Penumbra, Amnesia Find Power in Powerlessness

HorrorScope is a recurring feature exploring the horror genre in gaming and drawing attention to its elements, its tropes, and its lesser-known but still scary titles.

As Game Front’s Ben Richardson once explained, the point of video games is to make their players feel like badasses. A game that doesn’t make you feel like a badass, more often than not, wastes your time.

While games are constantly looking for new ways to empower players, the horror genre often is the exception, moving in the opposite direction and removing the player’s capability of fighting off that which threatens her, because a vulnerable player means a scared player. But even in horror, the trend is diminishing among some of the biggest titles. While the Resident Evil series traditionally made fighting difficult and ammunition scarce, later turns in the series have opted to provide players with more capabilities, rather than fewer. The Dead Space series manages to create a lot of atmosphere, but it still loads the player for bear — what scares you is stuff leaping out of places you didn’t expect, but not really that those things are definitely going to kill you.

Some of the biggest titles in horror seem to favor giving players ever more power, even as they try to remain scary. With Amnesia: The Dark Descent, developer Frictional Games went hard in the other direction — removing player power to the point that defending yourself isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible. And before Amnesia, there was Penumbra.

Horror fans have likely heard of the former. Frictional Games’ title has been touted of late as among some of the scarier titles players can get their hands on. And it definitely is spooky, immersing players in a strange story of an amnesiac character trying to figure out what he has forgotten, while avoiding deadly monsters and adventuring through an abandoned, empty castle.

The interesting thing about Amnesia is that it does something not often seen in video games, even in horror games of late: it leaves the player almost completely powerless. There are monsters tracking through the castle, and often, you hear them before you ever see them (and some you can’t see at all). But you’re without weapons — just a fragile human, trying not to die. Your only hope is to hide from such horrors and hope they don’t find you.

But before Amnesia put players in darkened corridors with no means of defending themselves, Penumbra put players in darkened corridors with no means of defending themselves — also to great effect.

In fact, while you might be waiting for the follow-up to The Dark Descent, titled Amnesia: Machine for Pigs, you can get your first-person horror fix with the three episodes of Penumbra: Overture, Black Plague and Requiem. And like the newest title from Frictional, they all do a phenomenal job of exploiting the power of powerlessness.

In the first title, Penumbra: Overture, players find themselves in a darkened, abandoned Greenland mine that was converted into some kind of bunker during World War II. Light is scarce, darkness is oppressive, and there are strange sounds everywhere. The title has players finding tools to solve puzzles, but it quickly becomes apparent that even the rusty hammer or signal flares you carry around aren’t going to help you deal with whatever is stalking through the dark tunnels, growling hungrily.

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