header is screenshot from Amnesia: The Bunker
Yearning, Once More, to Forget
Pao Yumol

Unfortunately, at the beginning of Amnesia: The Bunker, sliding into the moonlit trenches and clutching a revolver, I remembered everything: I remembered those kaleidoscopic opening moments of The Bunker's early antecedent, 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and how they sent sonic shivers across my ear canal—reversed samples of glass breaking, color blurring into voice. I remembered the fever dream motion sickness, vision quivering in and out of focus, how distant the gun-driven power fantasies of other survival horror games had felt when cowering, unarmed, in a closet.

If I had not been haunted by these memories while playing The Bunker, I might have been less critical of the world it attempts to build.

For starters, The Bunker, as a virtual playpen that introduces "immersive sim" player dynamics to a tense, survival horror setting, is frequently inventive. The im-sim proposition is that the player should have many distinct means of getting past a door, and The Bunker delivers on this promise many times over as you exchange bricks, bullets, and makeshift Molotovs for chunks of progress. To this end, the game is a success.

But I want to focus on another key pillar of The Bunker's design: randomization. Fredrik Olsson, The Bunker's creative lead, frequently cites "replayability" as an important metric in interviews about the game's design. "We’ve made a conscious effort to avoid linearity and predictability," he says in an interview with GamingBolt, explaining that procedural generation ensures unique repeated playthroughs and a more "player-driven" experience compared to previous Amnesia entries.

Beneath this sentiment is a dystopic proposition that "replayability,” as an expression of "bang for one's buck," makes for objectively good design. But beyond that, it's worth interrogating how randomization actually affects the playing experience.

When purposeful, randomness serves as a purveyor of satisfying frictions in games. In addition to furnishing an illusion of a "lifelike" world full of nested entropies, the idea is that cinematic moments may emerge from these collisions, moments made more precious by the idea that they could only have been experienced by you.

I'm reminded of the bizarro Animal Planet violence of Monster Hunter World; I think of how majestic of a sight it was to behold a Rathian and a Barroth locked in innocent brotherly horseplay before their weight sent them both hurtling through a dirt ceiling and into the den of a Diablos.

Amnesia: The Bunker produces plenty of serendipitous collisions between its systems, and the drama of the generator running out of fuel is central to many of them. For example: while running from the Beast, you look back and catch a glimpse of it on the other end of a hallway, its eyes set on you. At that precise moment, the lights go out, and for a split second the Beast is a silhouette outlined in red light, as if emerging from a cosmic gash in the darkness.

But randomization looms large over The Bunker, governing the placement of items, notes, and obstacles in successive playthroughs. The function of this system is to encourage alternative non-linear routes through the game's map while preserving the general pacing and trajectory of the story. This might support "replayability," but it comes at a cost to atmosphere, narrative, and the overall emotional experience.

Linear level design has been a steadfast feature of the survival horror genre since the days of PS1-era Silent Hill and Resident Evil, in which fixed camera angles and experimental camera movements give way to meticulously crafted scenes. In such cases, linearity allows designers tighter control over pacing and navigation, providing them with opportunities to foreshadow events through environmental design or goad the player into assuming the perfect sightline for a jumpscare. 

However, by randomizing the locations of key game mechanics and bits of lore, series creator Frictional relinquishes the ability to “optimize” for horror. In exchange for “unpredictability,” The Bunker produces randomly generated puzzles that lack narrative cohesion and authorial intent.

The Dark Descent executed the series' amnesiac premise with elegance, joining the player and protagonist Daniel in ludonarrative harmony by launching the story in medias res, the moment Daniel regains consciousness after losing his memory. Only after a little exploration do we suspect that Daniel himself has made destructive mistakes he wishes to forget.

In The Bunker, however, an early note unceremoniously informs us that Henri, the player character, feels guilty for committing some grave yet mysterious act—more of a nod to the series' well-established tropes than a gesture towards something new.

What follows are more scattered notes that eventually will an Amnesia-like narrative into being, but it's all shadow puppetry; individually, they're each less striking than any of the eerie non-sequiturs that embellished The Dark Descent's loading screens, and players might correctly guess the game's final "twist" regarding the Beast's origins before they even complete the tutorial.

Ironically, The Dark Descent is more effective in suffusing a linear experience with randomized elements. Unlike The BunkerThe Dark Descent is studded with scripted encounters and linear puzzles, allowing Frictional a more direct authorial hand in sculpting scares. Monsters appear out of thin air after completing objectives, and motion-blurred visions deliver exposition throughout levels.

But this isn't the only way The Dark Descent cultivates its horror. Players have a chance to experience visual and auditory hallucinations based on their level of "sanity," a device that serves as a catalyst for many of the game's most terrifying passages. Acousmata exemplify the game's visceral, psychedelic sound design, filling the periphery with false footsteps and ghostly voices.

The frenetic oscillation between scripted scares and "sanity"-dependent ones makes for an experience that feels intimately connected to the protagonist's perspective: Did you hear the sound of someone muttering? Was that a scripted event or a "hallucination"? Was it an in-game hallucination, or did I, the IRL player, imagine the whole thing?

In The Dark Descent, we fear the unknown, the monster beyond the closet door, but also our own selves. We must listen closely for survival, we must reserve action for the most urgent opportunities, but by doing so, we risk sending ourselves spiraling further into our own fear. How much more "player-driven" can a horror game get?

I remembered that sensation as I tiptoed through a corridor in The Bunker, admiring how a mess of wooden planks reacted realistically to my footsteps, making noise as they gently scraped the floor. Maybe the game's sound design will be strong enough to withstand the removal of the "sanity" mechanic after all, I thought.

Suddenly, the Beast's roar rippled across the hallway like a shotgun blast. I shut myself into a nearby room, waiting for the Beast to Jack Nicholson itself through the wooden door at any moment.

I remembered dozens of similar such claustrophobic encounters from The Dark Descent, enwombed by a flimsy wardrobe, alert and afraid, waiting for the darkness to wreak its psychic chaos and punish me for my inaction. But nothing changed; beyond the door, the Beast appeared to be stuck. I wasn't sure if this was a genuine glitch or not.

I listened closely. The sound of its idle panting was playing on a perfect loop.


Pao Yumol writes about games, music, and the internet. She contributes to EX, a Substack covering contemporary online culture, while further proof of her existence can be found at her brand new Twitter handle, @b0realdancer. She thanks you for taking the time to read her work.