I’ve been doing a lot of Halloween thinking lately, and it isn’t just because of the calendar. A ton of genre-appropriate videogames have been launching lately, so if you like horror games you have plenty of new options.
Perhaps the biggest horror game of the season is Amnesia: Rebirth, a current-gen sequel to a classic PC title, boasting a return from the original dev studio. I’m new to Amnesia, but have been playing Rebirth and it really gets my gears turning.
Horror comes in all kinds of different forms. Scary is different depending on whoever you’re talking to, and folks making media in this space are always trying new things. I can’t speak to what Amnesia: Rebirth has in common with the games before it, but I can say that this game has a very specific style of horror.
Rather than rely on things like oppressive atmosphere or kinetic jump scares, Rebirth’s most intense moments come from antagonizing you as a player. Amnesia: Rebirth doesn’t bring a whole lot new to the table, largely evoking Lovecraft-style cosmic horror, ancient occult practices and some parental trauma on top of that.
It’s also more or less a survival horror, giving you limited resources, very few (zero) ways to defend yourself, and a bunch of nonsensical puzzles gating progress. These are all familiar concepts and tropes, but as I alluded to above there’s a more specific trick Amnesia: Rebirth pulls to catch you off-balance.
How Amnesia: Rebirth Turns Frustration Into Fear
The most videogamey aspect of Amnesia: Rebirth is that light is safe, and darkness kills you. Previously a “sanity” thing but now more appropriately labeled “fear,” your character doesn’t take damage, but gradually loses their grasp on reality and succumbs to the eldritch horrors chasing her.
So as the player, your job is to scurry around from safe spot to safe spot, and use your limited supply of matches or lamp oil to create your own. And it’s here that the game uses that external force to influence your participation or attachment to the fiction.
It’s pretty hard to actually “lose” in Amnesia: Rebirth. It’s pretty generous when it comes to how long it takes for the darkness to get you, and most of the time you’re able to take your time solving puzzles. You aren’t always alone, but the game’s more interested in reminding you rather than showing you. Most of the time your only true physical threat are pockets of darkness where lanterns and candles can’t reach.
You’re never truly in danger of hitting that fail state for the most part, but where Amnesia: Rebirth succeeds is forcing you to constantly face the possibility. You constantly have to step into darkness on purpose, and the fear UI pulses loudly and seeps into your field of view from all directions.
It’s physically uncomfortable to be in the darkness, as even outside of the game your senses are being attacked.
The real juice behind Amnesia: Rebirth’s fear of frustration is how matches work. You’ll be finding little packs of matches all over the place, usually giving you two or three of the little fire sticks. If you’re caught in the dark, lighting a match will keep you afloat, but only for a few seconds.
Meanwhile, you’re warned that moving too quickly will kill your fragile flame, and you see the fire climb up the tiny piece of wood in your character’s hand and leave ash behind. And if you didn’t find anything to do with the match and didn’t escape the dark, all you can do is light another one.
Most of the time, you can find a use for a match. You’ll come across hanging lanterns, oil lamps, candles, torches, anything you can imagine that wasn’t introduced after 1937. Depending on where you are in the game, these light devices vary wildly in usefulness, from key areas to spots that are no help besides giving you a moment to collect yourself. In some indoor puzzle areas, you’re practically running through a checkerboard of light and shadow.
You usually have enough matches to get where you need to be, but you’ll never know that until you’re on the other side. You never feel like you have enough, especially if you mess up and waste a match. And when it comes to finding more? It’s a scavenger hunt, sometimes in the dark. And you really have to work to find them.
Matches will be hidden in drawers, on the floor, on surfaces you can hardly see, and even inside random jars. That sounds easy, but keep in mind the darkness hurts you the second you touch it.
If you’re in need of matches, you’re almost always having to scramble around in dark rooms. It’s a race to find at least one match, and then at least one device to use it on so you can have a safe zone. But you’re never truly safe, because there are several traps you can run into. Candle-holders don’t always have candles, and if it’s dark it’s hard to see that.
Some lanterns will just stay on, while others will quietly go out once you turn your back. Every now and then a malicious gust of wind punishes you for getting too comfortable. The best example of this is the fort you find after the prologue, which is also the game’s first major puzzle.
It has that exact “checkerboard” structure I nodded to earlier, with lights littered through hallways but spread far enough apart to leave pockets of darkness between them. There are rooms that don’t have anything in them but a pack of matches, and some that have nothing whatsoever.
There’s a huge mess hall with a trick light, tons of space between the good lights and match pickups, and the whole thing has strategically locked doors throughout. And this is all on top of the structure’s main puzzle. At first, you don’t get time to even digest what the puzzle is.
You’re forced to make your way around the area in a constant race to navigate obstacles and use the matches you find efficiently. And while you’re here you’re still getting used to how the game handles, what the limits of light are, and how much danger you’re actually in. It’s stressful,confusing, and most im[portantly frustrating.
I felt like I wasn’t having fun, and that Amnesia: Rebirth was almost janky in its Placement of Things. But soon I realized that I was constantly moving, grabbing and throwing around whatever I could, power-walking to candles and mashing that use button to try and get that last moment of light set before the match went out.
All the while, noises reminding me I wasn’t in this building alone constantly, but inconsistently, poked at me from behind. Outside of that, there wasn’t actually much happening inside Amnesia: Rebirth as a game. I was just running around and picking stuff up, turning on lights, and solving a puzzle.
There was never actually a real threat until the end of the sequence, and looking back the layout was usually pushing me in the right direction to solve the puzzle. But it was the light spots, the looting mechanics, the physical functions of the matches themselves, that made the horror game a horror game.
I was forced to engage with the system’s on the game’s level, forced to concentrate, forced to let my guard down for when the occasional traditional scare popped out.
Amnesia: Rebirth uses its restrictive measures to fuel its horror, far more than say, limited bullets in a Resident Evil. It attacks your senses, it attacks your expectations, it attacks your attention to detail, and it attacks your patience. It’s in this way that Amnesia: Rebirth is able to make an otherwise familiar collection of genre staples effectively tilt even jaded horror buffs like myself.
It’s in this way that Amnesia: Rebirth leverages frustrating you, as the person holding the controller, to get you falling for tricks you would’ve brushed off elsewhere.