Amnesia: The Dark Descent is probably the greatest horror video game ever made. In the video game world the horror niche is dominated by horror/action hybrids. Games like Resident Evil, Doom, Left 4 Dead. Amnesia takes a different approach to gaming terror, and is a first person adventure game, focusing on physics based puzzles and putting a strong emphasis on immersion.
Amnesia sets the mood right from the get-go. The setting is typical horror Gothic: a decaying old castle complete with twisted paintings and suits of armor. The protagonist is a man named Daniel, who awakens on the castle floor with no memory of how he came to be there. He knows his name, that he is from Mayfair, and that something is after him. All he has on his person is a note which tells him that he erased his own memory and that he must travel to the Inner Sanctum of the castle and kill the Baron Alexander. To reach the Inner Sanctum Daniel must explore the castle completely and has to make his way through all sorts of areas such as: dusty libraries, crypt-like archives, a foggy sewer, a few levels of dungeons, torture chambers, and some more mystical areas far underneath the castle proper.
The castle is riddled with rooms featuring
Along the way Daniel finds and picks up tinder boxes, which he can use to light candles and torches throughout the castle. He also has a lantern he can use to traverse dark spaces, but lantern oil is limited so it should be used sparingly. Standing in darkness too long will lower sanity, which causes Daniel's vision to become distorted. Due to the darkness, it is recommended to play the game in a dark room. Not only does this eliminate glare, it also helps to induce immersion, making the player really feel like he's part of the game. I myself played this game in the dark, with surround sound headphones on, and never have I had such a tense experience playing a video game.
The horror is not just to be found in the ambiance either. Daniel does not roam around with a weapon blasting away at monsters. He is alone, and powerless to fight back. This in itself is enough to make the game terrifying, by making the player helpless to truly defend himself. When Daniel encounters something hostile the player must utilize stealth, and sometimes run. Finding a hiding spot is key, and the most Daniel can do to defend himself is to throw something at an enemy, which only serves to slow them down. Some of the game's moments literally had me jumping out of my chair, which is something I can't really say about most video games.
A grotesque fountain.
There are also many nods to Lovecraft to be found in Amnesia. The mad, occult-science that the Baron is a part of, the concept of forbidden knowledge being too much to handle, the idea of other "dimensions" hidden behind the veil of reality, weird archaeology, and even the narrative style, in which the protagonist is slowly unraveling the story and coming to see the truth. The game's engine is even named the HPL engine, as a nod to the master himself.
Fans of horror games who value the horror experience over the action should definitely not miss out on this one. Every aspect meshes for the ultimate horror game experience. The developers, Frictional Games, also have a small trilogy that predates Amnesia and takes place in an abandoned underground facility in uninhabited northern Greenland. The Penumbra series (subtitiled: Overture, Black Plague, Requiem) have also been well received, and although utilizing a cruder version of the physics engine, are still worthwhile for fans of Amnesia.
If anyone has played Amnesia or Penumbra share your thoughts in the comments below.