Friday, January 27, 2012

Amnesia: The Dark Descent - Custom Story Annoyances

I love me some Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

It's one of my top five games of all time, along with it's predecessor, Penumbra (or more accurately, the Penumbra series). Both of these games are made by Frictional Games, whom I love to itsy-bitsy pieces. I love them in the pants*.


One of the reasons I adore those swedish bastards so much is the fact they released the modding tools for Amnesia. Now, I haven't got into them yet - 3D Editors terrify me on a primal level, and they keep crashing when I try to do stuff or attempt to close them. But apparently people have seemed to master them, and have made some truely amazing stuff.

Stuff like La Caza, Wake and Beyond the Portal, for example. Those three stand out in my mind for being pretty well made - even though I didn't get past that bit in La Casa where yo- you know, getting off topic. Sorry.

The point is, there are lots of custom stories that do two very annoying, very stupid things. You can tell whether or not a custom story is going to be a fun, interesting experience or a weak, jump-out-scares infested slog from the first five or so minutes of gameplay.

These are those two things. Starting with...

#1: Impenetrable Darkness

There are two big parts of the game (the Storage and the Dungeon) where Impenetrable Darkness rears it's ugly, ill-defined head. They are genuinely terrifying, and it's where you get introduced to plenty of monsters who would just love to give you a big hug.

These two parts are fairly close together, so you get a nice, scary twenty to hour long (depending on how much you wait in the corner and weep to yourself) section of this impenetrable darkness thing, with a stint in the Machine Room in-between.

Impenetrable Darkness never shows up again after those two sections, and thank god for that. It was scary as shit to be running around, not being able to see a metre in-front of you without your lantern, but guess what, monsters can see you with your lantern out, so you have to keep it tucked away. In the dark. Where you're tense, waiting for that *ruuuurgh* sound to leap out of the corner of your screen, so you can run like hell to your saftey room you set up earlier.

So, Impenetrable Darkness has a purpose - to make the dark, opressive atmosphere of the room that much more terrifying, and to imply the use of monsters to make the player all tense. Used in moderation, Impenetrable Darkness can be absolutely harrowing, and the best part is you don't have to do jack - just let the player think he's about to be hugged to death by a monster through the use of a combination of atmospheric music, deep demonic breathing, and the occasional scraping noise.

What I see a lot of is players starting in or very close to Impenetrable Darkness, kicking pacing and build-up in the ribs and tossing them out a window. And maybe sleeping with their significant others, or something.

You can't make players start in Impenetrable Darkness, people! It ruins everything - it doesn't feel opressive, it feels like somebody's turned the damn lights out. I feel like groping for a light switch when I start up some custom stories, and not surveying my surroundings because, hey, it's in total darkness, so there's nothing to look at.

Starting me off in Impenetrable Darkness tells me that you haven't thought this through in the slightest - you just threw it down because it's scary and tense. The fact is it's only scary and tense if you build up to it, and let players feel comfortable before throwing them in darkness.

And #2: Smoke Monsters

There was this ONE, VERY SPECIFIC place in Amnesia, where if you went to a collapsed passage, you turned around and was treated to a close up of the Grunt, before the grunt vanished into smoke. It was so specific I (and I suspect many players) never saw it on our first try. But those that did see it were terrified, and rightly so. This fully illuminated, angry-sounding son-of-a-bitch was right fucking there, in front of you in all it's hideous glory. I suspect anybody who was unfortunate to stumble upon what I consider to be an easter egg screamed the loudest scream they would ever scream in their entire life. They were ambushed by a truely disgusting, horrifically disfigured creature very clearly used to be a man, a human being, and they were going to die.

And then the damn thing vanished into smoke. No murder, just seeing this thing for about one or two seconds, then gone. Terror piss was joined by tears of joyous relief, that one time when it caught you off-guard, and never, ever happened again. Because it was only scary the first time, and the devs knew it. That's why it only happened once. In a specific place. More italics. (Sorry).

So, after being blessed with this terror monster that could vanish into smoke, what was the aspiring young custom story designer to do to his map to make it as scary? Why, he would just have monsters that spawned but then vanished, but only after walking for several seconds in the players direction and making an awful racket, and leading the player to believe that the monster was real.

For the love of god, if you're going to do this, please, please make it so it's on a timer. If you can, of course. I'm not sure if you have to make it cross a path or region or whatever to activate, but if you can make it so that it vanishes after time elasped rather than entering a section of room, that would be absolutely wonderful. Or, just not put them in the game in the first place.

