Saturday 14 January 2012

Teaching the Camera to Lie: Amnesia and the First-Person Other

Holmes breathes heavily, his face pressed against the wall. He has been running, running for hours, and now he has resorted to screwing up his eyes and trying not to look at the thing that is chasing him. But the temptation is too great. He slowly peers, behind him – and cries out, for though he never made a sound, Watson is there. Watching.

This chilling effect, while hopefully unintentional, tells us much about what First Person games can do. Watson’s creepy teleportation is possible precisely because so much of the environment is obscured behind the edge of the screen.

In ‘First Person Problems’ we argued that although early developers were attracted to first person because of the limitations it enforced, the rise of the shooter has over-prioritised the accuracy and power it allows. I advocated stepping back and re-examining the possibilities its evolution has left behind. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a game whose developers did just that – illuminating in the constellation of first person’s pros and cons a rarely recognised capacity for subjectivity, and achieving a literary trope not often found in videogames: the unreliable narrator.

Your name is Daniel, and that’s about all you know. Waking up with the mother of all hangovers in a mysterious castle after what was clearly one hell of a party, you set about finding your clothes and working out just who you lost them with last night. You soon learn that you deliberately wiped your own memory to protect yourself from some awful truth, rendering your former self an other in order to quarantine the unthinkable. Unfortunately, it’s 1839, so you can’t just check last night’s photos on Facebook. Instead you collect pieces of your own diary, slowly discovering who you’re supposed to be.

While I am intensely conscious of spoilers here (and would not recommend reading this before playing at least some of the game), it's safe to say that there are no guns. Accuracy never enters the equation. Instead, as in Sherlock Holmes, the borders of the screen become a site of fear and contention – for if it’s the unknown that scares us most then it stands to reason that a horror game should do everything possible to enlarge the unknown’s realm. Trapped in first-person, the player cannot poke the camera round corners to scout ahead or console herself with obvious distance from the protagonist. Most of the world remains dangerously off screen, and you cannot look behind you without creating a new ‘behind you’.

But Daniel is no blank slate: however little you know about him, and however much your perspective overlaps with his, he ensures you are acutely aware of his position as the vector of your experience. Where the intrusive narrators of Rushdie or Nabakov foreground themselves with flashy prose and metafictional noodling, Daniel emits shuddering breaths and gasps of fear contingent on a ‘sanity’ system that makes the battle against his own fears a central mechanic of the game.

Daniel’s sanity quotient falls if he stays in dark areas or encounters scripted shock events, rests when light is present, and only rises when progress is made. Much of the game therefore involves creating areas of light to colonise dark spaces, but limited resources mean you cannot afford to make anywhere completely safe. Although ‘insanity’ does not harm you, it has debilitating effects that could only be so immediate in first person. With continued exposure to darkness and trauma Daniel’s vision starts to cloud with visual artifacts and distort like a surrealist clock. Walls breathe with malevolent life and lice crawl at the corners of your eyes, with the lowest ebbs of sanity leading to severe mouse lag, space-bending, and slow movement. To simulate this experience in other games, enable VSync on a low-end computer and drink half a bottle of whiskey.

Similar (if milder) effects are common when boozing in games like Bioshock, but where those function mainly as easter eggs or incidental nods to the ideal of immersion, Amnesia’s are an omnipresent plague. Incurred by any attempt at progression, they are only staved off by further player action, and so – as in all good horror – the player is forced by her desire for safety to voluntarily risk her own life. In this way the ‘insanity’ referred to in the plot also becomes a fundamental part of your player character, your being-in-the-gameworld (what David Lake calls your imaginary job description). Every move or action will have an effect on your sanity, and instead of being able to take your abilities for granted, as in most FPS games, you are effectively disabled, forced by a protagonist short on spoons to consider every situation in light of his mental health. Madness is your constant companion – a metaphorical counterpart to the “shadow” that follows Daniel from Africa.

So when you find the floor thick with cockroaches that cannot be harmed - when you meet with giant, pulsating walls of flesh, or fountains whose waters slowly turn into blood - when, a couple of hours in, the monsters arrive - it’s natural to wonder if they exist only in your character’s head. Sure, the monsters can kill you – but when you respawn, your accomplishments are not reset, and the monsters have vanished. Sometimes they even disappear from barricaded rooms they could not possibly have escaped from if they were bound by mortal laws. Here, once again, first person works as much by virtue of what it does not show as what it does - confining the effects of insanity to a perspective unified with Daniel’s raises the possibility that a perspective outside his would not see them.

So far the first person perspective has enabled Daniel’s insanity to condition the experience of play. It allows the player to be aware of him as a distinct character while at the same time experiencing his subjectivity; she is is, so to speak, embodied as another. Meanwhile, Daniel’s amnesia neatly closes the gap between the player character and the player herself. For us, compelled to embody him, his slipping sanity is experienced with a sense of self-directed horror: dear God, are we really so frail that we have to hide here in this corner? Did we really see something moving there, or was it a trick of the graphics card? Are we losing our mind? And is our voice acting really that bad? But this is also Daniel’s experience, for by forgetting he has alienated himself from his own identity and from the ruined mind he has to inhabit. He is as perturbed and surprised as we are about what has become of him.

This trope gains sharp prominence in an early flashback sequence, Daniel encounters a mysterious artefact on a podium at the end of a tomb. “I couldn’t look away from it,” he says in appalled voice-over, and sure enough, though the player can look away from this shiny bauble, her camera will inexorably drift back to centre on it. The same device repeats at significant moments, such as the first time you see a monster. A similar effect in the third person would simply constitute film-style ‘framing’, allowing the developers to condition the player’s interpretation of a scene – but by using first person they can dramatize the struggles of a vulnerable consciousness in the grip of an occult obsession.

It is the monsters, however, which produce Amnesia’s most novel use of perspective. The sight of them causes Daniel’s sanity meter to drop like a stone down a darkened shaft, and elicits once again his gasps and grunts of fear. As it turns out, the monsters can hear these too, and so you quickly learn that it’s dangerous to look at them. In ordinary circumstances first-person games have an empiricist bias – problems are solved by looking at them. Amnesia, conversely, makes the player complicit in her own fear by forcing her to repeat Daniel’s self-othering, self-inflicted ignorance and voluntarily look away from danger, sacrificing territory to the encroaching realm of the unknown. The negative space beyond the border of the screen becomes a thing to be wielded as protection, and a glance a freighted act. So we feed the thing that scares us, giving strength to the other by keeping it an other. From the perspective of a developer trying to keep us afraid, this is a neat trick.

I suspect that Amnesia would suffer heavy content degradation on replay. I know now (though I cannot escape my doubts) that certain areas are in fact completely safe. I also know that the consequences of death are relatively minor. Most of the penalties for ‘insanity’ are aesthetic, not ludic, and can probably be ignored by a determined player. Frictional feared this possibility enough that they included a pre-game warning against ‘playing to win’. Beyond that there is always the prosthetic effect common to so many games – that phantom identification that can make us physically jump at a fictional headcrab even though we know it will only sap us of a few health points.

But Amnesia also exploits the first person perspective in a unique fashion. The limitations of its camera create a climate of fear and vulnerability and end up used as a bizarre weapon, while its immediacy ‘embodies’ the player as a character whose delusions can be depicted as real. Just as writers have recognised the capacity of first-person prose to explore subjectivity, Frictional show that first-person games can make a similar shift. It is hard to say whether others can or should follow their example, but if nothing else it proves that the darker paths through any genre have their own pitch-black rewards.

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