Twelve million, five hundred fifty thousand, eight hundred twenty-one blocks away, if you want to get technical about it. The name comes from the distance a player must travel in Minecraft to reach ‘The Farlands.’ This is a place where the mathematical rules that control the rendering of the land break down, resulting in spontaneous, foreign, alien features. On top of that, movement becomes aligned to a grid, meaning that the algorithms that smooth out player movement also collapse. Everything feels laggy, although it isn’t. At roughly thirty-two million blocks from the starting point, the variables storing the player’s position overflow. If the game didn’t freeze and crash long before then, the player would likely cease to exist. Such is the ominous nature of the Farlands.

I adopted this name for two reasons. Firstly, the Farlands represent a point at which a game is no longer a game. Defining characteristics are erased, strange and spontaneous problems arise, and things fall apart. In the case of the Farlands, this is caused by events outside of the player’s perception, i.e. the programming and fine-tuning of aesthetics. I adopt this name because, in this blog, I will not simply be reviewing games. I will be picking them apart, defining what about each game makes it a game, and what parts of it fail to meet its own criteria (When it is no longer a game, so to speak.). I will pull apart the inner workings of, not only the aesthetics of the game, but also the psychological effects it has on the player (These would be the ‘events outside of the player’s perception.’). In my reviews, I seek to find the ‘Farlands’ of every game, as well as the reasons behind them.

This is not a video game review blog. This is an insight into the psychological connection and philosophical implication between gaming and the human mind.

For those who are curious, the second reason I chose this name is because Minecraft is pretty fantastic. And I like obscure references to things.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Amnesia - The Dark Descent

Since we’re on the topic of horror games, let’s jump to one of the more ‘traditional’ titles. While Amnesia appears to be your everyday zombies-in-the-dark kind of game, it is rather far off. The uniqueness of this, which is why it is appearing on my blog, comes from the fear of implication. The number of times you actually encounter the sentient creatures that seem to stalk you can be counted on one hand. The rest is because you think something is after you.

For the parallels between the style of fright and the game itself to be seen, I will explain a bit of the storyline. The character, Daniel, has drugged himself so that, for whatever reason, he cannot remember anything from his past. He only leaves himself with a note, telling him that he needs to kill a man named ‘Alexander.’ The reason for all of this, as will be explained by more notes the character left himself, is a mysterious orb. It contains untold power, yet causes demons and shadows to follow him, trying to kill him.

As you can see, the self-induced amnesia, combined by the paranoia of death around every corner, now mixed with the prospect of killing a man, will certainly make the character completely terrified of the dark, and his sanity probably isn’t stable.

This is the selling point of the game: Sanity. If you remain in the dark for too long, the walls start to ebb and flow, creepy, demonic voices and sounds seem to come from all around you, and, if you can’t get to a light, you will collapse and presumably die. The only real danger throughout the game is an absence of light, which can be fixed anywhere there’s a candle or oil lamp. There are a few areas where you have to sneak around zombie-esque creatures, but aside from those rare occurrences, the rest of the incredible fear is simply pure psychology.

My first run through the game, I couldn’t play for more than an hour or two at a time because the feeling of insanity seeping from the game made me paranoid of everything. Right before I would stop playing, I would be hiding in cover in any room with a light, treating it as a safe haven. When I finally left the room ten minutes later, it was in a frantic sprint to the next room, looking every single direction, and then lighting another candle as soon as I found one.

Of course, the only real dangers are simple puzzles. The rest, as previously stated, is just bogus. The necessity for light and the fear of failure naturally makes every bunch of candles, every lamp and lantern, into a safe haven. It gives the player a natural drive towards light, and, consequently, away from darkness. This is spurred on by the distortions to the surroundings and the threatening sounds of the shadows. I’ve noticed that, when going insane, the creatures can be seen in the distance. It is a terribly frightening image, and with the walls closing in and the sounds of rattling chains getting closer, death feels inevitable. This makes the frantic desire for light even stronger, making darkness seem even more threatening in comparison. Next time the player is left in darkness, the already strong fear is then expanded again by the melting walls and screaming ghouls, sending them back to the cover of light. It is essentially a vicious cycle that makes the shadows seem more and more threatening, the light more and more beckoning, and it is this reason that extended amounts of playtime are so difficult.

But none of the threats are real. The zombies only exist in the mind of insanity. A slamming door, although startling (and is certain to cause some entertaining moments of berserk fear), is still just a door that is now closed. A zombie that attacks whenever you touch the water is simply a recreation of the “the floor is made of lava” games we have all played as children. On its most basic level, the player must go through a fairly simple maze. If it gets dark, light a candle. There is really nothing more to it than that.

Amnesia is one of the few horror survival games that really stick out because, even as I write, repeatedly, that the game isn’t really dangerous or scary or anything more than a maze, I’m thinking “this isn’t true at all.” The psychological tools of recreating pure dementia work so beautifully with this game that it efficiently convinces any who play it that they will die. The cycle of “light is good, dark is bad” that builds into “light is heaven, dark is instant death” makes everything more and more menacing the more the game is played. Even on my second time through, this cycle still completely snagged me, and even though I know there is no harm, I can’t play it for long.

This game is a haunted house. While there is rarely any chance of harm, the illusion of harm makes it impossible to believe that. However hostile this game will seem, it can’t hurt you. It’s all in your head. Amnesia is a game that is played out within your own mind. The more it is played, the deeper into your mind the fear and horror gets lodged. Sooner or later, you will leave. Then you’ll remember that there aren’t really any difficulties in the game, nothing trying to kill you, and you’ll go back for more.

The game will keep calling you back for more.

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