Play the game that defined 2010s survival horror before it leaves Game Pass

Play the game that defined 2010s survival horror before it leaves Game Pass

The first time I played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I had to put it down and walk away. I’m a big fan of horror games, and I don’t usually put them down unless they’re unplayable or just bad. The Dark Descent was different, though, a game that freaked me out so badly that I had to turn the lights on and just sit in that glow until I could catch my breath. My vision had become too dark; I was out of oil for my lantern; and there were cracking noises coming from somewhere off screen. I hadn’t been taken aback by a jump scare or a disturbing creature. I was just unnerved, tense, and extremely uncomfortable. So, you know, the best way to be scared.

There are very few games that are genre-defining in a way that actually means anything, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent, developed by Frictional Games, set the standard for survival horror in the 2010s. After a few years of action-oriented horror games, most notably 2005’s Resident Evil 4 and 2008’s Dead Space, Amnesia took it back to basics, removing combat entirely and relying almost solely on atmosphere to induce scares. This was oddly refreshing at the time, and while there are plenty of Amnesia-likes available to play these days, including two direct sequels, Frictional is still a unique developer in this space for its dedication to this particular kind of horror, even as it’s gone on to explore other themes and styles in separate titles, like Soma.

While The Dark Descent, as part of Amnesia: Collection, is available to play on nearly all modern consoles, it, along with Frictional’s Amnesia: Rebirth and Soma, is leaving Xbox Game Pass on April 15. That means you have just a few days to play some of these relatively short (The Dark Descent is around eight hours long) but highly impactful horror games. And if you don’t make it in time, you can still get 20% off if you have a subscription.

A giant spiral staircase going to a high ceiling, with the base surrounded by candles. Image: Frictional Games

In The Dark Descent, you play an amnesiac man named Daniel who wakes up in the eerie Gothic corridors of Brennenburg Castle. Unfortunately for the player, there’s unknowable magic and eldritch horrors around every corner, and without your memory, you’ll have to uncover why you’re here and what’s going on in order to escape. Worst of all, there is zero combat to speak of, which means you can’t fight back. You can pick up objects to solve puzzles, but in terms of tools, all you have is a lantern you need to repeatedly refill with oil and the occasional candle or torch in the environment, which you can light with a tinderbox.

It’s important to keep the lights lit here as often as possible, because otherwise, the player’s “sanity” meter — which measures the amount of emotional distress the character is under — will appear and begin to rise, and as a result, the game will become more difficult and challenging. The longer you stay in the dark, the more your meter will rise. The edges of the screen will grow darker and distorted, while monstrous sounds will start to creep in, crowding your senses. If you don’t find the light quickly, you soon won’t see much at all, a huge problem when you’re surrounded by creatures that can and will kill you in just a few hits. You’re very much on your own in Amnesia, and while you have some impact on your environment, you’re mostly powerless.

This wasn’t a new experience in gaming, even for Frictional Games, which had begun to make a name for itself years prior with the Penumbra trilogy of survival horror games. Those also eschewed traditional survival horror combat in favor of puzzles and an emphasis on atmosphere, which in turn would set the template for what Frictional would eventually go on to perfect over the next few years. The studio would use that knowledge to land on a formula with The Dark Descent that just works, especially if you’re tired of action and gore. Sure, being able to kill monsters with a shotgun can be cathartic, but at a certain point, that power diminishes the scares’ impact, which should arguably be one of if not the most important aspect of a horror game.

Amnesia: Collection features two games — The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs — along with Justine, a one-hour expansion. While A Machine for Pigs isn’t an official sequel, since it was helmed by Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room, and Justine is mostly unrelated to the original game, they helped with establishing what has become Frictional’s Amnesia brand. These are all games about the absolute worst vibes.

A character holding up a lantern in first person. It’s illuminating a hallway with pipes on the walls. Image: The Chinese Room/Frictional Games

Each game is heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, memorably emphasizes deformed, oddly organic machinery, and features little to no combat. They use amnesia as a plot device to set up the exploration and reveals, but they’re more about the thin line between human and monster, and the lengths we’ll go in the search for power.

All of this also applies to 2020’s Amnesia: Rebirth, which features some especially disturbing pregnancy imagery; 2023’s Amnesia: The Bunker, which iterates on the series with its roguelike design; and 2015’s Soma, which is basically a cyberpunk, transhumanist Amnesia game. All of these are currently available on Game Pass, but only The Bunker will be available after April 15.

Over the years, the Amnesia series has become a horror mainstay, and each entry can stand on its own without acknowledging the importance and impact of The Dark Descent. However, that first game is still required playing even 14 years later, simply for having started it all.