I first heard of the Milgram experiment back in high school and, for the longest time, thought that if I had been a participant surely I would have been among the few who refused to dole out any painful shocks. I’ve comforted myself with that notion until I recently, and painstakingly, assembled the instruments that were necessary to torture a man so that my character in “Amnesia: Rebirth,” Tasi Trianon, could protect the life of her unborn child. After the man’s screams stopped ringing through my headphones and his agony had been transmuted by an infernal machine into a substance that could nourish Tasi’s unborn child, I marveled anew at what a powerful motivator context plays in the human condition.
“Amnesia: Rebirth” is a dark fantasy game that casts players in the role of a woman who is a part of an expedition to French colonial Africa in March of 1937. After a severe bout of turbulence and a plane crash, Tasi wakes up alone aboard the fatefully-named Cassandra to find that her partner Salim and other companions have disappeared. Leaving the wreckage behind, she finds a cave and comes across a letter from Salim stating that most of Cassandra’s injured crew are dead and that a supernatural creature is hunting them. In an effort to avoid the fate of those who perished, Salim decides to follow after a group of survivors and leave path markers along the way.
As Tasi ventures after her companions she quickly realizes that the darkness enveloping parts of the cave, and other areas she later discovers, threaten her well-being. If she lingers in the dark for too long her body will begin to go through malignant changes. Players are therefore encouraged make prudent use of the books of matches they come across to light candles and wall-mounted torches to keep the darkness at bay as well as to make conservative use of fuel for the oil lantern that Tasi eventually acquires.
At the start of the game players are told they should not play “Amnesia: Rebirth” to win and allow themselves to be absorbed by the story. One of the more brilliant aspects of its game design is that it doesn’t particularly punish failure. Without giving much away I can say that even when Tasi finds herself in a compromising situation she’ll usually wind up, if not in the same spot where things got hairy, at least close enough to the other side of it so as to never suffer through the onerous tedium of backtracking. After all, nothing kills a suspenseful sequence like repetition.
Alas, because so much of the story does not become clear until near the end, I’m reluctant to go into the details of the plot, which takes place across different dimensions and involves a matriarch-driven civilization ruled by a queen who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to become a mother. However, I should mention that because the first game in the series “Amnesia: the Dark Descent” is commonly recognized as one of the finest horror video games, I didn’t find “Amnesia: Rebirth” particularly scary — although a few chase sequences did get my pulse racing, nor did I find the game as philosophically rich as Frictional Games’ previous effort “SOMA,” which poses haunting questions about the nature of consciousness and individuality.
All the same, I had a wonderful time playing through “Amnesia: Rebirth” on account of its creative puzzles and rich atmosphere. The manner in which it pushes Tasi and the player to consider how far they’re willing to go in the service of a biological imperative is ingenious and a fine testament to why the Swedish development studio Frictional Games is among the more notable storytellers at work in the gaming industry.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.