a brief moment in time.
Until the screaming begins once more.