Gone Home v. Amnesia: Lessons in Player Agency

For a solid year plus I’ve been playing only one video game: Spelunky. But lately I’ve been warming up to a few other games, near opposites of the hard and fast game-systems-create-player-stories style that I’m mostly obsessed with.

The first was Gone Home. I loved it. It was scary! Traipsing through the home had me engaged and tense early on and that later gave way to a beautifully rich world pieced together in my mind. Even when I knew that the books on poltergeists and spooks were just books, the setting and subtext of a “game” had me on edge in the right way. There was always possibility. “What’s behind the door?” “Is someone in that dark corner?” “Is anybody home?”

Because I enjoyed Gone Home so much I figured Amnesia would be a good next step. I know it was supposed to be even scarier, a true horror game. But to my surprise, even though it involves blood and ghosts and all sorts of tricks and such, it had me laughing more than yelping as the game went on. Why?

You could say Myst fits within this same genre. A lot more of a puzzle game, but the exploration and stillness of each scene amount to a feeling of isolation and tension. The same thinking happens in Myst as it does in Gone Home. “What’s that in the distance?” “What was that sound?” “Where is everyone?”

In Myst, something fantastical happens, but it’s not in the way that’s expected. (I still refuse to give away Myst spoilers as I feel it’s a game that should be played by everyone. A true classic.) The same applies to Gone Home. And while both of these games are not “horror”, surely Myst isn’t, they build tension that Amnesia totally misses.

Gone Home and Myst are scarier because Amnesia doesn’t leave the player alone. In Amnesia there are myriad shaders and stretchy screens, breathing problems, and so on. A flash of light and the player is on her knees. We’re crawling around even though we haven’t hit “ctrl”. Bloody fascia pops out of the walls and damages the player, unavoidably. There are so many scenes of rocks breaking through the walls; wind gusts right after the player clicks the left mouse button that it reads much more like a bad carnival ride than a game with any kind of real emotional investment.

It’s this “other” that gets in the way of what should be a direct interface between the game world and the player. A sort of constant deus ex machina that is always reminding you that this isn’t real and it’s just a video game. The stretching camera and particle effects should be internalized within the player’s head, not externalized in the vision of the player or with piecemeal cockroaches. The human mind will always be more interesting than engineered “insanity”.

Show, don’t tell.

Amnesia is a good and interesting game. But Gone Home and Myst are triumphs. Not for what they are, but for what they are not.

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