A few years ago, I finally finished playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, which was the last PC game I owned at the time. After reading reviews and getting recommendations, I ordered three new video games to play on my PC. That was probably one of the best video game orders I ever made. I decided to take a chance on another Bioware RPG called Mass Effect, check out this puzzle game called Portal that people were raving about, and venture into the depths of a game many people were calling the scariest game of all time, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
I love all three games, but today’s topic is Amnesia.
The time of that order was shortly after I had discovered the survival horror genre, and I was jumping at every opportunity to play more. With the glowing reviews and its Lovecraftian air, Amnesia was not an opportunity I could pass up, and I was not disappointed. Reviews are mixed–some people find the game to be boring and overhyped–but I loved it. Amnesia encouraged me to immerse myself in its world rather than view it as a game to beat, and I was more than happy to comply. Other than a few points where I got stuck on puzzles because I’m a moron–and one disappointing afternoon in which I decided to show my friends the scariest game ever made and promptly got stuck on a puzzle in a well-lit room with no monsters–I let myself sink into Daniel’s story as he regained his dark memories and traversed the sinister Brennenburg Castle. I could spend this entire post talking about how delightfully frightening Amnesia was.
But I’m not here to talk about that today–not about The Dark Descent. I’m here to talk about Justine, the free expansion for Amnesia released by Frictional Games as part of the widespread promotion for Portal 2.
Justine is short, a standalone side story with only the slightest of connections to the main game. It also terrifies me more than any other game I’ve ever played. I have not beaten it. I’ve tried several times, but I always die, and more often than not, I then need to take some time to calm down. Some day, perhaps I’ll finally beat it. I start it up from time to time, convinced that this is the time I’ll reach the end. Most recently, however, I launched Justine with a secondary motive: since one of my struggles as a writer is figuring out how to make my writing more frightening, what if I analyzed Justine to see just what about it frightens me so?
Since it’s a video game, there are obviously things that are not going to translate to writing. For example, it begins with a message to the player stating that “Death is final,” which is a more ominous way of saying that if you die, you’ll be starting over from the beginning. In fact, when you die, the entire game exits and returns you to your desktop. The fear of lost progress creates a sort of tension unique to video games, and it undoubtedly contributes to what I feel when I play Justine. It’s not just that the monster will kill me if he catches me, but that he’ll kill me and I’ll have to do it all over again and stack those boxes again and can’t I please make it to the end this time… Visual and audio effects are another thing that can’t be perfectly replicated in writing, but there is something to be learned from them.
While I’ll never be able to make my readers shudder at the howling, gasping sounds that Justine’s monsters make, the fear of the unknown is something that can be played with in all media. Amnesia: The Dark Descent seemed to understand that its monsters would be most frightening when players only had glimpses or hints of their presence, and Justine plays with that as well. Since you can only take a single hit before dying, you’ll want to hide. In doing so, you’ll probably never get a good view of the first monster; you’ll hear his passage as he searched for you, and you’ll see a jerky silhouette departing. The second monster is in a dark room, and once again, you’ll be edging around, trying to keep your distance. This, I believe, was a contributing factor to my horrified reaction when I first saw the third monster head-on. (My reaction, by the way, was along the lines of, “Water! It’s going to be an invisible water monster! I’ll just wait here until it–OHGODTHATISNOTAWATERMONSTERRUN!!!!”)
Hints and glimpses… these are things that work on the principle that the player/reader’s imagination is probably capable of things a whole lot worse than whatever we can come up with. If you show the audience something directly, that will be it, and they can react and adjust. If you just give them horrifying little pieces, their minds will probably fill in the gaps to make it personally terrifying…while also being capable of abstraction and weirdness that can be limited by graphics and words.
Both The Dark Descent and Justine also employ this in the form of audio flashbacks. Personally, I think gore can detract from horror, as too much of it takes the story into “gross-out” territory rather than “fear.” Audio flashbacks such as these have no visuals, so they just imply the gore… and once again, the imagination is horror’s best friend.
Hints and clues also paint the grim backstory for Justine, and Justine herself–talking to you through a series of phonographs–points to its origins as part of the Portal 2 promotion, as she comes across somewhat like GLaDOS, only with far more psychopathy and far less humor. The story underlines everything with the additional horror that it needs.
And what are some of the specific elements my analysis detected, things other than what I’ve already mentioned, the little things that caused the fear effect for me? Well…
- Urgency – the need to escape
- Being lost
- Being chased, or believing you are being chased
- Being lost, while chased, as you’re urgently trying to escape… you get the idea
- Uncertainty – is the monster still there, or has he left?
- Being stalked
- The tiny bits of décor that add to the overall atmosphere, as well as the trace memories of victims
I cannot beat Amnesia: Justine, but I do love it. We’ll come back to this topic someday.
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