Video games have an extraordinary ability to create empathy between players and their characters. A game might use swelling music and immersive writing to ground you in a character’s emotional state. Or, all the way on the other end of the spectrum, games may include a complex network of mechanics to evoke the sorts of feelings associated with a particular role.
And then, there are games that adopt a mixed approach, using both storytelling devices and gameplay mechanics to establish a bond between player and character. That’s the approach Amnesia: Rebirth takes, and it does so to magnificent effect.
- What is Amnesia: Rebirth? It’s a first-person survival horror game with puzzle elements. Take on the role of Tasi, an expeditionist, who wakes up alone following a plane crash in the Algerian desert. Find other survivors and recover Tasi’s memories, all while evading mysterious, sinister forces that seem to haunt her every step.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Price: $29.99
- Developer: Frictional Games
- Release Date: October 20, 2020
- Website: www.amnesiarebirth.com
Picking Up the Pieces
Having recently gone on record with my annoyance at amnesia as a plot device, it seems like divine justice that immediately afterward, I should play a game that manages to nail the concept. They have to, right? After all, the game’s called Amnesia. But how does Frictional Games take an element like that, one that’s been so overused, and manage to make it feel fresh and meaningful?
The development team took three crucial approaches. They tied the amnesia to actual gameplay, established a strong character motivation early, and, as mentioned above, created an empathetic link between the player and Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon, Rebirth’s protagonist.
The game opens with Tasi and her husband, Salim, aboard the Cassandra, a plane serving as transport for their expedition to Africa. Their warm relationship is briefly established before the plane mysteriously crashes in the Algerian desert. Tasi wakes up alone, her memories of the crash’s aftermath gone, the only reminder left in her notebook directing her to “FIND SALIM.” Immediately, the very human, understandable motivation to find one’s spouse is conveyed to the player, so that the titular amnesia provides enough mystery without robbing the plot of a sense of purpose or urgency.
Continuing from the crash, and with minor spoilers for the game’s introduction, we see how much of the story is pieced together through the player’s investigations. For instance, the first two deaths you learn about are ones you have to suss out. Exiting the plane, you notice two makeshift graves, one despoiled by a carrion-eater. As you progress to the caves where your fellow crew members took shelter, you come across a list of names — the crew of the Cassandra — with two crossed off: Nicolas Masson and Rachael Holt.
This is a great way to involve the player in the storytelling. It creates the sense that you’re enacting meaningful decisions that push the plot forward, even if it’s in a small way like learning who died during or immediately after the crash.
The game slowly introduces more mechanics, each with its own layers and nuances, to ground you in Tasi’s experience. These work in tandem with the game’s scares and its pacing to make the connection between player and character all the more meaningful. If making players identify so profoundly with Tasi was Rebirth’s only significant achievement, it would be a solid (but otherwise unremarkable) Amnesia sequel. Luckily, the adventure itself is often equally impressive.
Moreso than its predecessors, Rebirth keeps its imagery varied and interesting, and there are countless creepy, disturbing visuals to ratchet up the tension. Scorching Algerian sands give way to twisting, claustrophobic cave networks, which in turn lead to ruined forts and other, stranger locales. Add in several dream sequences, and Tasi’s journey feels like a genuinely epic, harrowing adventure amid madness and cosmic horror.
The obstacles facing the player during this adventure are also mostly well-executed and engaging. While there can be some awkward moments with traversal and item manipulation, by and large, puzzles and exploration provide a solid basis for the majority of gameplay. Evading monsters is occasionally frustrating, but for the most part, these moments offer a good dose of adversity to proceedings. Furthermore, one approach to these encounters taken by the devs (and likely to annoy certain players) hugely mitigates frustration and keeps the pacing on-track.
When caught by a monster, the player is not subjected to a gratuitous death sequence and forced to retry the section. Instead, Tasi blacks out and wanders back through the level, prompting the player to recover their progress and delve deeper into the darkness. For some, this may break some of the tension of the experience. But the most important result of this decision is that Rebirth has a strong sense of direction, and repetitive, annoying gameplay sections never disrupts the sense of flow. What’s more, intense chases and setpieces more than make up for the thrills lost in the stealth sections. Especially with lights off, headphones on, Amnesia: Rebirth is just as scary — if not moreso — than its predecessors. It just happens to be more fun to play.
As for the story itself, one might be surprised at how emotional it can become. Lovecraftian horror is often quite cold in terms of characterization, following academics and explorers as they either come to gruesome ends or lose their minds. And, little enough time is spent on the personal lives of these figures. Without spoiling too much, grief is a major theme of this story, and Tasi’s emotional state (beyond bewilderment at her circumstances) is a big focus of the experience. This allows the player to become invested in Tasi and her story.
The devs skillfully use emotion and attachment to heighten the horror of the situation, rather than merely forcing the player into dismemberment and frustration. As a result, Amnesia: Rebirth is an encouraging example of how a series can grow and change over time, refining its ability to deliver on its central premise.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Amnesia: Rebirth is fittingly named, both in terms of story content and how it contributes to the series overall. It shows that Frictional Games is highly capable of evolving with the times and delivering a thoughtful, impactful, scary gaming experience. You could do a lot worse getting in your Halloween scares.
- Outstanding audiovisuals
- Effective pacing and setpieces
- Impactful, exciting storytelling, aided by mechanics
- Some clunkiness with the controls
- Occasional frustration in stealth sections
- A lack of danger in gameplay could turn some people off