The monsters that patrol the ruined halls of Brennenburg Castle are not scary. Once you’ve gotten a good look at the tragic beings that pursue you throughout Amnesia: The Dark Descent—whether while peeking between the doors of the 19th-century armoires you find yourself hiding in or watching in annoyed acceptance as they claw your face off—you realize they look kind of dopey, like shambling mounds of burlap sacks with googly eyes and floppy jaws. It’s the classic monster-movie dilemma: The creature you imagine will always be more terrifying than the one you see on screen.
And yet these Grunts, as the gaping loons are known, remain a terrifying threat throughout your journey into the castle’s depths. When you’re running for your life, it doesn’t much matter what’s after you. Any superficiality is outweighed by the feeling of death on your tail, the maddening crescendo the game sears through your speakers as a monster gives chase, and the knowledge that, if you did take the time to turn around and see its stupid mug, you’d be done for. Flight is far more frightening than fight. It’s a powerful, primal fear, and over the course of several releases, culminating in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the developers at Frictional Games grew to understand and control it.
Of all the horrific pursuits it and its many copycats have put players through, none are as pure and potent as Amnesia’s flooded Cellar Archives. The short sequence is practically a boastful demonstration of Frictional’s mastery over its horror ethos, as if the game’s designers were sitting at a table one-upping each other until one finally blurted, “Yeah, well, I bet I can scare the crap out of them with a monster they can’t even see.” It’s such a radical idea, but it’s the natural conclusion to Amnesia’s philosophy. When the monster that’s after you is invisible, there’s no possibility of disappointment or comfort brought on by familiarity. There’s just the chase, and nothing is as naturally scary as that.
Early in the game and before you’re even in danger of being caught by a Grunt, you find yourself in an empty cellar. There’s a horrible roar from some unseen force and you black out. When you reawaken, the place has been flooded and covered in the sinewy webs of the formless cosmic horror that followed your character into the castle. You walk forward through the knee-high water. Almost immediately, you hear hissing and the sound of something stomping through the water, but there’s nothing there. The furious sloshing continues and you see the ripples making their way around the corner ahead. Still, there’s nothing. The footsteps are louder and angrier now, and you see violent splashes heading straight for you. Instinctively, you climb onto a crate to your left, out of the water and possibly out of harm’s way. The splashes keep coming, inches away from your character’s fragile body now, and then it all stops. There’s nothing.
You have to move from the safety of your crate eventually. Reluctantly, you step back into the water, and the splashing starts again. This time, it’s too close. You hear a reptilian cry and something smacks you across the head. Your vision bloodied, you climb onto the next box and watch as the water calms again. You see nothing, but you know it’s right there, silently waiting for you to step back into its territory. Whatever it is, it’s blind and bloodthirsty. You can’t see it, and it can’t see you. The only way you two can track each other is by the disturbances you each create in the cellar’s pool—your nervous, plodding footsteps; its intent stalking. You can escape to safety outside the water, and it cuts through the shallows more quickly than you ever could. It’s almost a level playing field.
Except, of course, you can’t fight back. All you can do is run, hopping from floating crate to floating crate like a kid playing “the floor is lava.” To escape, you pull a lever that opens a mechanical gate and make a mad dash down the hall before it closes. The whole time, this thing is splashing and gnashing right behind you. Amnesia was not built with these kinds of acrobatics in mind. It’s easy to fall into the water and struggle to climb back out, with your character’s awkward fumbling acting as a realistic reflection of the panic this scene so easily provokes. You don’t need to see the monster. You can hear it coming—along with the nerve-flaying thunderous music—and you know what’ll happen if it reaches you. That’s enough to get your muscles tense and your teeth gritting.
Your reward for escape is being locked in an even smaller room with another invisible water monster. Using the human body parts strewn around the chamber to distract the carnivorous beast, you slowly turn the valve to open your only exit door and pray that torso you tossed it lasts long enough to save your own. The moment is tuned just right, so that by the time you’re done opening the door, the creature has finished its snack and is once again on your tail. The last encounter with these beasts is an all out sprint through the remaining flooded halls. Even without being able to see it, you can tell this one is different. It’s bigger, more powerful, more aggressive, and doesn’t leave you alone just because you’ve jumped on a box. You throw open the doors in your way and slam them shut to block its path, but this menace just tears through them. Its shrieks and hisses and splashes only stop coming once you’ve reached the next wing of the castle. There’s no need—or time—to turn around and look. And besides, there’s nothing there to see.
Since Amnesia’s release in 2010, there’s been a huge horror-game resurgence. Part of that is due to the emergence of YouTube culture, but it’s not a stretch to say the success of Frictional’s Lovecraftian opus was the catalyst for a change in the way developers think about video game horror. There’s more to it than a creepy atmosphere and a vague sense that you’re in over your head. It’s about forcing the player to confront what lies ahead in the face of utter helplessness. The Cellar Archives is the thesis statement for this entire school of design. The hard part isn’t recognizing your path past this insurmountable force or even executing on it; the hard part is working up the courage to get it done. The water monster may hiss like an alligator and splash around like its on two feet, but its true form is more abstract than any physical grotesquerie. It’s the embodiment of pursuit and fear. And if there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, well, that explains what makes this one of the most terrifying video game scenes ever conceived.