Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Game Translation: Amnesia

Amnesia is a first person game that follows Daniel, an amnesiac who awakens on the castle floor and must piece together his memories before the mysterious Shadow kills him or tears down Castle Brennenburg around him. He also learns terrible secrets about the man that he turned to for help - a man called Baron Alexander. The game itself is a very pure form of survival horror where you can't attack the enemies - you can only hide from them and hope for the best while you attempt to assemble what you need to move on. To make matters worse, you will go insane unless you're in the light but you only have a limited number of tinderboxes to light darkened areas and monsters can see you when you're standing in the light.

The trick to this sort of game is to avoid the high graphical tricks and twists (or in a roleplaying case, avoid fancy descriptions of horrors) and instead focus on what you don't show. This works terrifically well in any horror format. Doors are blown open, beckoning people into well-lit rooms in a way that encourages you to slam the door shut and keep going. Piles of gore in the corner might be bloody skulls or something else equally mishappen and flyblown. Something beneath the stairs might be rotten grapes or eye balls. You can't quite see what it is. In a roleplaying game, you could simply give things a vague description with the caveat "You're pretty sure you don't want to know."

Of course, to best hammer home the reasons behind not wanting to know any more, you should probably give them a consequence for taking a closer look. Some sort of sanity mechanic (such as the BRP Call of Cthulhu percentile system) or even a set of five tokens that you lose one by one whenever you see something terrible is necessary here. That way the players will have to weigh their curiosity against the diminishing stack of tokens and the risk of panic or fainting (or even suicide) that will occur if they lose the final token. Ensure if you use a token system, however, that there are opportunities to regain tokens.

Sanity loss should also have a progressive feeling to it in order to help it feel organic. In BRP, if you lose 5 sanity points in one hit you will go temporarily insane. If you lose 20% of your overall sanity in quick succession, you will go indefinitely insane. These insanities flavor both the experience, the Keeper's descriptions, and the players' choices when roleplaying the investigator.

Alternatively, if you're using a token system, you can simply put in extra issues with each lost token. Let's simply look at the levels of insanity from Amnesia and match them to this possible token system. With all five tokens, you're fine. With the loss of one token, your hands start trembling (-1 to all Dexterity checks). Lose two tokens and you get this profound sense of vertigo that throws off your depth perception (-1 to all Perception checks). Lose three tokens and the vertigo deepens and you start swaying a fair bit (-1 to all checks requiring Balance). Lose four tokens and you briefly collapse and are therefore helpless. Lost five tokens and ... well, I won't spoil it. Obviously all of these penalties are cumulative.

Noises can be used to good effect if you have ready access to a laptop or have a really good stereo remote control. You can set it up to have creepy background music (Silent Hill and Midnight Syndicate soundtracks are good for this) and then have a separate program with the available sound effects on it so that rather than describe the creaking door you can have the sound play while you simply smile.

Amnesia also has a series of intuitive key in lock puzzles. That is, rather than having to figure out how to, say, place sixteen skulls in such a fashion that they spell out a certain word, you instead need to find an object that allows you to pass through a locked door. Even the more complex puzzles, such as starting the elevator, is largely intuitive with a need to place in the right devices and put coal inside a particular device.

Amnesia is also a game of environmental hazards. Certain fleshy growths can injure you. Waiting in darkness will slowly drain your sanity but staying in the light will draw the attention of any passing monster. Simply looking at the monsters also drains your sanity. So it ends up being a game of very simple resource management where you need to weigh the benefits of lifting your lamp briefly against the dangers of revealing yourself.

Sometimes its good not to see things clearly....

This first person game also removes all of the Heads Up Display as much as it can. One's steadily decaying sanity is displayed through strange visual effects including bugs crawling over the screen to demonstrate the sensation of bugs crawling across your skin. Damage is shown by a splatter of blood on the screen that quickly clears. If a player wants to see how they're doing, they have to open up the inventory screen and hover their mouse over an image of a brain + spine for their sanity, and over their heart for their health. Even in these cases, there's no math. Simply a description: Your head is pounding and your hands shaking OR A few minor cuts and bruises.

This is the trickiest part of running it in a roleplaying game. There is safety to be found in numbers. They're quantifiable. There's a sheet in front of you that reinforces that this isn't a person but an imaginary creation based off mathematical decision making (or at least founded upon it). This isn't necessarily a problem but there are a few things you can do to reduce it.

You can turn their health into some sort of token system so they feel they are losing parts of their characters to the dangers. You can remove their access to their health so they have to rely on your verbal descriptions. You can remove the sheets entirely and either have them simply make a single dice roll to see if they succeed or fail on their attempts to scramble onto a box without being hit OR you could simply rely on their descriptions. If they mention they hide in a wardrobe when they hear the footsteps, then it doesn't find them. If they say they're hiding in the shadows, let it work. Simply turn an egg timer and withdraw tokens for each minute that passes so that they have to wait and hope that it leaves in time - which is probably will, though may not.

A campaign based around Amnesia, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers as a good portion of the game involves wandering around a creepy old castle seeing what's inside and learning new things. Investigators will enjoy the slow revelations as the mystery unfurls, especially if you make a point to hide a few of the clues so they have to be clever to find it. Their curiosity alone may be enough to motivate them.

Tacticians will enjoy balancing their various needs but won't enjoy the fact that they have to keep choosing between losses rather than finding the right winning action. Expect some degree of frustration, though if well roleplayed and responded to, the frustration could be played out in character and add to the immersion and realism. Communicators won't have all that much to do as the game is, by necessity, quite lonely. However, in a party-based game they might get enough kicks out of the reactions of the other characters. There are plenty of possible places in locations like Castle Brennenburg where the characters could safely converse if they shut the door and turn a candle on.

Action Heroes will quickly come to resent all the stealthing around and hiding from the monster. In frustration they are quite likely to try to smash the monsters.

If you'd like to take a look at the trailer to learn more about this game, you can check it out here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Amnesia used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, The Sims 3, Half Life 2, Skyrim, The Last Express, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Dragon Age 2, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Sims 3.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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