Belthasar's Sorrow threw a Smoke Monster at you in one of the very first rooms. It came around the corner of the hallway, went graawwwugh and ran at you. You could also hear the door lock behind you, which I think was a bit foolish. It would've enlivened the experiance if we had to run out the door and hid in one of the MANY closets in the previous hallway, but no, I guess not.

The thing is, you have to be standing still when you enter the room for it to work. The monster only vanishes if it enters the spot DIRECTLY in front of the door where you just entered, which is a classic game design mistake - assuming the player does what you wanted him to do. Because, guess what - said player almost never does.

When I saw this bastard, I tried the door (which failed, due to it being locked), and then I strafed the charging monster and ran down the hallway where it came from. I charged down and hid under the stairs, where I waited for it do go away. Or something. I didn't really have a plan, to be honest.

The next time I tried it, I sprinted to the fireplace and crouched, where I could see the Grunt patrolling back and forth along the small room I came into. From my vantage point in the corner of the room concealed by the fireplace, I could see that Monsieur Facelift was very much alive and looking for me. I can't remember how I found out he was a Smoke Monster, but when I did, I was pretty pissed. Pissed that the designer couldn't be asked doing it properly. Pissed that the designer did it at all. There was no need for a monster scare that early on in the game - jesus, we already saw the guy we were supposed to visit chewed up by pulsating flesh-jelly. That was a perfectly fine scare on it's own, but ruined with the badly placed, badly scripted Smoke Monster.

It's not the only time it's happened, but it's the one that stands out the most in my mind. Considering how small a part it played in Amnesia (read: almost none), it strikes me as odd that it's so common. If you're that desperate for scares in your custom story, you should probably take a step back and examine what you want to really achieve with this room, or this little cutscene-thing.

Smoke Monsters are not the answer, and they mess players up - what if the monster coming at them is a real monster? What if they expect it to dissapear, because you've introduced Smoke Monsters early on and almost trained them to think that they'll dissapear, and it doesn't? They'll get pissed off at your custom story and stop playing it.

I saw both of these in one particular custom story, Dark Mansion. It was a demo and very short, but I started inside Impenetrable Darkness, in a room with big splotches of Impenetrable Darkness, broken only by sharp cones of light. Then, I opened the door, and a monster came barreling towards me and turned into smoke.

The reason I didn't worry about the monster inevitably being a Smoke Monster is because I started in a terrible room with stupid lighting. It was then that I realized I was dealing with a really god-awful custom story. Not that there was much - atrociously lit starting room, Impenetrable Darkness corridor, then a super-brightly lit dining room.

It's not that the setup wasn't good - although, he could use a bit of a crash course in level design - it just lacked polish. I suspect the reasons these custom stories lack polish is twofold; one, the designer has very little experiance with making custom stories or using the editor; and two, the designer hasn't learned anything from playing the original Amnesia game.

The original Amnesia made you confortable first, then threw you a scare. Then, it let you calm down, then another scare. The scares were made all that much better, mainly because they took you by surprise.

If you have played Amnesia, you remember the water lurker chase scene. It's one of my favourite parts, because when you walk out you're introduced to the most idylic room in the entire game. The soft music soothes your racing heart, and the gentle, blue-tinged lighting is a very welcome sight. Sure, the fountain is creepy, but you don't really care. This is your opportunity to calm yourself and relax.

And then you enter the Guest Room and get ambushed by a monster, and have to hide in the closet. But it's scary because it comes out of nowhere - you honestly aren't expecting it. The music doesn't imply it, the lighting doesn't imply it, the goddamn level size doesn't imply it. And it's also scary because you were all calm and relaxed before, so you were ready for a scary moment to get you nice and terrifyed again.

I almost never see that in custom games - the relax, scare, relax, scare. Comfortable, uncomfortable, comfortable, etc. It's always Impenetrable Darkness, smoke monster, opressive environments, repeat.

Alright, not always. La Caza is a perfect example of a custom story done right. The fact that I refuse to continue past the point where you fall down the well-like thing to the forward camp, considering there hasn't been a single moment of Impenetrable Darkness (at least I can't remember it) and not one goddamn Smoke Monster. Now THAT was a well made custom story.

Or you could go down the Through the Portal route and have very little monsters, and be mostly about story. I think there were a total of three monsters in the whole game, and they were poorly defined clouds of mist. The point of Through the Portal was what would happen if the game continued on past the Agrippa ending and the end of Amnesia, and not actually scaring the player, per se.

So, the point is: don't resort to Impenetrable Darkness and Smoke Monsters in your custom story. It looks unprofessional and cheap. Use full room lighting often, and save monsters for special occasions.

* I do not love the staff at Frictional Games in the pants. Only the games.
** That part is actually true, though. It's becoming a very expensive habit.