“What the fuck am I doing? This isn’t fun. No one is forcing me to do this.”
That’s a more or less verbatim quote while playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was 1:00 a.m. on a weekday, and besides my slumbering dog, no one was in the apartment. I was shouting at myself, and loudly, vainly hoping to verbally deconstruct this torture I was putting myself through. After weeks of reflection, it’s still true. I can’t say any of the five or so hours I spent sneaking, hiding, sweating, and fidgeting would fall under the traditional definition of “fun.”
Amnesia is not a “fun” game. It is, however, addicting in the same way a roller coaster ride is.
Rewind to earlier this summer. In the middle of June, it was time. My fiancee was on a business trip, 2012’s new releases had reduced to a trickle, and I’d frankly run out of good excuses. “Good evening, Amnesia,” I told Steam.
One glass of whiskey, two glasses of whiskey, three glas--no, wait, stop. Two is the sweet spot, was the sweet spot. Amnesia required a small dose of liquid courage to get the ball rolling, giving enough oopmh to push one over the edge, so that upon inevitable death, you don’t hover too long over the escape key and get any ideas.
For someone who prides themselves on being a horror fanatic, I had seemingly little reason for having not played Frictional Games’ terror, thought I felt like I had a good one: I was afraid of what lurked inside. I purchased Amnesia years ago, when it first was generating buzz, and bought it out of obligation. I had heard the stories, watched a sampling of screeching YouTube videos. Oh, the water level. Oh, the closet scene. Oh, hiding in the dark. Oh, oh, oh. Who would want to indulge in such madness?
In the summer of 1999, The Blair Witch Project was released. 14 years old at the time, The Blair Witch Project was also the first, best example of viral marketing--long before there was a name for it. The filmmakers and marketers were promoting the documentary-style horror film about three kids who head into the woods in search of documenting evidence of a local urban legend and never return, as though it was constructed from bonafide piece of discovered film. Then, so the story went, someone pieced together their journey for all of us to watch. It’s a preposterous concept, but one that plenty of people bought at the time, and as a 14-year-old, I totally ate it up.
(The old website is still creepy.)
I’ll never be able to erase the final image of The Blair Witch Project from my mind. The wall, the screaming, the back-and-forth editing between the two cameras, the delay between the audio and video on the black-and-white camera, and that idiot Mike with his back against the wall. Fuck. The way people spoke of Amnesia, I suspected it was to be my video game equivalent of The Blair Witch Project. It wasn’t long before I remembered how I spent the summer of 1999, waiting until the sun would start coming up before sleep came. The crunching of leaves and sticks by animals in the backyard reminded me of the tent scenes in The Blair Witch Project. I was not longing for a relapse.
Fear, I’ve come to realize, is one of my own addictions, one that acutely reminds me I’m alive. When the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up, when it takes me an hour to fall asleep because I’m convinced there could be, might be something in the corner of the room (I have this awful, creepy scene from Communion to thank), I deeply regret everything about this addiction. The moment the adrenaline passes, though, I remember the heightened sense of awareness, adrenaline--it’s enthralling. Knowing my fears helps inform the whats and whys of my own behavior.
One of the biggest realizations I’ve had since my father passed away three weeks ago was that I’d, in part, been using this addiction to make up for the lack of anything truly horrific having happened in my life, a way of filling in some perceived, misguided gap. I felt a need to counter a sense of guilt, and I turned to stories and experiences that got under my skin. Horror, whether through books, movies, or games, allowed me to repeatedly indulge this.
Scarier still was acknowledging this part of my relationship with fear was now gone. If I’d broken my contract with the addiction, would I no longer find interacting with fear to be any fun?
It took just 20 minutes with Justine, a short and free expansion to Amnesia released last year, to realize there was nothing to that theory. Though one of the reasons I became so interested in exploring my own fears through various mediums has disappeared, Amnesia’s hooks are just as psychologically damning as they once were weeks ago.
There’s a key difference between Amnesia, and all other horror media I’ve encountered: it should be played alone. Though it can be enjoyed with another person, you’re cheating yourself out of the intensity derived from the singular experience. Simply having another person in the room allows you to validate "oh, right, this is a video game," and those brief escapes from the reality of the virtual world are enough to create a regrettable rift in what's possible.
Then again, maybe you think it's crazy to submit yourself to that. I get it. Like I said, Amnesia isn't "fun." By transferring terror to another human being, it's made manageable. Having seen to the credits, I blame no one for the latter, and it’s why I’m somewhat sympathetic to Electronic Arts and its decisions behind Dead Space 3, despite my reservations about its impact on the design as a whole.
I’ve had this conversation with Ryan on the podcast before, but video game horror has the unique characteristic of forcing the individual to engage at a profoundly deep level. In a book, when you turn the page, the story progresses, the killer moves closer, the characters keep running. In a movie, you can bury your head in the pillow, cover your ears, and pretend nothing is happening. When you eventually return, the movie will have pressed on. Nothing happens in a horror game without your involvement, and Amnesia digs its heels in further by removing the power fantasy. When a creature appears, you have nothing but the darkness to keep you safe, and even that’s killing you.
Amnesia works because of what you can’t see. The moment you’re up close with one of the game’s Predator-esque monstrosities, the game loses something. It’s that moment in the water, when you’re being stalked by an invisible thing. It’s that moment when you’re searching through a brightly lit area (almost always a safe haven), a creature appears, you hide in a closet (again, "safe"), and you hear a thing break down the door and, I guess, huff around you. It’s close, close, closer, and you’re confronted with the reality that there’s nothing you can do but wait.
I didn’t watch The Blair Witch Project again until years later, unwilling to wager that I’d emotionally regress. Similarly, I don’t want to play Amnesia again, either, and I’m not especially upset A Machine for Pigs was delayed.
Sooner or later, though, the itch will return, and I’ll want to remember what all this felt like.
Sooner or later, I’ll want to feel that alive again.