How Amnesia Brought Horror out of the Action Era

At a time when horror gaming was moving further away from pure terror, Amnesia reminded us why we should be afraid of the dark.

Photo: Frictional Games

This article is part of our History of PC Gaming series. Read all of the articles here.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the PC was the main source of pure horror games. From early text adventures such as The Lurking Horror to the FMV insanity of The 7th Guest, the PC developers of that era worked to unlock the largely untapped potential of horror gaming.

While the Nintendo Famicom’s Sweet Home was a revolutionary early horror game in its own right, the console titles of that era largely relied on movie licenses, such as the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th games for the NES, or put heavy emphasis on action (Castlevania) in order to appeal to a larger market. For the most part, gamers turned to the PC for the truly scary stuff.

That dynamic changed drastically in 1996 with the release of Capcom’s Resident Evil for the PlayStation. While Resident Evil drew heavily from PC horror games like Alone in the Dark, it popularized the style of survival horror that soon became so synonymous with gaming that console and PC developers everywhere raced to develop their own Resident Evil-like experiences. Some, like Konami’s Silent Hill, even built on Capcom’s success. Others, like the much-hyped PC horror game Nocturne, were quickly lost to history.

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The gap between PC and console horror gaming grew larger in 2005 when the revolutionary Resident Evil 4 changed the genre again with its cinematic presentation, over-the-shoulder third-person camera, and action-oriented gameplay. It moved the genre further away from the slower, more methodical horror games of old and into an era when titles like Dead Space played more like action games with occasional jump scares and lots of gore.

Then came 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the seminal PC horror game from Frictional Games that brought the genre back to its roots. In the game, you play as a man named Daniel who wakes up in a creepy castle with no memory of how he got there. With no way of defending himself and only a lantern to light his way through the madness-inducing darkness of the castle’s depths, Daniel must uncover the twisted truth behind his amnesia while evading the grotesque monsters hunting him. Needless to say, Amnesia offered a very different kind of scare and filled its fans with a more primal sense of dread than the gun-heavy horror games of the time.

At the center of Amnesia‘s success is Thomas Grip, the original game’s designer and co-founder of Frictional Games. Den of Geek spoke to Grip in 2018 about the making of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. He revealed to us that trying to overcome his fear of heights and roller coasters was an inspiration when making the game.

“One way that I overcame [my fear of heights] was to get inside a roller coaster and realize ‘Nothing I do can affect the outcome of this ride,’” Grip explains. “‘There’s nothing. I’m just stuck here, strapped in, and looking out. My own volition doesn’t add to anything.’ That’s a sort of calming thought. I can just sit here and think ‘Whatever happens is going to happen.’”

Before Amnesia, Grip worked alongside Frictional Games’ co-founder Jens Nilsson and a small team on Amnesia‘s spiritual predecessor, a game called Penumbra: Overture. Like so many designers of his era, Grip was influenced by a familiar name.

“The main inspiration [for Penumbra] was the first Resident Evil,” Grip says. “I really, really liked horror games for a long time, and when I saw Resident Evil I was like ‘Wow, you can make games like this?’”

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While many developers have cited Resident Evil as the game that opened their eyes to a new way of thinking, the making of Penumbra was just as defined by the ways in which its team wanted to go beyond some of the things Resident Evil had established.

“A lot of the stuff we designed was about fixing things that annoyed us,” Grip says. “So when it came to something like maps, we never had the sort of classic Resident Evil/Silent Hill map because I always hated bringing it up in a game. I felt like it took a while to bring the damn thing up, and you’re not in the game in an interesting manner when you’re looking at the map.”

Moving beyond traditional in-game maps is one thing, but the Penumbra team’s desire to abandon the tropes of games like Resident Evil went well-beyond altering a few mechanics. Grip wanted to tap into the roots of the genre in order to find a different way to scare players.

