Flashback to 2012. A friend asks if I want to play Amnesia with her. I’m petrified at the thought of it, but I don’t want to seem like a wimp so I go along with it.
24 hours later we emerge: shaking, triumphant, changed for good. Amnesia‘s tense game of hide and seek provided a thrill of adrenaline like no other I had experienced before, and I was hooked.
But no other game really came close, at least not at that point, so I replayed Amnesia until even the most terrifying moments were so familiar they couldn’t shock me anymore. And then those elements that were so typically Amnesia started turning up in other games.
This story has been updated since its original publication.
On is release in 2010, Amnesia really changed the idea of what horror could be. It wasn’t the first game to do a creeping, tense horror that took your weapons from you – even Amnesia developers Frictional Games had released a similar game before with Penumbra.
But by and large the big hitters of the genres were games like Resident Evil, F.E.A.R and Dead Space, which were more about shooting the scary bad guys than hiding from them. Even psychological horror masterpiece Silent Hill still used combat as a major part of its game design.
Amnesia wrenched weapons from its players hands, taking away even the minute amount of safety they might have offered. It wasn’t the first game to do this, but it was the first to bring that style of gameplay into the limelight through a combination of luck and good game design.
For me, Amnesia‘s biggest game-changer was its sanity meter. While I’m not a great fan of mental health-related terminology being used for horror, the way sanity worked in Amnesia was nothing less than brilliant.
You could lose sanity from two things: standing in the darkness or staring at a monster. The former forces the player to make themselves visible to potential enemies: skulking around in the shadows can cause the character to become momentarily disabled, thus removing it as a low-risk option for navigating the monster-strewn passages.
As for the second, the fact that you can’t look at enemies for too long means that, quite simply, you don’t. This means that, no matter how goofy Amnesia‘s monster designs are (and they are a little goofy when you look at them properly), you never really see more than a menacing dark figure in a hallway, a dark monster shape intent on tracking you down. As is also true in horror movies, the unseen is far scarier than anything that can actually be depicted on screen.
These two things create the perfect storm of terror, allowing player character Daniel’s fear to become yours as you cower in a corner, hearing footsteps nearing but unable to look to check how close they are, slowly losing sanity but unable to move for fear of an excruciating death.
Yet for all the tension it builds, one element a lot of people forget is the fact that Amnesia is actually quite easy. Most players only die rarely, and even in hard sections you’ll likely only die once before you learn to navigate it properly. This is important because frustration is the enemy of fear. Once you’ve replayed a section of a game five, six, seven times and died in each one, you’ll find it hard to reclaim that original feeling of terror down well-trod hallways with now familiar scripted events.
I’m not sure any other game ever really captured this same atmosphere, but the more important fact is: after Amnesia was released, everyone was suddenly trying to.
Amnesia was the surprise hit that suddenly pushed other game devs to try and create new, combat-free horror experiences. In the years since, a number of big hits and influential horror games have been either directly or indirectly inspired by Amnesia, from indie ‘walking sim’ style horror Slender to Outlast‘s explorations of a creepy asylum to Layers of Fear, a mind-bending take on Amnesia‘s creepy house setting.
Even now, eight years on, horror games from indies and AAA and everyone in between are still taking cues from Amnesia, because its formula has one other big advantage: it’s perfect YouTube fodder.
Hey, have you heard of that PewDiePie guy? Even if you don’t follow (or like) his work, the answer is probably ‘yes’. Before Amnesia though? No one would have had any idea who he was.
Amnesia was one of the games that catapulted PewDiePie into popularity, along with various other YouTubers who quickly found that being terrified on screen was the perfect formula for skyrocketing views and subscriptions. Markiplier still refers to Amnesia as “the game that started it all” in regards to his YouTube career.
Back in 2010 and 2011, more people would have watched YouTubers like PewDiePie play Amnesia than would have played it – though Frictional wasn’t entirely losing out in this equation, as it was part of what helped rocket their game into infamy.
Video compilations of Amnesia reactions regularly achieved millions of views, whether they were supercuts of the likes of PewDiePie and Markiplier, or just a random selection of the thousands of people who have terrified themselves in the name of public entertainment. I have to admit, I’ve probably watched this one compilation a couple hundred times myself:
The popularity of this style of video even started an entirely new phenomenon: YouTube bait. This disparaging term refers to games created simply to provide good fodder for YouTube personalities: plenty of jump scares to make them scream, for example.
While opinions may differ on whether the rise of PewDiePie, YouTubers and all its associated culture is a good thing or not, it’s still amazing that one little horror game had such a big hand in it.
The lesser known impacts of Amnesia all happened in the back end, but are a big part of what added to its continuing appeal.
See, Amnesia is more than just a well-designed horror game: it’s a whole game engine, one that encourages users to play, mod and even create entire new games. Welcome to the world of Amnesia Custom Stories and the HPL2 engine.
Frictional Games opened up the engine they developed for Amnesia to their fans, and with it published an in-depth guide to developing in the HPL2 engine on their wiki. With this, players could make ‘Custom Stories’ that could be anything from a short additional scene for the game using all Amnesia‘s assets to a total conversion game with all custom assets.
Through this system, a lot of incredible content was made. Some people chose to create horrifying scenes while still keeping in the spirit of the original game. Some people chose to make full expansions on Amnesia‘s canon story, some built their own games from scratch, while others shamelessly and gleefully made jump-scare packed YouTube bait for their favourite gaming personalities.
The scene exploded, and Custom Stories provided a way for players to keep playing Amnesia long after the appeal of the main game had faded. Some Custom Stories like White Night and Dark Room became almost as beloved as Amnesia itself. One studio even spent two years on a total conversion mod that continued the story of Frictional’s earlier game, Penumbra: this was called Penumbra: Necrologue.
Beyond just being a cool tool, Amnesia‘s Custom Stories inspired other games that eventually made it to the mainstream. The beautiful, narrative-dependent Gone Home was initially made in the HPL2 engine, for example – and you can even play the Amnesia-fied prototype of it yourself.
With so many gamers encouraged to tinker around in Amnesia‘s files and code, I have to wonder how many devs out in the industry now first got their start making Custom Stories on the HPL2 engine.
I don’t think I’m ever going to get over Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was my first horror experience, and still one of the best. But beyond my experience, this little game – one that the devs expected to lose money on – has gone on to impact the games industry beyond just the horror genre.