Is a Scary Game Scarier if You Don’t Know How to Play?

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In order to play Amnesia: The Dark Descent you will need the following:

  • A decent computer
  • Balls of steel
  • Experience of WASD


I have none of these. So you can imagine that, when Jake invited me to play and write on Amnesia, a game with a reputation for being truly terrifying, I didn’t fancy my chances.

The Problem

Having never owned a good quality PC, my relationship with computer games is almost 100% facilitated by a D-pad, and the world of WASD is as unfamiliar to me as French; I know how to use a few phrases but ask me to string together a sentence or two and you’ll get a blank stare.

So it goes with WASD. Which, in order to survive Amnesia, I have to translate – and quickly, if I’m going to escape before long.

The Pitch

You play Daniel, who wakes with only three pieces of information in his memory: his name; that he lives in Mayfair, London; and that something is hunting him down and you’ve got to outrun it.

This, in a spooky-as-hell castle, in the year 1839, with only candlelight or oil lamps to light your way.

The Technique

Amnesia works incredibly hard to create an arena of fear – it even prepares you for it. Before the game begins it asks you to make sure that the screen will be set at a correct level of ambiguous darkness:

The interplay between light and dark is very important to the game and because of this it is vital to set up the gamma correctly. Use the slider control below to do so. Adjust it until the square at the right is barely visible.

Also make sure to play in a dark room and wear headphones for best effect.

This is a ‘suspension of disbelief’ game. Amnesia works to get you as far inside it - and outside of the real room you’re playing in – as it possibly can. It does this so that, when it then works to disorientate, confuse and disconcert you, the effect is marked.

The Amnesia world feels very physical: the character moves in deliberate steps. You interact with doors and drawers by literally pulling on them, using the mouse to finger them gently or bust them frantically open. The sound, in which far-off cries and pianos being played in other rooms, added to Daniel’s (your) own breathing and the lack of weapons, compounds that fear – because the physicality of the world makes it feel threatening.

The Question

It amplifies your impotence. To that end, is Amnesia already more disturbing to me than a regular PC player because I am made more impotent by a lack of ability to play using WASD?

Maybe I’m more threatened by what hunts Daniel than a more experienced gamer, because I’m playing in a language I don’t recognise. Every 360⁰ turn, for me, is difficult and overlaboured; and you can forget about deciding to open a door quietly, and just slightly, because my clumsy hands wouldn’t let me if I tried.

That only heightened the fear, and the farce. I was so scared I’d not be able to use the controls to escape from anything that came at me that I took to throwing objects around in every room I entered, just to mark my territory.

Such is the effect of playing in a different language. Amnesia is a work of genius because – and this probably stands for less gameplay-challenged gamers than myself – it gives the player in this visceral world enough control to say “Your actions here are yours” whilst also saying “There’s nothing you can do with them: you’re powerless”.

The Answer

If you’re not so familiar with a mouse and WASD, that is heightened tenfold. Because of that, I’d nominate the game Amnesia as game of choice for anybody who’s never played a game before: the lack of ability won’t matter.

If anything, it might improve the game to the point of a kind of sick beauty. Plenty of people won’t go near video games because it seems like an alien world, full of strange controls and odd acronyms; but an Amnesia player, with no previous experience, can thrive on that fear of the unknown. If you want to show a non-gamer the power that the medium has to immerse, shock, and engross, this might be the game to do it.

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[ 8 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. Come on now.

    If you’re used to using a 360 controller it’s hardly a leap.

    • It’s not a leap, no. But it’s different enough to add an extra layer of disorientation to a game that uses that as a prime tool to scare or unsettle you.

  2. Congrats on the RPS mention! Fascinating stuff in retrospect, because first watching a playthrough (I don’t have a good PC) I knew some information from browsing online. The ambiguity of horror is partly what makes it so terrifying and Amnesia uses it to full effect. Dangerously so.

  3. I have to agree as Amnesia was the first game taht my girlfriend played. Having never played something with WASD she was screaming in terror. I have avoided playing the game although I helped her pass the water master. She was surprised of how quickly I opened and closed doors.
    Moreover I was not in the game’s atmosphere and I played boldly without fear of anything. At some point she made me play the first level where I was advancing slower than a coward chicken…

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