Penumbra, Amnesia Find Power in Powerlessness

Instead of letting you find weapons with which to deal with these prowling menaces and ramping up enemy effectiveness to keep pace with your ability, Penumbra takes an entirely different approach. Everything can kill you. And as you explore the mine, the dangers begin to mount. Your only hope is to hide from your enemies in the shadows by crouching, turning off your flashlight, and hoping they go away. Looking at the thing that might kill you make Philip, the protagonist, start to panic, which could give away your position. Your only indication that you’re hidden at all is the blue tint the screen takes on to let you know you’re slightly better off than you were a few moments earlier.

Just as soon as Penumbra establishes that you need to shut down lights, remain still, look at the corner and try not to breathe, it introduces situations in which that’s the exact wrong course of action. A journal found in some strange tunnels through the rock and ice originating underneath one of the mine’s rooms reveals that remaining still and turning off your lights will actually draw certain enemies. To avoid them, you need to keep your flashlight’s batteries stocked.

Instead of providing you weapons, Penumbra goes hard in the other direction, stripping players of nearly all tools for self-preservation. What you’re left with is a stealth game — stealth is not an option, it’s the only option. The only alternative is grisly death.

And it works, perhaps surprisingly. Something that makes Amnesia and Penumbra stand apart from other games is that they can manage to rob you of all badassery without making those limitations feel like a contrivance. Other games stumble when you feel you should be able to interact with an object or react in a natural way to a situation, and you can’t because the developer has limited your capabilities. Penumbra manages to take away the player’s ability to fight back, but it doesn’t rob you of all your faculties. You have to rely on your wits and your patience. Though you may be powerless, you’re never powerless.

It’s an interesting balance to strike. Slender: The Eight Pages notably does the same thing, requiring players to flee rather than fight in all cases. Perhaps a major part of making that work is the perceived level of threat presented by the game’s enemy of choice. In Slender, The Entity that pursues players is an unstoppable paranormal force. In Penumbra, though the monster that first pursues players appears to be a wolf, it’s pretty readily apparent that it’s not. And things get worse from there.

Penumbra and Amnesia are very effective horror titles, full of foreboding ambiance and a palpable sense of terror. Amnesia has become quite popular for Frictional, earning quite a bit of money. But it’s nothing compared to any game in the Resident Evil series, or to Dead Space. Of course, there are a lot of factors involved there, but one has to wonder: are fewer players interested in games in which they don’t get to be badasses?

That might be the case. Still, Penumbra’s greatest asset is that it’s willing to take away your guns and stick you in a cave with a monster, and it achieves a level of frightening immediacy that the latest triple-A horror titles can’t hope to match. Penumbra doesn’t mind letting you sweat — or even quake — with fear. It finds a new kind of power in embracing powerlessness — and it lets players discover their own different kind of power, as well.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra series are available on Steam, here and here.

Follow Hornshaw and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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