Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Restraint? Constraint?

I'm ashamed because I haven't written about Amnesia: The Dark Descent yet. Simply, it's god damn fantastic. You should go buy it. Right now. I'll unreservedly say it's the most terrifying game I've ever played. Yes, even more than System Shock 2 or Silent Hill 2. There may be sections of other games that are more intense (i.e. Thief 3's Shalebridge Cradle level), but as a whole experience, nothing has distressed me like Amnesia. We're talking literally heart pounding, ragged breathing, sweating emotional response. It's astonishing.

And what's even more astonishing is that Frictional pulls this off by doing almost nothing at all. Amnesia demonstrates a masterful amount of restraint. Or perhaps the constraints of their very small team of five forced this minimalism. The thing is, it doesn't matter. Intentionally or not, Frictional turned a potential weakness into a tremendous strength.

Case in point, Amnesia only has three animated characters in the entire game. And believe me, it's more than enough. At first, you're just hearing noises in nearby rooms that send you scurrying back down dark hallways. Maybe you'll catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye. You think, "Dear god, what was that?!" but honestly, you really want to find out. It's hours before you're in the same room as one of these things and even then, you're immediately sprinting the other way, desperately tipping tables and slamming doors behind you. In nearly any other game, this limited palette of enemies would seem anemic. In Amnesia, it's more than sufficient.

Minor spoilers ahead. It's for a section relatively early that's also in the demo, but just in case, you've been warned.

Frictional takes this even one step further and has two sections where the enemies are fully invisible. You're in a flooded tunnel and all you can see are splashing footfalls in the water charging toward you. As a developer, I'm somewhat shocked at the audacity! No model, no texture, no rig, no animations. It's just an invisible physics object, dead-simple AI and some sound. That's it! But again, it works so, so well, you can't help but admire it. It's absolutely terrifying and was probably really cheap to make.

Again, I can't say if it was intentional or not, but clearly Frictional is embracing their constraints here. Rather than expending the resources getting the full asset treatment for another creature, they just made one invisible in an environment that not only supports, but wholly augments the experience. And this kind of beautiful (and horrifying!) minimalism runs throughout the game. Amnesia has some of the best sound design I've heard (apparently so too does Dead Space, maybe it's a horror game thing?), creating an atmosphere that seeps tension without ever needing to show a single thing. The levels might be a little small if you were blasting through them full-tilt in a shooter, but Amnesia's slow, deliberate gameplay makes them seem far too large for comfort.

This kind of restraint is essential for good horror. [REC] might be the best horror movie I've seen and it demonstrates very similar minimalism. It's presented in first person (the story is told through a late night news program) and features a lot more scared people talking than traditional "scary" moments. But those moments are brutal, fast and intense. And the movie is only 78 minutes long! But honestly, it doesn't need to be a second longer. And if Amnesia has any shortcomings it's that a few bits could probably have been trimmed down without harming the game at all. If anything, it might have made it even more tense.

Minor quibbles, however. Not only is Amnesia a fantastic game, but it shows exactly how successful a team can be if they embrace their constraints and find ways to turn those into tremendously powerful tools. Go get Amnesia, kill your lights and turn up your speakers. There's a lot to learn, if you can see through the fog of terror the game produces.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the minimalism in Amnesia works especially well because of its relation to imagination. (I would have a thing or two to say about the puzzle-solving aspect too, but that's unrelated)

I can’t exactly pinpoint how it works, but basically, I would say that minimalism makes room for imagination. It has a strong evocative power.

In Amnesia, lots of things are left unknown and unseen (invisible monsters, limited light, etc.). I think that’s part of what makes it work: the unknown is much scarier than all the gore you can put in a game!

Maybe that’s where games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Clock Tower sometimes fall short. What you see may be terrifying, but it’s nothing compared to what you can imagine. It’s just like the creature in a horror movie: it’s only scary until you see it.

November 18, 2010 at 11:50 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Hugo Absolutely. The scariest thing someone imagines is much, much scarier than anything you can create. But if you setup the right atmosphere, you can just offload all that work onto the player's subconscious and create a much better experience at the same time.

The crackling proximity radio in Silent Hill is actually a brilliant move, because it increase the player's interaction with any enemy substantially and actually provides them with a mechanism for not seeing the monsters. It seems like a small thing, but it's actually a really good mechanic.

November 19, 2010 at 10:47 AM  

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