header is screenshot from Halloween Horror 2020 (Feat. Amnesia)
Mother of Empire
Reid McCarter

This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Amnesia: Rebirth.

In an ancient fortress in the remote Sahara of Amnesia: Rebirth’s 1937 Algeria, the corpse of a French lieutenant sits locked behind an iron gate meant to protect a tomb of assumedly some historical importance. His body lies slumped in a chair, the blue of his uniform faded and the flesh rotting to a mottled leather wherever it’s exposed. A hand grenade is attached to his belt, tied to the iron gate’s door with a bit of rope so as to explode when someone enters his mean little fiefdom. In one hand, he holds the French Tricolour, its red, white, and blue stripes still vivid against the stonework and decay of a civilization not his own.

A note found next to the lieutenant explains that the fortress arsenal he died within was under attack by local natives—a people he dubs “savages.” This is picked up and read by Rebirth’s protagonist, Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon as she, another French citizen come on an ill-fated expedition to plunder the North African nation of its natural resources and precious artifacts, attempts to escape a landscape of twisting caverns, vast sands, and demonic, otherworldly ruins. Tasi must unlock the door to the lieutenant’s holdfast in order to grab a key from his body, and as she works out a way to do this, she retraces the final moments of the fortress’ colonial occupiers. She finds another note wherein a French soldier writes that he despises and distrusts the Algerian natives. He would gladly massacre their population, he explains, and figure out how to justify the killings to his government after the fact, if it was up to him. This man’s body is likely moldering in one of the many piles of corpses left to the darkness of the great stone halls no longer inhabited by anyone but Tasi and the undead beings that stalk her.

She, too, is an interloper in Algeria. When Tasi dreams of better times, she dreams of Paris. A room in her apartment glows with warm, gentle sunlight. There’s a cradle for her baby Alys within it, along with a few bookshelves, photographs, and an easel surrounded with architectural drawings. In this dream, which occurs a few times during Rebirth, Tasi’s husband Salim speaks softly and lovingly to her. The last time we see Salim alive is in the chaotic moments just before their expedition’s plane crashes into the sands. We later learn that their daughter Alys died as a toddler back in Paris before the couple left France behind for Algeria. Tasi and Salim’s trip is, in a certain sense, an acknowledgement that life goes on—that survival depends on moving forward toward new pursuits and knowledge. Their destination lies across the sea, on the brutalized edges of European empire. It’s here, widowed and with a new baby beginning to kick inside of her, that Tasi finds herself alone after the plane crash, crawling through dark caves haunted by monsters and stumbling upon portals to an unspeakable demonic civilization clinging to a parasitic form of survival.  

Everywhere in the latest Amnesia, empire and birth are twisted together to form new, diseased monuments to the worst of humanity. The game, as oppressively pessimistic in tone as it is aesthetically dark and brooding, suggests that our species moves inexorably toward evil and self-perpetuation. It’s our defining animal trait, Rebirth posits, as uniquely a part of us as our too-big brains and opposable thumbs. The moment-to-moment experience of playing the game is familiar to anyone who walked the shadowy castle halls or fetid industrial inferno of the first two Amnesias: The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs. Looking through Tasi’s eyes, the player stumbles ever onward through a labyrinth of strange mechanical contraptions, the gruesome remains of eviscerated humans, and eerie landscapes populated by homicidal creatures. Along the way, Tasi is battered, psychologically and physically, by her scrapes with death and the overwhelming fear of what she must continue to endure. She endures all of this, possessed by a desperate urge to continue living.

What’s interesting in Rebirth isn’t just its unrelenting atmosphere of despair or the ebb and flow of the baseline terror that imbues every moment spent in its world—it’s the unavoidable message its constant horror wants to impart. The first motif the player’s likely to notice is that Tasi is metaphorically reborn over and over throughout her journey. She climbs through dark cavern tunnels to emerge into light that’s nearly blinding in contrast, over and over again. In one instance, fleeing a monster, she slips into a rush of water and emerges into a lush desert oasis. The baby inside her, growing faster than nature allows, occasionally shoots out a leg or arm, causing Tasi’s vision to flash briefly blue. Statues of a fertility goddess are found constantly along her path—carved women with wide hips and large breasts standing atop stone altars where bowls of oil and other offerings have been left. The decaying, tormented creatures that hunt Tasi as she explores spill from rock and wetly red tunnels, screaming like instinctively furious babies. They look just like us, only further gone. This theme is represented in subtler ways, too. Suffocating darkness is compared with enervating sunlight; dead rock and sand are held up alongside pools of clean water and bright green vegetation. Tasi repeatedly finds herself deep inside shadowy prenatal worlds before battling her way back out into life and light.    