“In my favorite horror books, you don’t see that there’s this endless wave of monsters,” Grip says. “There are just a few monsters and each encounter has a story to tell. I think that’s where it started. We wanted to make a horror game that felt like playing a novel.”

Penumbra: Overture had a traditional arching story, which follows a young man who receives a mysterious letter from his dead father, but its most important storytelling was done through the gameplay itself.

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“Early on in the development of Penumbra, we wrote down a little story about how an encounter would play out,” Grip recalls. “It was something like ‘You go into a room to find something, you see something on the outside, you close the door, you block it, the thing is trying to get in, you see a ventilation shaft, and you crawl through the ventilation shaft.’ That was the sort of baseline of the things we wanted to do.”

Grip says that the team was inspired by PC text horror games like Anchorhead when it came to designing each encounter to tell the player a story. That’s why you’re presented with a descriptive text box whenever you click on anything in the game. That element combined with Penumbra’s first-person perspective, which Grip says was inspired by Half-Life and the team’s desire to not render extra character models, separated it from Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and the genre’s other big names.

For all of their revolutionary departures from what had come before, the first two Penumbra games were still burdened by a combat system that felt, to be generous, half-hearted. When work began on what would become 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the third Penumbra title, Penumbra: Requiem, the team decided to implement storytelling in more aspects of game design in order to address another element of the genre they weren’t entirely satisfied with.

“Normally when people made horror games, even Silent Hill which was very horror focused, it was all based around a combat engine,” Grip says. “It was very clear in a game like Resident Evil. From an early stage, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if encounters were more scenario-based?’ What if they weren’t just ‘let’s just throw random monsters out there’ but if there was a certain story behind each encounter?”

In Amnesia, the basic story behind each encounter revolves around the word “escape.” Early into the development of Penumbra, the team scripted a basic scenario that revolved around the idea of having to find your way out of a bad situation using only your wit. Amnesia expands that concept by putting the player in scenarios where they are almost entirely helpless and must find a way to escape using a combination of physics-based environmental puzzles and their wits.

It was a far cry from the popular games of the era, which relied on nearly constant instances of brutal combat. As Grip notes that style of game design can sometimes betray what you’re trying to do with any horror story.

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“If you have weapons in games like Dead Space, a lot of mental resources are devoted towards combat-related tasks,” Grip says. “‘How much ammunition do I have left?’ ‘Where should I aim?’ You’re thinking of things in a combat-related way. The game tells you with the combat system what the default way to progress is. If you don’t have weapons, the game doesn’t tell you how to deal with [these problems]. It’s much harder for the player to feel secure.”

That philosophy sounds strong, but at that time, the popular perception was that a horror game that doesn’t offer players the chance to defend themselves also runs the risk of turning off those who gravitated towards action hero fantasies like Call of Duty. However, Grip believes slowing things down allows the game to truly build a sense of fear.

“When you have someone who is anxious about something, you could hand them something like Tetris to take their minds off it,” Grip says. “Whenever you’re worrying about something, when do you worry about it the most? When you’re about to sleep, when you’re on the bus, or whenever you have the least amount of things to do. Giving the player fewer things to do increases anxiety.”

Grip believes it is possible to instill a sense of fear even with a combat system but that “it’s very rare” and limited to games like Resident Evil 7 where supplies are truly limited and “you’re not sure if shooting the bad guy is even helping or if you’re just wasting ammunition.” It’s easy to see how even a few bullets would have betrayed the spirit of Amnesia’s most memorable sequence, which sees you running through a flooded room in order to escape a monster that can only be tracked by the splashes it makes in the water.

It would have also hindered the impact of one of Amnesia’s best mechanics: its sanity system. Much like in the H.P. Lovecraft stories that partially inspired Amnesia, Daniel’s sanity plays an essential role in the story, and it serves as a kind of second health bar. If it drops too low, Daniel begins to hallucinate and even attract the attention of the monsters. The twist is that the only way to effectively hide from monsters is to stick to the same shadows that deplete Daniel’s sanity meter in the first place.

