Can Horror and Art Coincide? A Close Reading (Playing) of Amnesia: the Dark Descent


Having asked whether games lie within the realm of art, it can be said that a game is capable of “doing art” particularly if it inspires or affects the one evaluating it. But can we say that a survival horror game engenders this emotional catharsis in the same manner as other game genres? I ask this because the genre is comparably different from RPG or strategy games in that it is defined less by its set up and more by the specific effect it is meant to have on the players, i.e. its ability to make them scream.

That being said, we need to recognize what elements of a game must be “scary enough” to make it a survival horror. Even games like Skyrim and BioShock have their scary moments (some will argue that the latter does belong in this genre—that’s up to personal interpretation), but do they measure up to the caliber of games such as Silent Hill? According to Leigh Alexander, a columnist for, classic survival horrors like those in the Resident Evil series have focused less on the fear factor and more on combat over the years. In her opinion, a game that employs the “Don’t Fight Just Run” tactic is more frightening than one that uses heavy arsenals to attract consumers. Frictional Games employed this tactic in its creation of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and its subtleties are up for analysis in this blog post.

orb screenshot

This first person horror experience stars Daniel, who wakes up in a Prussian castle after drinking an eponymous amnesia potion that causes him to forget everything but his own name and hometown. Daniel reads a note from his former self that instructs the audience to kill an evil man named Alexander who lurks below the castle. We have no idea why he would have done this to himself or why he would want a man to be killed, but this sense of mystery is what sustains your motivations in the hope that they will soon uncover something of an explanation.

A game that victimizes its hero is distinctly apart from what is typically demanded of games in the current gaming era. Because many expect to have nearly unlimited defense systems at their disposal, Daniel’s helplessness makes Amnesia a novelty in the industry. Though the idea cannot be considered entirely new, especially when compared to older horror games like Clock Tower, this alteration in character roles could explain Amnesia’s success and why it is often perceived as one of the scariest games out there.


(Note: This video has lots of cursing, but it’s very funny)

The gameplay of Amnesia garners fame for its penetrating vulnerability, given that the only so-called “weapons” you are equipped with are a lantern and tinderboxes that provide light in the darkness to stave off your all-consuming insanity. It is imperative to keep your insanity level down because, if left unchecked, it gradually distorts your sight and ability to walk normally. Being overcome with insanity is particularly unfortunate when facing the disfigured monsters that patrol the castle. Staying in illuminated areas and solving the puzzles that allow you to move on will keep you sane, but that’s much easier said than done. Just looking at the monsters will force your sanity to plummet, thus making it a challenge to know if the coast is clear. Turning on your lantern, rather than providing a buffer, only makes you an easy target. Frictional purposefully created these contradictory rules to guarantee that the terrifying atmosphere of Amnesia is prevalent at all times.

Aside from the lack of weaponry, several other factors contribute to the overall anxiety when proceeding through the game. The music, for instance, interacts with your situation and prompts you when your safety is at risk. The game designers added frequent groaning noises to the soundtrack of several levels, thus forcing you to constantly wonder if they are sounds uttered by nearby creatures waiting to lash out with their claws. If one listens closely, the background music might also indicate when enemies roam nearby; in the presence of an adjacent monster you’ll find that the music shifts dramatically from one of uncomfortable creaks to intense screeching that warns you that you are being chased.  This effect produces an overwhelming wash of relief when you have successfully eluded a monster.

grunt pic

The pace at which Daniel moves must be considered when analyzing the game’s efficacy. It is important to note that his speed increases when being stalked by a monster. Daniel’s normal running pace is rather slow, but when danger arises he will sprint for as long as you need him to. This way, Daniel moves just quickly enough to escape a monster as long as you do not submit to hesitation, but in moments when running ceases to be necessary he keeps you on edge with a slower pace. This greatly increases the interactivity of the controls with your surroundings, and fully immerses the player into the game. This is a much more effective method than, say, the speed utilized in Slender. Parsec Productions made their character so agonizingly slow that it could be considered unrealistic. If a murderous enemy chases you, you are forced into running. Amnesia, on the other hand, displays a pace effective in demonstrating how someone would actually react when consumed by fear.


A close read of every note reveals the coexistence of several plot lines. Even the diminutive bits of text placed on loading screens introduce a character completely unmentioned in the main plot of the game: Hazel, Daniel’s sister. Depending on whether or not you make generous decisions that demonstrate a will to help others, Hazel will either die in childhood or be saved from death by Daniel to live to an older age. However, the actions that change this plot line display a brand of subtlety so delicate it is difficult to determine what decisions are capable of the slightest plot alterations.  A majority of players fail to acknowledge this facet of the game, so perhaps the designers added this as a kind of reward for those who  pay due attention to the written material.

Can Amnesia be considered a work of art? Its ability to draw and thrive on the reactions of those who interact with it seems to place it within the realm of other artistic works.  Though it fails to produce the sentimental feeling that most “art-games” are known for, it does the purpose for which it was created a great amount of justice.


External sources for pictures: 1/2/3

  4 comments for “Can Horror and Art Coincide? A Close Reading (Playing) of Amnesia: the Dark Descent

  1. Anthony Seippel
    February 14, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I would certainly say Amnesia is a work of art considering the guidelines you laid down. Watching the let’s play video had me jumping more than once, and that was with the person freaking out to the point of laughable hysteria and in spite of the fact that I was not actually playing it myself. I would furthermore agree that it was the sound design that attributed greatly to this as my fear, and when I was truly scared, was not when I would see the monster, as much as when I would hear its roar of recognition of your presence coupled with the frantic music that would play during its pursuit.The monster itself wasn’t even that scary, but these sound aspects made it terrifying. I would also agree that the pacing of it aided in that terror in a way that is lost on games like Slender. So overall I would say that Amnesia is very much art.

  2. jaustin
    February 14, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I must agree with Anthony in thinking that it is a work of art, just because of how the creators put so much energy in making it seem real like the fact of how fast he is running or how if he stays still for too long he starts to get dizzy and unaware. Adding these little details normally would not seem to an average player like it is a big deal but in fact that is a big change in how someone views a game. As you said, in Slender the running is unrealistic and that only give the one real option of running away. I think that when creators add more realistic things such as the speed of running or how the visual aspect like the dizziness instead of the actually pixels of the game. It makes the game feel more like a work of art instead of a game because then I could better relate to it. I have never actually played this game and after watching the guy play it I think I would like to see how it is (even though I get scared easily). I wonder if it is really that scary or if he just gets scared easily. I could not judge the game fully on the content just because I have not played it before so I am not sure how it is exactly. On the other hand, I think that since having the ability to scare someone and making it get someone genuinely scared, and not have the player just quit then and that is art in my opinion.

  3. Savannah
    February 14, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you guys for commenting! To answer jausten’s question: yes, this game is that scary. I can’t speak for everyone though, because you’ll find just as many Amnesia trolling videos as you find freak-outs like this on YouTube. It’s a great game, though, so definitely try it out! And I appreciate what Anthony said about how the monsters aren’t all that scary (frankly, I think they’re kind of cute), but the unsettling music doesn’t make you want to stick around. Great to have some input!

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