The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet


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Post-mortem post mortem

I guess it’s no big secret that I didn’t much care for Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I think I’ve mentioned it once or twice. Over here, on the other hand, you’ll find the staff of Frictional Games — who made the thing — being positively Swedish about it. Here are some things they say about the ARG, and things I have to say about the things they have to say:

One early idea was to have live-footage of someone being tortured (all acted of course, promise!) and make that into massive Milgram-kind-of experiment. This was scrapped for some other ideas though.

Ah. So you decided to opt for the distributed torture model instead, then. Thanks for that.

This led to us coming up with the idea of a Portal game set in the universe and style of Amnesia, with the addition of a juicy perma-death mechanic. The main reason simply being that we wanted to see how it affected the level of scariness and had high hopes we would mess people up.

Uh. Did you happen to play your own game, Charles? Not that I’d blame you if you hadn’t, but, seriously, it has nothing to do with Portal. Like, at all. Here’s a brief list of things Portal has that the Amnesia expansion does not:

1) Portals

I could continue, but I think that’s sort of the whole ball game right there. In what way is Amnesia the least bit like Portal? It doesn’t look like Portal, it doesn’t play like Portal, it doesn’t feature a signature mechanic from Portal — to wit, portals — and it’s not fun like Portal. Also Portal does not have a shitheaded permanent death mode. So really, you’ve kind of made the anti-Portal.

Oh, and. Here’s the effect the permanent death mechanic had on the level of scariness: it made it go way, way down. Why? Because here’s what’s not scary: having to play the same parts of the game over and over again because every time you (just to take a random example) spawn a mob right behind me and spontaneously kill me, I get to start all over from the beginning. That’s not scary. It’s stupid.

My design of the add-on story "Justine" started out very basic (and honestly quite dull), but through great efforts by the rest of the team it managed to get really nice.

The original version was more dull than the thing I played? What happened, did you forget the comedy typos? Maybe in your original version I only had to stack three crates instead of six in the first giant crate stack. How dull!

For instance the puzzles, especially the first one, were not all that great at first, something that Jens managed to fix when scripting.

The first puzzle is the crate-stacking one. It’s not all that great now, either. What did Jens do? Add the annoying old man who keeps yelling the same two voice samples for help while you’re stacking the crates? Or did Jens think of the ingenious solution of "ignore him and he gets free on his own… somehow?"

Mikael, our writer, added quite a lot of depth to the initial plot and our artists, Marc and Marcus, created very nice levels and graphics out of my crummy sketches and often non-existing descriptions.

Did Mikael write the ending? Because if so: fuck you, Mikael. And "non-existing descriptions" is pretty much exactly the graphical motif you ended up with. Nice heads-up design. Though I bet down-on-their-luck Swedish hip-hop stars Marc and Marcus were the ones who kept saying "more candles! Add more candles! Candles are fucking scary!"

The ARG really picked up pace once Jeep from Valve put together a document outlining the basic steps of the meta game. It was here that the guidelines for each of the three updates were set and now we started contemplating how to add the clues to Amnesia. Our first idea was to release the "Justine" expansion at the start of the ARG and then add new elements to it at each update. Mikael was put on designing these puzzles.

Wow, Mikael designed both the crate-stacking puzzle and the insert-the-right-keycards puzzle? That’s some serious puzzle designing!

As the ARG was getting closer, we started to realize that we would not have "Justine" ready until the meta-game’s start date. This forced us to re-think how the different hints were added in our game (meaning the puzzle work done by Mikael had to be thrown out).

Oh. So actually, Mikael just made a bunch of shit you didn’t use. Go team!

Amnesia being a serious game that is all about atmosphere, we did not want to add cheeky out-of-place stuff scattered here and there; instead we wanted all hints to fit the game.

Yeah, Amnesia is serious business. Can’t have anything that seems out of place in your overwrought gothic fairy tale about a simpering nitwit hiding in closets while a whole castle turns into meat!

Seriously. That’s what happens. The castle gradually turns into meat, and you have to hide in the closet until it’s over. The end.

In this new design, we had all three clue updates in the normal Amnesia: The Dark Descent and then for the final "crescendo" event we would release the "Justine" expansion, with the goal of having X amount of people complete to unlock our final part of the ARG. Our, somewhat sadistic, hope was the people would reluctantly force themselves through the game to complete the final part of the ARG.

Well, you got your fucking wish. That is exactly what I did. And every time I was hiding in a spot the monster — whoops! — pathed right over, and every time I didn’t react quite quickly enough when you — whoops! — spawned a mob out of thin air right the fuck behind me, I reluctantly played through the whole first part of the game yet again so I could get back to the part where you murdered me. Congratulations! Your game is totally unplayable.

