Horror is a genre that I’ve always wanted to participate in, especially horror videogames. The genre’s reliance upon negative tropes of mental illness and violence towards marginalized groups, however, has kept me away. Despite my personal hesitation, horror games are a means by which fear and danger can be explored in ways that are distanced, safe, and, by default, healthy. Being able to stop the game, pause, or even check a menu and move to a safe area allows the player to break away from the horror the game is forcing upon them. When the game becomes too much, it’s easy to disengage from a character on the screen. This year I became curious about horror games that take that distance away, where the main goal is to remove the comfort that comes with distance and force the player into an immersive exploration of what makes us afraid.
It has been a decade since Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released, with the third game in the series coming out this year. Despite my reluctance to participate in horror fandom, it’s almost impossible to research horror games and not see mass praise for Amnesia. As a first-person survival game, it is exactly the kind of experience I’m curious about but have never tried. It’s subversive, it’s Lovecraftian, it’s the foundation for so many other horror games, and most of all, it’s scary. Amnesia may be a decade old, but it’s still a major part of the cultural landscape and deserves to be discussed within that context.
Amnesia has everything I expect and, on some level, want from a survival horror game. And, maybe because it's such a prime example of this kind of design, it forces the question: What even is a survival horror game? What are the subgenres and what makes one a "classic?" These are the questions I asked myself while moving through Amnesia's castle setting, trying to get a sense of what was wanted from me. The fear-based exploration in Amnesia is guided by its sound design and lack of visibility. It immediately becomes clear that you, as the protagonist Daniel, are not in control. He lacks agency as he works through the manor, attempting to reach a goal—kill a man he doesn't remember anything about—that has little to no meaning to the player at first. Without memories of a past or even a slight bit of context regarding his motivations, Amnesia sets up a narrative that forces you to be as confused and frightened as Daniel is throughout the game. Horror isn’t simply jumpscares, and survival doesn’t equate to violence. It's the fear of knowing you exist but not knowing the conditions in which your life matters, or if it matters at all. Playing Amnesia feels immersive in a way that was instantly different from my previous attempts at playing horror games focused on quick scares over existential concerns.
The most striking aspect of Amnesia is that the game manages to create horror without depicting violence against women, unnecesary racism, or gratuitous gore. Dark hallways and the hint of a creature following you. A screech from the distance or objects moving without a source. This is how Amnesia creates fear. These moments are so unlike the jump scares and highly detailed shots of bodies being mutilated that I’ve come to associate with “traditional” horror games. Surviving means solving puzzles and avoiding the creatures whose goal is to kill the player. I appreciated being given these options, rather than being forced to fight and claw my way out.
That novelty soon wore off, however. It didn’t take long for me to start wondering which aspects of our daily lives are important enough to fuel the genre's emotional and psychological horrors. The fact that Daniel is depicted as a regretful torturer; the game's "insanity meter"—it all created a narrative experience that didn’t frighten as much as exhaust me to the point where I was actively disconnecting from the gameplay and narrative. It can be argued that Daniel was manipulated into becoming the evil antagonist Alexander's pawn, but even that conversation doesn’t interest me. Daniel is painted as a man struggling with his sanity through diary entries describing how he unearthed artifacts in Africa. This negated the connection I felt to a man struggling to free himself from an oppressive captor. I’m a queer Black woman, and have avoided survival horror in the past because the multitudes of my identity become vehicles in it for torture, violence, and disrespect. Amnesia skirts this, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Daniels' struggles moving through the castle mock the struggles of anxiety, memory loss, and regret.
Walking through the waterway, frantically trying to open doors I couldn't see, all while a seemingly invisible force was closing in on me, created one of the most pivotal moments of my playthrough. I was bombarded with an experience that created a stressful simulation rather than a way for me to healthily process fear. I wasn’t afraid, I was exhausted and trapped in a test of mental endurance. Though Amnesia is a solid horror game that's both unique and a clear inspiration to other games, something about it feels off for me.
I am firmly against the concept of the “Lovecraftian” as a defining feature and as a reason to praise a work. Over countless years and across countless conversations, it has been proven time and time again that consumers and critics need to retire Lovecraft and the racism that's so inseparable from his writing as an inspiration. In 2020, we need to move beyond the concepts developed in a white man's thinly veiled white supremacist fiction. Evoking Lovecraft's idea of a slow loss of mental stability is a cheap way to make subversive horror. It gestures at mental illness without being specific enough to become overtly problematic. It’s a quick way to show that the most horrific aspects of humanity are the people within it, not necessarily the monsters we create. To its credit, Amnesia doesn’t take place in an asylum, its protagonist isn’t driven to extreme acts of violence due to mental illness, and depleting his "sanity gauge" doesn’t end the game. It does however make the game more tiring. I felt as though I was being forced to become a voyeur to my own mental health struggles. Daniel’s breathing became labored as anxiety took over, his vision swam and his perception of the castle and his past was vague and unreliable. Amnesia was still using the real effects of mental health to create an otherworldly fear.
Survival horror games have long been defined by narratives that center the plight of a white man forced to survive a solitary experience created by his own mistakes and grievances. This has become the model for the genre and I cannot ride that train. It’s the official start of the new decade and it’s a decade where life feels like a simulation. I’m in a country that denies me basic rights and freedoms, struggling against the traumas of my people and the ways mental illness has stilted my adult life. Yume Nikki, Detention, LISA: The First, and even Control are horror games that use the same lack of agency to take total power out of players' hands, but they do it differently than Amnesia. Detention, specifically, takes the gameplay mechanics of rediscovering memories through exploration, but manifests its characters' guilt as a personal kind of hell. The scary moments are almost mystical. The biggest difference between the games, though, is that Detention has the player live through their actions rather than play a character whose amnesia is an almost forceful way to forget their mistakes. Once your memories return, it’s up to you to ultimately atone or suffer because of them. Regardless of your choice, Detention does not erase the character's past. That accountability is important to me. Despite a lack of agency in all of these games—despite the fear of unknowing—I was still able to play them and maintain some form of autonomy over the ways I chose to perceive the world. I still had control. While Amnesia created a way to experience horror without physically fighting for your life, fighting to maintain sanity still hit me just as hard.