When You Can’t Look Away
So first and foremost, I am NOT a horror person. You couldn’t pay me to see a movie about possessed doll or demon box or drowned child tormenting families (well let’s be real I have student loans, are we talking stipend? per diem? hourly?).
Horror, as a genre preys on the helplessness of the main characters. Whether it’s a bunch of horny teens on spring break or a too-good-to-be-true family moving into a sleepy little town, the main characters are always just a cookie-cutter “that could be me” stand-in that puts the audience in a state of suspended tension, where-in they want to seize control of their surrogates and call the police, and start gearing up for war. But all this is passive, you can close your eyes and cover your ears, and the slashing, mauling, and gore will all play out regardless. This is not the case with an emerging genre of video games, horror survival.
Fast-forward to a friend’s birthday party in October, and someone recommends I try Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Since my friends and I were all gathered together, and the timing was right, I decided I’d host a group play of Amnesia for Halloween a few weeks later.
The game’s name, Amnesia, comes from its story-telling mechanics. You wake up in an old English mansion with no immediate clues as to what you should be doing. You find a piece of paper that hints of a disastrous trip to Mexico, and how you’ve been bedridden with illness, taking laudanum to alleviate your pain. This is the first of many notes collected throughout the game that slowly shed like on your character’s history and what’s been going on during your illness.
Your name is Mandus, and you’re a businessman who’s life has been turned upside down. You’re a brilliant engineer and, at the turn of the 20th century have been working toward revolutionizing the world with new machines that could reduce the need for manual labor almost entirely. Your business partner says that there isn’t much time jealous business rivals have taken your children, and you must now make your way down through the basement of your mansion and through the great machines you’ve built to reach your children and rescue them.
As I had mentioned, we were doing this as a group play, so one person man’s the helm while a room full of a dozen people try to backseat drive while they try to figure out some simple puzzling and make our way through Mandus’ mansion. Of course we’re all aware that this is, in fact, a horror game, so around each corner we’re expecting to see the apparitions of these children turn into some horrible banshee and maul our faces off, but that’s where I feel horror-survival games deviate from the horror in most other genres.
You find notes that detail the machines Mandus has created, essentially an assembly line…. For a slaughterhouse. The notes discuss the process of moving “the product” along the different stages of the line. That’s when you realize that the notes are intentionally very vague about “the product.” They weren’t before. In the mansion you would clearly see “pig” but as you descend farther into the bowels of Mandus’ machines the terminology shifts, and suddenly you start wondering why them playing music “helps to calm the product as they enter the line.”
Then you find notes denouncing humanity and their refusal to accept progress in the face of immorality. And that’s when you learn that the machines weren’t meant to replace manual labor they were meant to create a new cheap labor source…
This is when things get interesting, and where you learn a lot about your friends. A good buddy of mine stepped up to the keyboard, and decided that he was above the use of the lantern. ot.
My friend had worked his way into total darkness, so he began flipping the lantern on and off and on and off trying to find his path, until suddenly, out of the darkness, stairs. He rounded the corner, and once he was making his way down, we see IT sprint past the foot of the stairwell, and a room full of what could pass as grown adults all began screaming at the top of our lungs. Everyone was shooting directions “run away!” “keep going before it comes back” “look out” and in all the cacophony, the person at the computer really is frequently paranoid. Even the friend who had me sit down to play Slender admitted “It’s not scary when the monsters run past or jump out at you, what IS scary is a dozen people behind me screaming their heads off like they’re about to die.”
On the other end of that spectrum are your friends who show themselves to be gutless when faced with monsters in the dark. Mind you I am by no means dauntless, but this friend spent his entire level of the game in the crouched position, and I don’t think he ever walked through a doorway that he didn’t have to peak around the corner first. Now that being said, he did step up to play, and while his embarrassed girlfriend kept trying to encourage him with emasculating phrases like “come on, just stand up, don’t be a coward,” she was by no means about to take his turn in the hot seat. I myself (finding humor a good way of dealing with pretty much everything) found that I needed to constantly be making jokes about what I was doing in order to keep that one foot following the other. How could these creations eat me, if I keep laughing about humans not being kosher for pigs?
Now at the time of this writing, and after two different nights of group play, we still haven’t made it to the end of the game, so I won’t be able to spoil it for you, but I can tell you that it makes for a serious bonding experience with your friends. If horror’s your thing, but you’re not much of a gamer, grab your friends who are and see if they’ll step up to the challenge, because I tell you the story is absolutely worth the stress of playing. If you’re a gamer, but horror isn’t your thing, grab your horror-loving friends so that when you scream like a little girl, you might be drowned out by one of them doing the same.