No. When people talk about Amnesia, they use the verb form of the word shit. As in, "This game made me shit my pants."
I'm serious. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation called the game "almost unmatched as a constipation aid." The ever-reliable Urban Dictionary defines it as "an independent video game made to make you shit yourself."
Okay. Enough about shit. The point I'm trying to make is that this game is scary. And if the above words sound like a whole bunch of hyperbole, I suggest you do one of two things: one, watch a bit of this hilarious compilation of choice reactions to Amnesia. Or – and this is what I really think you should do: buy the game, wait until night, shut off the lights, put on a good pair of headphones, and start playing. If you aren't even slightly freaked out at least one point within the game, I will be more than happy to buy you an ice cream cone.
"The point of presentation is to infuse terror. The human mind is extremely efficient, as it will trigger itself into greater fear simply by imagining it." – in-game note from Amnesia: The Dark DescentThe best storytellers realize that raising interesting questions – about plot, character motivation, or stuff beyond the scope of the story they're telling – is at the core of great storytelling. As Ira Glass has said, when a narrator raises a question, it's implied that the audience will get answers to this question by the story's end.
But sometimes we don't get answers. Intentionally, I mean. And sometimes, when that's done by inexperienced or inept storytellers, we as an audience feel frustrated, betrayed. Like our time's been wasted.
But when withholding information works, it's incredibly gratifying. Christopher Nolan knows this – that's why we never really find out why The Joker became The Joker, let alone why he's doing the crazy shit he does. Imagining what led to The Joker becoming The Joker is way more satisfying than any answer Nolan could provide.
And speaking of filmmakers: Hitchcock was the master of the unanswered question – after all, he's the dude that popularized the MacGuffin. What made his work shine was the stuff that you didn't see. The shower scene in Psycho comes to mind. We never see a single wound in that scene, nor do we see any explicit nudity. And yet the overwhelming sense of violence and sexuality in that scene is overpowering.
So what does this have to do with Amnesia? The game's team (made by a company of five people!) knew about the importance of withholding information from the player. And so they made an interesting design choice: if you play the game successfully – that is, never dying or dying very few times – you almost never see the ever-present monsters that haunt Amnesia's terrifying castle. And attempts at looking at them will penalize you; upon glancing at any beasts, your character's vision will blur and his sanity will drop.
And don't even think about going on the offensive; unlike most first-person video games, Amnesia doesn't provide you with weapons. So what can you do if you don't want to die? Simple: run, hide, and for the love of God don't look at the monsters.
But it's unlikely that you'll make it through the game without dying. There come moments when you fail – when the monsters come to get you and, presumably, slash you into little bits. And that entails getting a big ol' glimpse of the monsters' ugly mugs staring right in your face. And thanks to the game's lack of graphical prowess – again, it's that team-of-five-people thing – you'll probably find yourself disappointed. It's not just that the monsters are kind of blocky looking, kind of primative in an Intro to 3D Modeling sort of way. It's mostly that what they actually look like is nowhere near as scary as what you'd imagine them to look like.
Thankfully, these moments are rare. In fact, the game's designers seem to be aware of the disappointment that seeing can bring. One particularly memorable moment in Amnesia involves an invisible monster. It's scary as hell – and as far as creating terror by withholding information goes, it's freaking brilliant.
Independent game studios – like Frictional Games, the folks behind Amnesia – have ballooned in financial and critical success over just the past few years. And if you ask me, the independent studios tend to be the ones with the most interesting ideas in the world of interactive media.
The problem, though, is that independent studios rarely have the time or money to make games that look as good as the stuff that giant studios do – because, let's face it: making 3D modeled stuff that looks good is hard. But visuals are a big deal in video games – after all, video comes from the Latin videre, meaning "to see." And so indie game developers that are willing but unable to make fancy-schmancy graphics have typically been left with two options: to either make do with subpar graphics or scale down their visions.
But the team at Frictional and Amnesia present a different possibility. Who says that video games need to rely completely on seeing? Maybe an intentional absence of visuals for the sake of suspense every now and then will do something great for storytelling in interactive media.
The cliché goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. But I think it could be said that a lack of pictures is sometimes worth way more than that.