A Brief on Horror Narrative and Amnesia (Halloween Special, Part 2 of 4)

So, in an effort to do something special for the spookiest of all seasons, I decided to write a few pieces this month about a few of the horror games that currently litter my backlog. I started a bit back with Sanitarium, and since then, I have started Last of Us, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and SOMA, trying to find the game I want to play next. Unfortunately I haven’t made enough progress in any of them to write a full review. And while I will at some point, while I was playing the first couple of hours of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I was struck by the amnesia aspect of the game, and I can’t help but feel like I may be dealing with a stupid main character. Essentially, I’ve been left with a simple question: what possible reason can he have for intentionally erasing his memories?

Now, I am well aware that this question will probably be answered in the later hours of the game, and I’m okay with that. But, as someone who crafts narratives, I’m finding this whole thing a little incredulous here at the beginning. My character clearly has a hard-on of hate for this Alexander fellow, and he’s being stalked by the shadow monster guy. Both of these things seem like pretty important reasons to remember the shit that has led to this point.

Regarding Alexander, a note I find early in the game, written by myself pre-amnesia, sets up the primary conflict of the story: I need to make my way to the inner sanctum of the castle and kill Alexander. But, why? At this point in the game, I don’t know him from Adam. Why do I want to kill him? More importantly, if I do have such a strong motivation to kill him, why would I remove the memories that inform that motivation? Without those memories, don’t my desires for revenge or whatever lessen?

It feels similar to Bioshock, which used a similar device to direct your main character into the heart of Rapture to confront Andrew Ryan. Hopefully, like Bioshock, there’s a payoff as the game progresses. I know Amnesia received a ton of accolades when it was released, so I’m going to assume there’s something to that.

Where I’m really confused is the other aspect here, the literal monster in the room. So, as I’m making my way through this castle, this monster keeps showing up, and I have to hide. I jump in a cupboard here and there, or I run into a room and close the door. My ultimate question is this: Our sense of fight or flight is inherently shaped by past experiences, so why would I put myself at such a disadvantage as to completely erase everything I know about the monster itself? While I can see some sort of story elements that may satisfy my issues with the Alexander thing, this is an issue for which I literally can’t imagine a satisfying resolution.

Again, I understand that this will probably be answered in some capacity throughout the game. And I also understand that horror, as a genre, requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer for any of the horror to work. However, a horror story has to meet the viewer halfway if it hopes to establish any sort of transactional relationship. As a viewer, I have to buy in to the premise in order for the horror to work, but likewise, the story has to give me something to conceivably buy into to lay the groundwork for immersion.

Sanitarium is a great example of this. Like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Sanitarium opens with a character waking up with no memories of where he is or how he got there. Almost immediately, the character finds a tape that explains that he was in a car accident, and while the game doesn’t outright state the accident has caused the memory loss, there’s enough implied for the player to make a logical leap. And while the memory loss wasn’t actually caused by the car accident in the end, none of that actually matters. There’s enough groundwork laid by these early actions to engage my desire to find out more. And that is enough to push me forward.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent hasn’t done that yet, but I have hope that it will. Even so far, there have been a few flashbacks here and there, dribbling out bits and pieces of the mystery. We’ll just have to see if it gives me more. Otherwise, I’m going to find it very hard to play the sequel, which is also on my backlog.

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