Horror games are a staple game genre, especially once October rolls around. You can instantly tell whether a game is a horror game by certain tropes that they all tend to embody: darkness, limited resources, a coat of grime and rust clinging to everything. Put simply, these tropes come together to for the main purpose of scaring the player. Nowhere do we see the effort towards making a player feel a singular emotion more clearly than in a horror game. But there’s other parts of these games that may become obscured in the process. Silent Hill 2, one of the finest horror games ever made, is also a strong narrative with themes of guilt and denial baked into the very atmosphere of the game. Yes, there’s plenty of scares to be had, but there’s more to these games than scares. It’s just that so many horror games divorce their themes from the scares, creating an experience where the latter is emphasized at the expense of the former. Amnesia: Rebirth falls into this trap, taking a game with strong themes of motherhood, survivor’s guilt, and loss and reducing it to its impotent attempt at scares.
Amnesia: Rebirth is the latest entry in the series that pioneered the modern horror game. You play as Tasi Trianon as she searches for the survivors of a plane crash in a desert in Algeria. Things quickly take a turn for the dark as you’re plunged into a dark cave as your invisible fear meter starts creeping up. To mitigate this, you have to light matches and eventually fuel a lantern to keep the darkness at bay, lest your fear meter max out and you “lose control” of yourself – a lampshaded way of saying that you’re kicked back to an invisible checkpoint. In between fumbling around in the darkness, you occasionally have to solve physics puzzles to advance, but for the most part, the game is about managing your in-game fear and amplifying your real fear at the same time.
But there’s more to the game than its scares. Tasi has amnesia at the start of the game, and as the story unfolds, you and she learn that she’s pregnant and lost a child to illness once before. And as she remembers what happened – that she turned down a bargain from an otherworldly empress to save a wounded party member in exchange for her baby, thus dooming them to turn into ghuls. The ultimate decision she has to face – giving up her daughter to save her from the same disease that killed her sister – colors much of the game’s narrative brewing under the surface, and makes for some impactful storytelling.
The problem is the fact that it is just under the surface, as the surface itself is the scares that are decoupled from the game’s themes. Rebirth uses the same darkness system as the first game in the series, The Dark Descent, but the limitations of such a system are laid bare now that it’s revisited in 2020. If you look at only the gameplay, a fear of the dark is the thing that drives Tasi, and that fear is what contributes to interruptions of progress. There’s no connection between the dark and what Tasi faces internally, and even when you take the darkness mechanic by itself, it still fails, as the amount of visibility you have in the dark is roughly the same as in the light, making the pumping heart and creeping tendrils at the edges of your vision to signify fear and panic ring false.
It didn’t have to be this way. Developer Frictional Games’ previous work, SOMA, carried a thematic weight with everything it did, weaving a tale that evoked existential dread while building on an unfriendly, stressful atmosphere. Everything links together to create a masterwork of games, let alone horror games. The lesson here is clear: Thematic ties to gameplay and narrative is what make the best games classics. Amnesia: Rebirth, meanwhile, feels like two different games stapled together inelegantly and to its detriment.
Horror games too often orient themselves to be about the horror rather than being complete, complex experiences in and of themselves. Games in the horror genre, more than any other classification, warp its content around scares, undermining the storytelling underneath. As Silent Hill 2 and SOMA show, it’s entirely possible to knowingly create a horror game that remains consistent with its themes and tells a compelling story even with the scares. But so much of the horror genre now centers the horror aspect to the point where every other design decision revolves around it. And even when it doesn’t, like in Amnesia: Rebirth, it centers tired horror tropes that hide the fact that there’s an interesting story underneath. Horror is too often used as a crutch with no understanding of how to tell an unsettling story without relying on tropes to cover for the fact that your story has a tenuous relationship to the gameplay and scares.
All this is to say that Amnesia: Rebirth has some interesting viewpoints on motherhood and self-sacrifice that are entirely undermined by that damn darkness mechanic and the need to prove that, yes, it’s a horror game meant to scare you. In reality, horror games should have the confidence to be a good game first and a pillar of the genre second, because it’s the former that truly gets enshrined into the medium’s canon.