I love horror, but I’ve often taken issue with the methods that many first-person horror games use to try to frighten their players. Many developers seem to think that being completely helpless is scary. It isn’t. Being mostly helpless is.
The kind of game that completely disempowers the player rose to prominence in the last decade and change, emerging out of the indie space. To be clear, there are some great spooky games that are made by small teams or even solo devs. Paranoihell, which I was reviewing as the pandemic swept across the United States in March of 2020, is a personal favorite of mine that manages to be genuinely eerie despite having a presentation style that we tend to think of as being opposed to immersion: pixel art graphics and a top-down perspective.
No, I’m mostly thinking of games like Layers of Fear, Outlast, Close to the Sun, Conarium, Those Who Remain, and Maid of Sker. I always feel like I should like these games. I love walking simulators like Gone Home, with which they share a lot of DNA. But this strain of indie horror has a frustrating tendency to get rid of the combat that gives structure to triple-A horror like Resident Evil, while neglecting to fill the vacuum with anything else. Instead of shooting at your enemies, you can only run and hide, and that quickly becomes both boring and frustrating.
That isn’t the case in Amnesia: The Bunker, a terrific horror game that was largely overlooked when it launched back in June. Developer Frictional Games is better at this than just about anyone else in the horror space, and that was clear in its breakout game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Published in 2010, The Dark Descent handled low-budget horror significantly better than the vast majority of the games that have followed in its footsteps — mostly because it actually gave you something to do.
In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you had a torch you needed to keep lit to keep the darkness at bay. You scoured the environments for oil and matches to keep light sources burning, and strategically navigated through the shadows to reach safe patches of light. It gave you agency and a way to protect yourself. It wasn’t a weapon, but it was mechanically rich enough, and the exploration was rewarding enough, that you didn’t feel like your only verbs were “run” and “hide.”
Amnesia: The Bunker, similarly, gives you ways to fight back. It gives you a gun, but that gun is more of a tool more than a weapon. It isn’t sufficient for taking on the beast that roams the titular underground fortress. But, you can use it to temporarily stun it, or pop a grenade rigged to a door from a safe distance, or break a padlock. The game gives you grenades, too, which you can use to fight back or clear paths. But those, similarly, can’t permanently kill the monster in the walls.
Each tool in Amnesia: The Bunker walks the knife’s edge between help and harm. Fire your gun and the monster will hear it and come running. Your flashlight has a pull cord like a lawn mower, and pulling it makes a loud grinding noise which, you guessed it, brings the beast right to you. You can chuck a grenade to open a locked door, but it might do damage to the electrical system in that corridor, leaving you in darkness, which, once more, means the light-fearing beast is more likely to come after you.
Balancing all of those concerns is difficult and the stress of wondering if you’re doing the wrong thing (or are about to do the wrong thing) is part of what makes the game affecting. Running and hiding may be scary a few times, but you know what’s actually terrifying? Choice. Amnesia: The Bunker skimps on graphics to bring you more of it. It doesn’t look next-gen, but Frictional has essentially crafted a horror immersive sim. It’s like if Mr. X was stomping around while you attempted to play a Dishonored level. That’s terrifying, and it’s as scary as it is because you have something to do.
NEXT: Amnesia: The Bunker Review – Bricking It In The Bunker