The day before the ARG started, I put together a cryptic blog post, with the intent of introducing the community to a character that might help and confuse them during the ARG. Our initial plan was to keep everything “in-character” according to our own sub-story, with forums posts complaining about escaped animals and the like, hopefully with people wondering what was true and what was not. Unfortunately, it was figured out very quickly that the whole thing was an ARG for Portal 2 (or at least the general Internet-consensus was this) and instead we just used the character to hand over some hints.

I’ve tried like a hundred times, but I can’t get anything out of this passage except "we half-assed our RP bit, but it’s not our fault." Also, for fuck’s sake, you called the dude HELPr. You’re shocked that people didn’t buy into the serious fiction? Here’s HELPr’s second post:

Okay I do nt care any mre if thse sadistic bastrds got me burning wi lasers and all after last escpe.
Hrd to type with fngrs off bt have to kpp trying!! Dd mssages before went up??? Itried to sneak, but scrw that now!!
I just dmped all I could find on th srvers!!! hahaha!! This wll scrw them up. I also sht in thomas shos… hohoh…
hohho… someone awke and heading this wy!!! I there are sre to be material that can HURT THEM ALOT!!! Hlp me find!!
might be hidden. BSTRDS WLL PAY!!!! go2go!!

Fucking internet community. Why don’t you take this more seriously? Amnesia is a serious game!

Finally the ARG arrived and people threw themselves over our update. This first update was really just meant to contain very little of interest, essentially only displaying a special glyph, a letter and peculiar sentence. To pad out the update a bit, and to hide the hints from people searching the new files, we added some un-exciting assets from "Justine" and a few fake hieroglyphs that were only visible to those not looking for the glyphs in-game. It turned out that almost no attention was paid to the important content though, instead most people were extremely excited about the "Justine" assets, some even convinced that a new secret level was hidden somewhere (and found several plausible locations for this lost place).

So you added enough red herring content that it was clear a whole new level was coming, and you’re surprised that people thought that was more interesting than the "important" addition of one letter? Note to you guys: the players don’t get like a big beacon that pops up on our retinas and says "important!" when we’re looking at the right thing. If you want us to be able to spot the important shit, you kind of shouldn’t bury it under so much unimportant but much more interesting shit.

The hieroglyphs also turned out to be more interesting than the correct glyph, and people even started to decipher their meaning. I actually felt a bit bad about this, and even though no ancient Egyptian expertise would be needed, we decided to use the glyphs somehow in later updates.

Again: you added fifteen phony glyphs and one correct glyph. In my experience, they were all analysed equally, but, sure, fifteen times as much effort was spent on the group that was fifteen times as large. This is news?

This brings us to the second update, in which we were supposed to have some minor Portal hints. Our choice of hint was to project the shadow of one of the Portal 2 robots onto a wall in the start menu. My hope was that people would take a screenshot, and make photoshop-enhanced images, ala big foot footage, with heated discussions on what it look like would ensuing.

This is actually the second Bigfoot reference in this article (the first one is in a caption I didn’t quote). I have to admit: that sounds like kind of a fun plan. How do you suppose it went wrong? Wanna bet the exact same way the first plan went wrong?

That did not work out as planned of course, and instead someone found the actual texture, where the portal 2 robot was clearly visible, even before it was spotted in the menu. Our evil plan was spoiled. Lesson learned: always hide the fun stuff!

Ah, yep: once again, it failed to occur to them that people might just like diff the updated files to find out what changed.

The shadow of a robot was not all that was part of the second update though. We had also added some clues, that lead up to a special steam overlay and a password for Rush. At first these clues where all simply in a note and a clear voice message. But as we thought it was so fun to watch people trying to crack the riddles and search our files at the first update, we decided to add more content and make the puzzles a bit harder. This was accomplished by encrypting the (already cryptic) text with a non-standard substitution cipher and by adding some noise and effects to the voice message.

See, this part worked, because you actually bothered to finish designing the game instead of leaving giant holes and trying to plaster over them with signs that say "warning! Play this the way we intended!" This is easily the phase 2 puzzle that took the longest to solve — especially since there was no real way to intuit or stumble upon the Rush potato, we were stuck on it until almost the very end of phase 2. See how much better the puzzles work when you put time in to finishing them instead of carping that people aren’t solving them the right way?

Along with this we also added four rar files, one of which could be opened by solving a puzzle involving the previously mentioned hieroglyphs and some knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. The first rar then contained a password to the next rar and so on. Each rar file also contained a text and image that would tease about the soon to come "Justine" add-on story. Unfortunately, pretty much nobody bothered about discussing these bits. Either people were too caught up in solving the puzzle (only seeing the texts and images as means to an end) or they were not that interested into solving the puzzle and did not pay attention to what was uncovered.

