The harsh desert sun of North Africa is as deadly and frightening as the dark. Too long in the sun, and the mind is addled. Dehydration sets in and, eventually, death. The dark offers respite from the sun but contains other terrors. There are the remnants of a camp where my fellow travelers rested after the plane crash. Corpses litter the cave, some dead from injuries sustained in the crash, others felled by more mysterious means. Deeper in the cave is darkness and the shambling of some thing, a creature bent on rending flesh from bone.
To escape, Tasi Trianon—the protagonist of Amnesia: Reibrith—can run towards the light of the desert or slip into the solace of her own memory. But Tasi’s memories hold cold comfort and monsters far more horrifying than anything she’d encounter in the desert or the dark of the caves.
This is Amnesia: Rebirth, a sequel to 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In both games, the player controls a protagonist as they explore a haunted location. In The Dark Descent, that location is a Prussian castle in the mid 19th century. Rebirth begins in the deserts of North Africa but traverses through several settings in and out of the desert. Rebirth is an evolution of everything The Dark Descent began. A truly great sequel that builds upon its predecessor’s legacy.
In 2010, Amnesia: The Dark Descent turned horror games on their head. Players explored the castle while facing down monsters they couldn’t fight, and sometimes couldn’t see. Other horror games had pitted players against unbeatable monsters, but it was rare. In 2010, Resident Evil was lighting up the box office with its Milla Jovovich–led action movie franchise. Resident Evil 5 was a poorly received action game.
In The Dark Descent, players were largely powerless. It struck a chord. People were just beginning to gain popularity on Twitch and YouTube streaming video games. PewDiePie had just begun to stream on YouTube. The Dark Descent’s tendency to create dynamic moments of pure terror when one of its monsters scared a streamer into fits of screaming terror made PewDiePie a star.
If you’ve ever watched your favorite steamer scream at the top of their lungs while pursued by eldritch horrors, you can thank Amnesia developer Frictional Games for that. Their 2015 followup SOMA, was a cerebral creep through an abandoned underwater facility. Amnesia had a story, but it was a game driven by pure visceral terror that played well on YouTube. SOMA was a heady and story-driven experience.
“I think it was pretty clear from the beginning that we were not gonna have the same viral success again,” Thomas Grip, Creative Director at Amnesia developer Frictional Games, says. “What we achieved with Amnesia, in terms of the spread and cultural impact, was a very lucky shot for us.”
Amnesia: Rebirth is somewhere between the two. It’s got more story than The Dark Descent and asks big questions like SOMA. Unlike The Dark Descent, it focuses on the story and eschews the easy jump scare and unlike SOMA it feels less heady and more visceral. Rebirth isn’t a game about jump scares and a castle, no. It’s a game that tasks players with journeying into the dark recesses of protagonist Tasi Trianon’s mind.
“For SOMA it was all about making a narrative that dealt with consciousness and what it means to be human,” Grip says. “There was of course a hope that this would resonate with streamers as well, but that was never the primary objective. We are doing a similar thing with Rebirth where we have our ambitions elsewhere. As long as we achieve that in players it doesn’t really matter if the game goes viral or not.”
According to Grip, the streamers pushed Frictional Games to create games that would challenge their new audience. “These reactions were also a huge inspiration for SOMA,” he says. “We thought: could we get players to have this strong emotional reaction to a much deeper subject? And the idea to explore the mysteries of the mind was born. So in that sense, streamers back in the day and their jump scares were foundational to what the company is doing now.”
It’s hard to write about Amnesia: Rebirth without giving away its secrets. To reveal even early plot spoilers or scares is to diminish their power. It’s an exploration of Tasi’s psyche and immediate past, shockingly feminist, and a subtle game about the horror of colonization both European and eldritch. Like The Dark Descent, Rebirth asks players to avoid monsters and rewards them for avoiding the dark.
Unlike The Dark Descent, Rebirth wants players to think about where those monsters came from. Many of them have a personal relationship to Tasi and are more than just faceless monsters waiting in the dark corners of the Earth. One lengthy encounter in the trap-filled ruins of an alien civilization about halfway through the game is one of the most terrifying moments I’ve had playing a video game in years. The pulse-pounding terror came not just from the visceral moment to moment action, but the personal connection the protagonist had to the beast.
Frictional Games knew it couldn’t recreate the success of The Dark Descent. It pushed itself to do something different. “Had we tried to make Rebirth better than The Dark Descent in terms of scares alone I would be nervous as hell,” Grip says. “We would not only fight the actual game, but people’s nostalgic perception of it. But since we are trying to do something different I don’t really feel that pressure at all.”
The Dark Descent succeeded on YouTube because it allowed players to share their terror. It replicated the feeling of being in a darkened movie theater and screaming with a crowd when the monster jumped for the hero. Rebirth is a more personal journey, one that defies easy categorization and may not stream as well.
Rebirth is interested in pushing the player forward through the journey. At the base difficulty, getting trapped by a monster or Tasi losing her sanity in the darkness will trigger a game over. The player loses control of Tasi as darkness covers her visions. When she comes to and the player regains control, the monster is removed from the area and the player can proceed without the challenge of the encounter.
Personally, I loved this because it allowed me to push the story forward without worrying too much about death or failure. During one particularly difficult encounter in a ruin, the game respawned Tasi at the exit of the ruin after I failed twice. For some, knowing that death or madness is never the end of the game will take all the tension out of its scares. This also highlights a big difference between The Dark Descent and Rebirth. The Dark Descent goes for the cheap scare. Rebirth wants you to ponder it’s horrors long after the monster has been left behind in the darkness.
I think Rebirth is a better game than The Dark Descent. It asks weird questions and forces the player to make choices moment to moment that affects the outcome of Tasi’s story. It made me feel like a terrible person more than once, and terrified me often. It has jump scares, but it’s true horrors lie deep in the dark heart of its protagonist and the player who controls her.