Narrative Breakdown – Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Amnesia’s narrative can be boiled down to an interactive Poe/Lovecraft short story and that wouldn’t be doing it a disservice. All the elements are there and if you’re going to crib from a particular style, it’s hard to go wrong with that one, given you do a proper job of it and avoid the all-too-easy pastiche traps. It’s simply a matter of well managed tone and Amnesia is nothing if not an eight hour experience in tightly controlled tone within a video game.
What struck the most in Amnesia’s narrative side was how well the game manages to establish and maintain parallels between its story and the gameplay itself. Imagination and implication are the cornerstones of success for this sort of horror. Too much information makes the eventual reveals of the nature of things too easy or too obvious. These stories are meant to be somewhat incomplete and thrive on leading the reader or player along with questions and half-understood ideas. With such a fragmentary delivery of the story, each diary or flashback audio trigger is a welcomed clue to the mystery. Amnesia earns the right to ‘get away with’ the collecting of audio logs, because it was built with that delivery in mind. They aren’t bonus pieces of the script, but the main through-line.
This minimalism in story telling matches Amnesia’s gameplay, or lack thereof. The game is built around the idea of the playing being disempowered, of having a very limited set of abilities. You can run, sneak, move things, and adjust lights. You’re so limited that actions that would be rote in other games are accomplishments. Though Amnesia’s story is ultimately no mind-blowing tale, the game draws a lot of mileage out of very little through judicious pacing and leaving much unsaid for as long as possible. These limits serve to emphasize what the game and story choose to present.
The parallels go deeper and serve to carry the game through its entire length. After the halfway point, the game naturally stops being quite as scary and unnerving as the player becomes accustomed to the various tricks and cues. It’s less about fear and more about tension and occasional encounters with the resident monsters of Brennenburg Castle. But as the environment of the game loses some of its original bite, the horror of the underlying story comes to the fore, recasting the character you’re guiding through the castle. The player becomes emboldened just as Daniel is fully remembering his part in all the horrible actions in the depths of the castle. As you progress through Amnesia, your amnesia wears off. You’re desensitized to what you see (to an extent, there are certainly some deeply uncomfortable areas and scenes in the back third), and much of your earlier trepidation and fear have been replaced by resolve, if not outright enthusiasm, to continue. The castle, while still containing horrifying things, becomes familiar just as you realize that Daniel is just as much of a monster as the stitched-up creatures that occasionally hunt you.
You’ve spent so much time running from the Shadow, scrapping together hints, and walking through utter darkness, that you only notice you’ve accepted the darkness into yourself when it’s too late to turn back. Like Daniel, the player must see this horror through to its end and damn the consequences.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s story rise above its heavily inspired roots by having the narrative and gameplay mirror and complement each other. Its integration into the player experience, while never becoming overbearing, makes the game’s story a rousing success.