Amnesia: Comparison

“More soon”, I said. I’m nearly a week late with this post. Of all the strictures of the Oath, the one about posting within 24 hours of a session is the one most frequently violated, but in this particular case, I’ve been procrastinating to a degree usually reserved for work. I think it has to do with the immense formal similarity between Amnesia and its predecessor, Penumbra: I’m having difficulty coming up with things to say about the former that I haven’t already said about the latter. So let’s focus on the differences here.

The most obvious thing is the premise and setting. Penumbra is set in modern times, in a secret installation under the frozen wastes of Greenland — an approach that’s reminiscent of some of Lovecraft’s stories of primordial horrors lying dormant in places remote and inaccessible until an ill-advised expedition goes poking at them. Amnesia takes a more classical horror route, putting the action in a moldering German castle in the 19th century, where the protagonist went in hope of help escaping a curse destined to kill him. Note that Penumbra‘s premise is automatically one of exploration and discovery, while Amnesia‘s is not. To make it into one, the authors added the amnesia gimmick. Conveniently, this allows for an absolute minimum of exposition at the beginning (especially in contrast to Penumbra, which had an intro cutscene that dragged on a bit). Amnesia is a cliché in adventure games, but that’s because it’s so convenient.

Penumbra was mainly structured as a series of hub areas, each with a number of puzzle-rooms on its periphery. Solving these rooms provided the means to proceed to the next hub area, after which point the passage back collapsed. Amnesia has some similar bits, but they’re not quite the same. In Penumbra, the hubs were where the monsters stalked you. That way, they didn’t have to interfere in your adventure-gaming in the peripheral rooms, where you could catch a breather from constantly running away, but still dread the moment when you’d have to come out and face them again. Amnesia inverts this: the hubs are the peaceful places, the peripheral areas are where the monsters can come crashing out of a side-chamber at any moment. This makes it all the more harrowing when you return to the hub after completing all the puzzles, and find that the walls have started growing fleshy pustules, a sign that the curse is catching up and it’s time to move on.

It’s open to some question just how real such changes to the environment are. As in the second and third chapters of Penumbra, the player character is definitely hallucinating at least some of the time. In Penumbra, it was plot-linked: at specific points in the story, you’d hit a hallucination sequence. It’s more sophisticated in Amnesia: hallucination is conditional on your level of sanity. In addition to the obvious effects that can be applied anywhere — the screen warps queasily and the camera swerves out of your control, you hear voices, at one point I even had imaginary bugs crawling around — there are less obvious things: in one room I noticed a portrait that can appear as either a normal person or a mutated monstrosity, depending on how sane you are when you enter. This makes me wonder what other places I’ve passed through have similar variations, which in turn makes me wonder how wise a technique this kind of variability is. Players will only appreciate it when they know it’s happening.

I suppose the sanity mechanic invites comparison to Eternal Darkness. I haven’t played it, but judging by various Youtube clips, the insanity effects there are in the nature of pranks: something weird happens, like the player character’s head falling off, and after a moment everything goes back to normal. Insanity effects in Amnesia, by contrast, are continuous: once the screen starts breathing, the only way it stops is if you regain some sanity, and the only way that happens is if you make progress in the game. Since the insanity effects are unpleasant to look at, this helps to drive the player forward — my impulse, on seeing my character freaking out, is to find a safe place and sit there until he calms down, but that just doesn’t work. This is more like the sanity mechanic in the pencil-and-paper RPG Call of Cthulhu, where the chief way to regain sanity is to complete an adventure. CoC also has an interesting notion about an inverse relationship between sanity and knowledge: as your Cthulhu Mythos knowledge goes up, your maximum sanity rating goes down. While Amnesia doesn’t seem to have quite the same thing going on, it does seem like the voices and hallucinations you get from madness function, to some extent, as hints about what’s really going on. We learn early on that the protagonist, Daniel, deliberately induced his amnesia for his own protection. Thus, sanity goes hand-in-hand with suppression of knowledge, and a lowering of your mind’s defenses may be the path to regaining lost memories. But it’s still something that you really don’t want to do.

Which brings us to the problem of darkness. Both Penumbra and Amnesia give you limited light sources, but running out of lamp oil in Amnesia is a more serious matter than running out of flashlight batteries in Penumbra, partly because in Penumbra you could always revert to your infinite glowstick (which, I’ve argued, was a better light source anyway), partly because wandering around in the darkness in Amnesia eats at your sanity (sometimes with audible crunching). You can save on lamp oil by lighting stationary candles and lamps, using up your limited supply of tinderboxes instead. This can be worthwhile if you think you’re going to be spending some time searching a place, or revisiting it later — an element of planning that was absent from Penumbra‘s more diverse but shallower array of lights.

Now, both games have monsters that you need to hide from, and which have a harder time finding you in the dark. Escaping such a creature is a simple matter of turning off your light, crouching behind something, and waiting for the background music to indicate that it has gone away. But in Penumbra, that’s all there was to it, whereas Amnesia has the complication of sanity loss. Ideally, you want to flee into a room with a nice opaque door and a candle you can light. Such rooms are not always available. In fact, if you’ve been overdoing it with the tinderboxes, there might not even be a dark corner to crouch in.

And ultimately, you’re going to wind up wasting a lot of oil and/or tinder by blundering around the same areas trying to find what you’ve missed. Penumbra helpfully posted maps on the walls of its hub areas, helping the player explore thoroughly and plan routes to avoid the monsters. The thing is, by allowing you to feel like you know what you’re doing, aids of this sort work against the sense of nervousness. Areas in Amnesia have simpler layouts than in Penumbra, but you have to figure them out on your own, wasting valuable resources as you do so. You inevitably feel like you’ve wasted more than you should have — the game’s opening screens explicitly discourage save-scumming, so even if you reload and optimize, you’re going to feel like you’re doing it wrong. Well, there’s a close connection between fear and guilt, and some of the most effective horror games play on that. I’m thinking in particular of Silent Hill 2, but also Penumbra to some extent, particularly after Red’s death. Amnesia is beginning to look like it’s venturing into that territory as well.

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