Yet, the most important sanity meter in Amnesia is not Daniel’s, but the player’s. Playing Amnesia for the first time can be a daunting experience that borders on uncomfortable. You’re constantly in danger, you never know what is around the next corner, and the best way to “defend” yourself can also make the game more difficult. When making Penumbra, Grip noticed that chase sequences in those games would begin to frustrate the player if it took them too many tries to complete. Players began to see monsters as mechanical progression blocks and not as the horrors they were designed to be.

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Despite the risk of alienating players by putting them in scenarios that feel inescapable, there’s an element of frustration in Amnesia which Grip felt had to be in the game.

“Frustration is good until a point when it isn’t good,” Grip says. “If the player is frustrated, then the player has anxiety. You don’t want a game where the player understands exactly what they’re going to do next, how they’re going to progress, and where the next reward is going to come from. That’s not going to be good because there isn’t going to be much frightening about it.”

To say that Amnesia is only frightening because it makes you feel helpless would be a gross understatement. Above all else, Amnesia emphasizes a thick horror atmosphere that is as compelling as it is intimidating. While Grip says that he believes atmosphere is more about the scenarios you create than just being a “vague essence” that lingers in the air “like a perfume,” he acknowledges the power of Amnesia’s environments. He also describes their effectiveness with an unlikely comparison.

“There’s a subreddit for cozy places,’ Grip says. “If you check the top ones, each one of them is a perfect horror location. Cozy is a cabin in the middle of the woods. But if you set the right kind of music to it, then suddenly, it’s horror…With Amnesia, we were going for coziness. I wanted to really have things like thick cobwebs so it’d be almost cliche in the setting…If you have it set in a cozy setting, then it’s not off-putting for the player. They like to be there, but when you add that extra layer to it that turns it into horror, they have a place they like being in but suddenly don’t like being in.”

While it may sound like Amnesia is trying to torture you, it’s actually a balanced game in many ways. There’s usually a musical or sound cue that alerts the player to the presence of a monster. While Grip says that approach affords you time to worry about what is coming next, it’s also one of the ways that the team attempted to subvert the genre’s jump scare cliche.

“If you juxtapose [Amnesia] with a game where there is no warning the monster is there, you’ll be scared when they appear, but it doesn’t last that long,” Grip says. “Then you’re just making jump scares. I think your foundation should be good atmosphere enhanced by jump scares. In many horror games it’s the opposite where the jump scares are the foundation.”

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Above all else, that idea has proved to be Amnesia’s most lasting influence. While noteworthy horror games that followed, such as Outlast, Layers of Fear, and Alien: Isolation, featured some of the more overt things that made Amnesia successful — its lack of traditional action, its first-person perspective, and its hiding mechanics — nearly 10 years after Amnesia’s release, the title is best known as the game that helped slow the horror experience down. It also helped bring PC gaming back to the forefront of horror design, while pushing the genre forward as a whole.

But when it comes to comparing Amnesia to games like Dead Space and Resident Evil 4, there is a question that will always linger in the air: “Is a game like Amnesia actually fun to play?” So far as that goes, the less “structured” format of Amnesia is arguably fun in itself.

“The way interactivity helps is that the player is already invested in their own survival. In a horror movie, you have to make sure the player is worried for the protagonist,” Grip observes. “In a horror game, it’s dependent on your actions. You have a lot of pressure to perform actions in a certain manner in order to survive. That adds to the atmosphere a lot. I think that idea that you’re the protagonist and what comes with that is that you’re responsible.”

Besides, Grip doesn’t seem entirely sure that “fun” is the right metric to use when judging the effectiveness of a horror game.

“‘Fun’ is a sort of tricky word to use. I think ‘engagement’ is better,” Grip says. “As long as you can wrap it up in some sort of engaging structure, the sky’s the limit in how much you want to terrorize your audience.”