I beat Amnesia: Rebirth over the weekend, making it the first game in the spooky first-person series I’ve actually played to completion. I had a much lower tolerance for scares back in 2010 (when the seminal Amnesia: The Dark Descent completely changed the horror game landscape). And I just… got bored of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, back in 2013, which despite its name is more like the black sheep of the family — developed by a different studio and not as well regarded as the other titles. I enjoyed Rebirth a lot more by comparison.
But I was disappointed by just how direct a sequel Frictional Games’ return to its name-making series turned out to be. The plot is a fairly straightforward. You’re a lone survivor — a French woman called Tasi — with amnesia in the desert. You’re chased by some truly disgusting little freak and its friends. There is no way to fight back. Whereas staying in the dark or looking at monsters too long will “damage” Tasi by raising her fear level. This isn’t too different from the amnesiac dungeon dive in The Dark Descent. Nor does it get much weirder than that. The story is exactly what it purports to be from beginning to end — despite SOMA, the previous Frictional horror game, setting my expectations for something more subversive.
Its biggest differentiators are 1. that Tasi is pregnant, and 2. enemies disappear after they “kill” you. The latter seems like a direct response to the frustrating encounters in SOMA. But neither new wrinkle has a huge impact on the game.
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Amnesia: Rebirth sticks with tradition in other ways, too. Its inventory management makes no damn sense. And it’s just the latest in a string of recent horror games that make me think, for the love of god, just let me use my pockets!
Tasi is sensibly dressed for a desert excursion. She wears button-up trousers with a light blouse and flat shoes. I can tell from her character model that she has pockets — sizable ones. Which makes sense for a traveling draftswoman of the 1930s. Before the events of the game, she’s sent to help design a mine, and continues using her artistic implements to sketch objectives in a notebook throughout. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe her pants are too full of charcoal and erasers to fit more than 10 freaking matches at a time.
That’s the upper limit on that particular light source in Amnesia: Rebirth. I’m not trying to be pedantic here, though. I know games must make abstract certain concepts for the sake of flow and balance. I know she’s not literally only able to hold less than a dozen matches at a time. Nor do the gallons of oil I pump into her lantern really only last five seconds before burning out. It’s, you know, metaphorical for managing resources in a stressful situation.
But it’s also the perfect allegory for my purposes. Such a restrictive number of fire-starters represents, to me, how clumsy first-person horror games in the vein of Amnesia must be to maintain their atmosphere. I can forgive the abstract number. It’s harder to understand why Tasi can’t simply pick up the torches, lights, and oil lamps she finds throughout her journey as well. She can only hold one easily depleted item at a time — and only interact with the world in ways the game wants her to interact. It’s as if my hands are blunted with big, slippery sausages: hot dog fingers too smooth to manipulate my inventory.
Visage and Phasmophobia are two other first-person clumsy simulators with relatively identical restrictions. Visage does let me hold an item in each hand, which is nice, but for some reason you can’t do certain things while carrying a candle, specifically. This leads to clunky, unintentional physics puzzles. I drop my taper right before a nasty hole in the wall, do the little cutscenes of stepping through it… then reach right back through the gap and pick it up again. In the best cases this kind of interaction makes me feel like I’ve outsmarted the system. More often, it makes me think the game isn’t as clever as I want — unable to react appropriately to my obvious tactics.
It’s only exacerbated by little moments of brilliance where out-of-the-box thinking is exactly what horror games demand. One of my favorite puzzles in Amnesia: Rebirth was one such time.
I had to manually raise an elevator via pulley. The only problem? The floor had fallen out of the lift. Thankfully, the Amnesia games let you pick up nearly any object and toss it around. Without any prompting, I grabbed a nearby plank and, lo and behold, was able to lay it on the elevator as a makeshift platform. Puzzle solved! Serotonin released! Only it reminded me that… Hey! I can pick up almost any object in these games. Why doesn’t that extend to, like, lamps and stuff? Only because the clumsiness is required for the game’s version of reality.
I can pick things up except for when I can’t. I can solve puzzles except for when I’m not allowed. If anything interrupts the atmosphere, it’s inconsistent, frustrating logic like that. The occasionally adroit puzzle only shines a light that deepens the shadows.
I liked Amnesia: Rebirth. Mostly. But its biggest bummer is that it fails to do anything new with a genre its predecessor helped redefine. I probably would have been fine with this if it simply picked up where SOMA left off. But narratively, it never amounts to anything more than what’s on the label. You have amnesia. Tasi is pregnant. There’s some parallel universe stuff that the first game hinted at, which this one cracks on the noggin with a crowbar. None of it goes any deeper than a pair of jeans pockets.
But if modern takes on games like this made me feel resourceful more often instead — rather than arbitrarily limiting my resources and how I use them — that would work, too. You gotta give me something, though, Amnesia! Phasmophobia! Visage! I promise I can hold onto it.