The great enemy of the horror game is predictability. Concepts that have grown tired. Stale executions thereof. The horror game must offer a steady feed of new scenarios and new wrinkles within those scenarios to adapt to, or else we grow bored. And boredom is an enemy of its own.
Predictability is a problem that, through the Amnesia series, developer Frictional Games has been trying to solve from the very beginning. In 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, they chose to rid their game of the combat so endemic to the genre. For their approach to survival horror, survival would be accomplished without aid of a weapon to fend off the monsters. No knife, no pipe, no big wrench.
At the time, this decision was heralded as a step forward for the genre. In stripping out the player’s most common means of interaction, the player would be forced to adopt more atypical behaviors like running and hiding.
It follows, then, that Frictional would eventually decide that the Amnesia approach to horror has got to go. When people see the Amnesia logo and begin to expect a certain style of horror, that means Amnesia in itself has become predictable.
And so Amnesia: The Bunker gives you a firearm almost immediately, placing you in the wet, muddy boots of a French soldier in the midst of World War I. You go on to acquire grenades. The storage lockers, should you take the time to examine them, foretell the existence of a shotgun. The opening tutorial even plays out in the trenches during a skirmish where you are obligated to return fire.
Gone, too, is the sanity/fear mechanic that once ticked down if you spent too long standing outside the light or staring at some horrific visage. You are free to crouch in the darkness forever as long as you don’t run afoul of the twisted, taloned abomination that stalks you through holes punched in the bunker walls. You can stare at the monster, too, though being able to stare at the monster tends to signal an imminent death. Not even the presence of mutilated corpses imparts any penalties to your character’s well-being, as long as you stand far enough away when they’re being eaten by engorged rats with glowing eyes.
The primary engine of your stress is now the generator that powers the bunker's lights, whose dwindling fuel can only be tracked by a stopwatch that demands a full inventory slot. Gasoline is what ticks down while you spend time hiding from a monster rather than your sanity. And the generator sits perpetually hungry in a central safe room, a recurring origin point that takes overt influence from the influx of run-based games since the heyday of the original Amnesia.
What, after all, is more unpredictable than the idea that you don’t know what you’ll find the next time you step out the door? You never know how many items you’ll find on an excursion, or how long you’ll be held up cowering under a table, fuel burning away every second you wait for the monster to slink back into its hole. Upon completion, the game informs you that the locations of consumables and traps are randomized, so that going again will give you a different experience—you certainly won’t be able to recycle the locker combinations from your previous game. (Eat your heart out, 0451.)
But run-based games derive their tension from how much changes between runs, and little of anything important changes for Amnesia: The Bunker. Perhaps you bumble through a relocated tripwire or two, but the experience remains broadly similar, and it is even more so when you merely restart after dying. For as much tension as the game gets out of requiring you to travel such a great distance from what is more or less its only save point, the rigidity of its design wrecks any of the tension a more randomized game might have had. What you come to fear is merely irritation at a loss of progress, further softened by the ability to try again to little consequence. After all, on the next attempt you will be newly armed with knowledge of what’s in store. The bunker is technically an open space where you can go anywhere at any time, but why wouldn’t you just retry the sequence that you failed moments before?
And the monster, for as much of a wild card as its behavior is supposed to be, doesn’t exactly shake up each attempt. A run-based game feeds you the knowledge that this is your only try so that you scramble for some means to prevent an early loss, using anything and everything at your disposal in a thrilling flurry of desperation. Conversely, you will use the same handful of tools to fend off the monster in The Bunker. A bullet, a grenade, and a pleasant sit in a decent hiding spot are all just as effective. They’re even more effective on another run because you know where you’re going.
Amnesia: The Bunker, in other words, places a misguided amount of faith in systems that aren’t quite fleshed-out enough to deliver the sort of experience it’s pining for. Nowhere is this clearer than the inspiration it keeps touting from immersive sims on all the load screens: “if you think something might be possible to do, then it probably is.”
The idea is sound. The interlocking systems add an air of mystery and unpredictability, facilitating some harried MacGyvering in a pinch. Better still, they raise questions about information not provided to us: how, for example, does the game track noise? Does it register when I accidentally brush past a bottle and send it rolling across the bunker floor? Do only certain items like the flashlight count? And furthermore, will the monster notice the light of a torch? Does the generator expend less fuel if I turn some of the lights off?
Freed from linear restrictions and singular puzzle solutions, the space of mechanical possibility seems to expand. But in truth, The Bunker crafts a delicate ecosystem that collapses beneath scrutiny. Though doors appear to be breakable (grenades are certainly a reliable means of removing them), in truth they only react to a limited number of items. They don’t splinter beneath heavy objects; they splinter beneath one heavy object, a brick that never seems to be nearby when you need it most. I can’t reach through a hole to unlock a door, can’t set fire to it. I can’t remove a vent cover or cut a tripwire without the designated tool for the job, and that’s no different from how other games gate their progress. They’re glorified keys, and few things in a videogame are more predictable than the fact that you’ll go looking for a key. (Incidentally, a few of the more prevalent videogame-isms include fighting off rats and waking up with amnesia).
Perhaps the only genuinely clever “aha” interaction I had with The Bunker was when I began to play it a second time and wondered if there was some means of dealing with a tripwire that was quicker than playing through most of the game all over again. I found a bucket, and I placed it on top of a chair beneath a flare that was strung to a door as a booby trap, falling down when the door is opened to set whoever tries snooping on fire. And when I opened the door, it worked. The flare fell harmlessly into the bucket. This interaction, however, took several attempts over an extended period of time; I wouldn’t have tried at all if the trap wasn’t right next to the safe room, and I certainly hadn’t bothered to experiment in similar fashion on the first playthrough. There’s no reason to do it this way at all, really, except for general curiosity—especially when setting the trap off and running away is so much easier.
For the rest of Amnesia The Bunker, I went about things the easy way. The intended way, you might call it. I found myself staring in the face the very thing that these games are so plainly trying to escape: predictability. Predictability, it seems, is its own unkillable monster skulking through the dark, able to be beaten back for a scant few moments before it reemerges all over again.
Steven Nguyen Scaife has written Midwesternly about games, TV, and movies for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Unwinnable, and a steadily growing number of defunct publications. His Twitter is @midfalutin.