[Warning: the following contains minor spoilers from the early sections of Amnesia: Rebirth.]
When you fire up Amnesia: Rebirth for the very first time, before a single frame of the game appears onscreen, you’re greeted with the following admonition from Frictional Games, the company responsible for this half-decade-in-the-making sequel to their wildly popular indie horror hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent:
“This game should not be played to win.
Instead, immerse yourself in this world and story.
Fear and darkness are your enemies.”
There are plenty of games that don’t technically have a “winning” action, opting to simply conclude their narratives or offer a variety of endings, none of them the “right” one. But few of them openly advocate forgoing the mindset of successfully navigating the entirety of what the game has to offer. Even fewer then proceed to present you with a story that seems to have a crystal-clear mission in mind, to win. That’s the irony of Frictional’s instruction: They’ve crafted an experience in terror that they want you to simply soak up and savor, while also giving you one of the most overt succeed-at-all-costs scenarios imaginable. They want to have their terrifying cake and kill it, too.
More a stand-alone thematic descendant of the original game than any sort of direct sequel, Rebirth casts you in the role of Anastasia Trianon (or “Tasi,” as you’re called throughout), a woman traveling with her husband and a crew to help improve work on a mining operation in 1930s Algeria. But when their plane crases, Tasi wakes up in the cabin after who-knows-how-long and everyone is missing. Worse still, she sets out into the nearby caves to find them, only to realize she’s already been there, yet has forgotten what happened. Cue a steady progression of jogging her memory until—after the first couple hours of gameplay—you get to a crucial remembrance: Tasi is pregnant. Cradling your belly, your protagonist instantly has a goal. You must get this little one growing inside you to safety. From then on, whenever you feel a little kick, you can look down, put your hands on your stomach, and reduce your amount of fear by gently whispering to your developing child.
You’ll need those moments of reassurance, because the vast majority of the game is spent in locations designed to elicit maximum stress. For the most part, this is enjoyably nerve-wracking, especially in the early going when you’re simply making your way through large, uncharted realms, seemingly alone, anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. And Frictional teases out the eventual monsters—a fleeting glimpse of something disappearing into a hole in the wall, the skittering sounds of something behind a locked door—in ways that are far creepier than the much-less-artful blunt-force assaults that ensue when they actually start attacking. The game also makes the irritating mistake of essentially requiring you to die at several points in order to realize there’s a creature you need to go around; unless you’re an ace at anticipating attacks, it’s an irritating way to learn.
Still, it’s easy to just talk about all the things the game does right—and even easier to admire how far the developers have come since the all-castle-all-the-time adventure of Dark Descent. This game might not scare you as much as that one, but it impresses with the sheer scope of its ambition. There are desert vistas, vast caverns, waterlogged cathedrals, and—perhaps most grandiose of all—entire other dark dimensions you end up traveling between; fog-filled landscapes with blighted skies and monolithic monstrosities towering above the horizon. There’s an awe-inspiring sense of scale to Rebirth, an impression of a sprawling and fully realized world that exists just beyond your eyesight, even when you’re trudging through some dank tunnel, hoping for any sign of light ahead.
Because that’s one thing Frictional is not kidding about: Darkness is your enemy. The instant Tasi plunges into an unlit area, her pulse starts quickening on the soundtrack, darkness encroaching on the edges of your field of vision, and things start to blur as her fear increases. Yet Rebirth teaches you early on that this is often a necessity. The game’s creators have spoken about how much they intended for the player to continually be balancing the amount of time they can reasonably stay in the dark versus using up the precious sources of light (matches and oil) you rely on to both illuminate key areas and to regain control of your fear after spending too long in a dark corridor or cave. But the first time you enter an unlit tunnel in the opening cave sequence, lacking enough light to carry you through, you soon realize you’ll have to take the only option left: resign yourself to what seems like certain madness and death, dashing down the blackened corridor, heart pounding, vision blurry, until, at long last, Tasi reaches another book of matches and a torch, and calmness returns. Lesson learned: You’ll have to continually plunge forward, time and again, well past the point of what seems like reasonable care for Tasi, if you want to make it out of this situation alive.
Unfortunately, light can also be your enemy, Most of the time, you’ll be carefully picking and choosing the moments that seem best to break out a match—usually when there’s no obvious threat, and an area looks promising in terms of resources or tasks required to get to the next level. But spark up a light or turn on your lantern at the wrong moment, and some misshapen humanoid abomination will come tearing after you—and while there’s always the chance you could manage to find the right patch of darkness to throw them off your location, more often than not plunging ahead pell-mell is the equally likely path, hoping to get far enough ahead to slam a door shut or disappear through the next portal. There’s rarely time for second-guessing.
And that’s the catch-22 for a nerve-jangling horror survival game also intent on making you revel in its rich design and painstakingly assembled mythology. No matter the setting—light or dark—it pushes you forward constantly. You’re always just trying to maintain sanity in order to construct the next device to transport you between worlds, or descend to the faint glow of daylight emanating from the bottom of a massive tomb and break into the relief of a sunlit desert oasis. It’s a game that tells you not to run toward the exit, then slams a jump-scare in your face and unleashes a throaty howl from something on your heels.
There are occasionally sequences obviously designed to allow the player room to breathe—monster-less puzzle scenarios full of backstory, clues, and world-building information meant to peel back the onion-like layers of the narrative, tying Rebirth to Dark Descent in clearer ways and unveiling the sinister machinations that have transpired in this accursed place. But here’s the thing: Tasi doesn’t really give a shit. She (and by extension, you) doesn’t care about the mythos of the things breaching our reality, or the people that came before who set up the caverns she travels through and the mystical machinery she employs to keep pushing ahead. Tasi just wants to get to safety with her unborn child. After any particularly harrowing or physically demanding action, she immediately cradles her belly to soothe both the child and herself, an intimate gesture that continually reminds you that none of this bigger narrative matters. It’s all about what’s on the inside—even if Tasi isn’t exactly sure what’s happening to her, either.
So while the scares are ample, the gameplay rich and imaginative (a few frustrating needle-in-haystack searches aside), and the world a detailed and involving one (Frictional estimates roughly 9 hours for the average game; the playthrough time for this review was about double that), Amnesia: Rebirth has set itself an oddly contradictory task: Get people involved in a profound and complicated narrative mythology, while embodying a character who has no desire to be associated with any of it. Even with some late-in-the-game reveals of painful memories and Tasi’s mind-wiped history with this mine, the damage has been done. Reasonable people, Rebirth argues, should set aside foolish attractions to things bigger than themselves and those they care about. Focus on what matters. Everything else is just the jump scares of life, things to be surmounted en route to a safe place for family. I don’t know what Frictional calls that, but anyone who invests even minimally in their character’s arc will want it to be a win.