The desert, an environment where life and death are juxtaposed in such extreme ways, is an appropriate setting for Rebirth. What initially seems like a blindly Orientalist choice—the “exoticism” of a demon-haunted North Africa echoing The Exorcist’s Crusades-style understanding that the heathen sands must hide prehistorical evils—ends up revealing itself as a decision made instead for the fact that Algiers is situated at the crossroads of a dizzying number of cultures and civilizations. Carthaginian and Berber and ruled by Rome; conquered by the Umayyad and subsequent caliphates, some of its territory ceded to Spain, deeply influenced by Arab Bedouins, and absorbed into the Ottoman Empire; colonized by France before fighting to create its modern form as an Arab-Berber republic. When Tasi and her (mostly) European colleagues come to consult on a mining project and she ends up finding that the Sahara covers entryways to a hellish alien civilization ruled by a (literally) pain-drinking Empress, the point is for the player to be thinking not just of fantastical demonic occupiers, but human ones, too.

The French fortress, cannons pointed from its walls and a tank parked in its courtyard, is as unsettling as any gibbering monster. It sparks thoughts of the massacres and systemic exploitation, and of the long, long line of conquerors and subjects—of centuries upon centuries of epoch-making wars—that’s washed Algeria in blood for so much of its history. Looked at through this lens, with reminders of imperial conflict scattered throughout the game via Roman ruins and French flags, humanity doesn’t seem much kinder than any hell we can dream up, even the one Rebirth depicts.

The civilization Tasi discovers as she travels is immediately nightmarish. She falls through a portal to a landscape where sickly green skies crackle with flickers of lightning and great stone statues and skyscraper-sized buildings tower over plains filled with a rolling fog and Medusa-frozen figures of tormented people. As she learns more about its history, the strangeness of this place becomes weirdly comprehensible.  “What are these people?” Tasi asks herself at one point. “So much torture and pain and for what, to keep the lights on?” The society’s factories and rulers serve a leader called “The Empress” who lives by feeding on a liquid called vitae that’s distilled from her subjects’ pain and fear. As absurd as this concept is when written down, the factories and governmental structures of the Empress’ domain ground the idea in a familiar framework. This civilization, like so many large civilizations from human history, survives and grows on the misery of others. The evil that animates imperialism is made explicit in the Empress' soul-sucking domain. Her people live in a parallel world to our own, colonizing Algeria in order to drink the life from those who inhabit the land. The Empress' world may be grotesque and strange, but it's hardly novel when compared with any of the other forces that have fed on the North African nation to bolster their own strength.

Coupled with Tasi’s continual rebirths, the suggestion is that human history, with its drive toward whatever material and ideological markers of progress various civilizations have valued across time, is constantly moving toward creating new forms of horror—horror that seems to form as the natural by-product of a species-wide need to survive, and ensure continued survival by knowing or possessing more. Rebirth ultimately asks what we expect to be borne from the womb of our world—what wonders we can expect to find as we pursue greater knowledge—and finds only monsters as its answer. The ancient civilization that harvested the tormented life energy of its subjects for the benefit of its Empress; the Romans now dead and buried kilometres deep within the earth; the caliphates, dynasties, and empires now vanquished; the French colonists clutching their suicide hand grenades—every empire has sought a better form of civilization for itself by subjugating others and found only horror, concrete and numinous, in exchange for their efforts.

The game’s final choice clarifies and personalizes Rebirth’s thesis. Tasi, having delivered her child Amari, confronts the Empress, alone in the dark heart of her fallen civilization. The Empress tells Tasi that she can leave Amari with her, deep in the ancient demonic city, and that Amari will be cared for with regular vitae treatments harvested from tortured people. Or, Tasi can flee, though Amari and Tasi are both now ill and unlikely to survive long after their escape back to Paris. The question is whether to trust the uncertainty of a different kind of future or to remain in the bloody tradition of colonial forebearers, their survival ensured by the misery of others. Tasi has lost a child before, which is portrayed in interstitial scenes so incredibly sad they’re almost nauseating. The loss of this one life, despite how negatively Rebirth views humanity as a whole, is still an enormous tragedy. To give up on hope, no matter what horrible future awaits a sick child—and one whose first decade of life will be defined as a Parisian in the late 1930s and ‘40s—is still too terrible to contemplate. There is no “good ending,” regardless of what the player does. There is only the slimmest bit of hope or the total absence of it.

That Rebirth offers only a Manichean choice between terrible life and terrible death—of wretched survival versus oblivion—may seem overly narrow. But, in the end, horror sometimes means looking at the worst aspects of ourselves and being willing to linger on what it feels like not to consider brighter alternatives. It isn’t a failure of imagination not to offer a moral lesson or optimism. It’s an artistic choice that reflects a well-earned outlook—one that sees as much reason to despair over our past and future as allow ourselves to believe it can get better.      


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.