What? Fuck you, dude. Every single one of those files — image and text — contained some type of hidden message or clue that we used in the game we were playing: you know, the ARG? So, yeah, we spent a bit more time attempting to solve a time-limited puzzle that we were frankly behind the clock on than we did pondering the brooding mystery of your picture of a dude’s head in a vise.

As we added these new stuff, especially the hieroglyph-related puzzle (that was written on a wall) and the encrypted note, I think that we might have disturbed the atmosphere a tiny bit too much. The encrypted note uses a cipher that could have been used in the 19th century, but still feels a bit out of place.

I think probably exactly zero people who played Amnesia found their experience of the game utterly ruined by the not-right feel of the cypher you used to encrypt a message they probably didn’t find. More likely their experience was ruined by the awful gameplay.

The (hidden) writing on the wall is even worse as it does not really makes sense in the game’s world. I think they did not interfere with many (if any?) people’s experience in the end though. Still, it is worth thinking about the impact that this kind of stuff has on the normal game, even if it is just a for a limited time.

Consider this. The whole point of this ARG — the metafiction behind the entire thing — was that GLaDOS was trying to escape into the real world, and one of the early manifestations of this was that she was sneaking into other games and subtly (then later not-so-subtly) altering them. You may have missed the point.

A few days later it was time to release update 3, which meant putting "Justine" online. As the ARG hint was unlocked by making a perfect run through the game, some precautions were put in. First of all, the maps and script files where compressed and encrypted, thus not allowing any editing or peeking. This together with some other safe-guards also ensured that the maps could not be chosen individually and needed to be played in the set order. Finally, some important assets like the game config and enemy files were given CRC checks to make sure they were not meddled with. Even so, someone figured out that enemies could be disabled by renaming their folder after the game was booted (when the CRC checks had been made). Tricky bastards…

Yeah, see, maybe if you hadn’t shitheadedly decided to make players start over from the damn beginning (of a game with zero replay value, by the way) every time they get killed, they wouldn’t have been so motivated to hack out the things that could kill them. Do you see?

For the record, I did not use the no-mobs hack, though had I died one more time on the twitchy wheel-the-door-up-wheel-the-door-down section I probably would have. A death there, in case I haven’t mentioned this, requires like half an hour of slogging through an adventure game you’ve already beaten to get back to where you were.

A few days later the final crescendo part of the ARG started, where all the games taking part in the ARG needed to be played in order to awaken GLaDOS. It was really fun to see how our game’s bar went the slowest. People afraid to play = mission accomplished!

This. This right here. This is the thing I hate the most about this fucking game. This ridiculous smug attitude that, hey, either you love the game, or you’re just chicken! It’s not just in this blog post, either. In my career of complaining about this game, I’ve encountered quite a few people who treat it as a given that anybody who would rather do anything other than play Amnesia is just much too frightened of it.

I’ve said this twice before, and I’ll say it again: Amnesia is not scary. I mean, I dunno, maybe if you’re really young, or really stoned, or maybe if you’re afraid of first-person cameras that jiggle around during play, then it’s scary. Here’s how it plays:

Walk walk walk walk walk walk walk oh good I can run now run run wait wait wait SCARY MONSTER! Oh, wait, it’s actually just like some brown zombie, and it’s just sort of ambling across the room. That’s… not scary at all. Oh, stacking crates!

Frictional. Seriously. The following things are not, nor have they ever been, scary:

• Dark video games
• Doors slamming in the distance
• Wind
• Cockroaches
• Lots and lots and LOTS of blood all over like every surface
• Candles
• Having to start the entire game over again and play through every single pseudo-puzzle and pseudo-encounter — all of which are exactly the same — again because the game instant-deathed you
• Crates

I played Half-Life. Half-Life was way scarier than Amnesia. Tale of Tales’ The Path was scarier than Amnesia. Hell, even Borderlands was scarier than Amnesia. Amnesia is not a scary game, it is a frustrating game. They’re not the same thing. It is impossible for me to be scared by Amnesia because I’m too busy being annoyed by the clumsiness of the interface and the stupidity of the actual game design. I mean, I get what you’re after, here — you’re trying to build some type of brooding scary atmosphere, and the game itself is sort of a secondary concern. This is why you put the health meter on the inventory screen — don’t want to break the immersion with any indication of how dead we’re getting! But riddle me this, caped crusader. Which breaks the immersion more: a health meter, or a crate-stacking puzzle? Doors that just fucking open when we click on them, or a "puzzle" where we have to get all the valves set to the (completely arbitrary) right number? Being able to reload our last save, or having to play the entire game over again?

Seriously, guys. It’s not a badge of honour that nobody wanted to play your game. It’s a sign that you need to make a better game. Half-Life was scary as shit, and I’ve played it like four times.


April 27th, 2011 Posted by | Games | no comments

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