Contemporary Explanations of Virtual Bodies and Fear in Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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The Dark Descent In my first and second papers I focused on the visual and audio design and mechanics of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and analyzed how they worked and to what immediate ends different visuals, sounds, and mechanics were used.

However, it is not in these elements alone but rather in their synthesis that that they can be used to create tension and ultimately horror in the player.

Through combining audio, visual, and mechanical techniques, Amnesia simulates the haptic sense- creates a virtual body that the player inhabits- and then disrupts this and the other senses to create tension, anxiety, and fear, and ultimately induced reaction in the player.

In this essay, I aim to analyze the player’s relationship with this virtual body through two lenses: first through the modernist lens of the player as the consumer of a product, with the constructed virtual body little more than an illusion; the second through the more postmodern lens of the player as a cyborg and the virtual body as an extension of the real.

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I do this not to show that one framework works better than the other, because indeed both are able to adequately explain how fear is ultimately produced by the game, but out of a sense of Contemporaneity.

By that, I mean that I aim to analyze Amnesia as a piece of Contemporary art; as defined by Debbie Atkinson: Contemporary art is not addressing the Modern-Postmodern dichotomy by setting the two in confrontation, favoring one mode above the other, nor simply walking the middle ground between them.

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It is an outcome of the friction between Modern and Postmodern statements… which happily seems to encompass the earnest, the ridiculous, beauty, the sublime, cynicism and hope; and all (or no) points on the compass in-between (5).

In other words, I place modernist and postmodern-cyborgist explanations side by side not to put them at odds, but because the truth of the matter (if there can said to be any) may be in their combinat inhabiting a virtual self; any semblance of such can be nothing more than illusion. The Cyborg instead “thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born” (Hayles, 3).

In other words, the virtual body is at least as real as the physical body it is an extension of. Their differing notions of body in turn lead to differing notions of harm and fear. To the modernist, the only real fear response a game can cause is through startling you through sudden sights and sounds, which affect your legitimate body through your senses; otherwise the game must make the player believe the illusion that they are in mortal danger in order to cause fear.

To the Cyborg, on the other hand, while being startled is a legitimate fear response, so too is fearing for the integrity of the virtual body: when we fear for our lives in our physical body it is because we fear loss of control, and there is little difference between the physical prosthesis and the virtual one. In order to create fear-induced reactions in the player’s true body, Amnesia first creates a virtual one for the player. The first step in creating this virtual body is to give it eyes- a point of vision.

This is accomplished by placing the camera at eye-height, and having it shudder and tilt as the character it represents the vision of moves- what Alexander Galloway calls “active” vision in his Essays on Algorithmic Culture, and is used to provide the player with an intuitive sense of motion (40, 69). That this sense of motion is intuitive is essential: even without seeing the positions of the limbs of the body we inhabit, we know from experience what it looks like to take a step forward, to walk, to sidestep, to stumble to the ground.

From the modernist’s perspective, that we see this movement as intuitive is key to the illusion that this is our body: if the movements of the camera did not look similar to how our perception into thinking that what is on the screen is the entirety of their vision with such a woefully unsuitable device?

Thankfully for the modernist, the player wants to be tricked; they place the computer somewhere relatively free of distractions and with dim lighting, and the brain naturally filters out the unmoving and unlit surroundings until only the monitor is perceived- or as may be the case, the player buys a virtual reality headset and indeed replaces their vision entirely with the view the game provides. The Cyborg, however, has less issue with the monitor.

The cyborg-player does not need to be tricked, even willingly so, into believing a lie, they need merely choose to use the vision given to them by attending to the monitor. The second step in the creation of this body is to give it a sense of hearing, accomplished through speakers or more preferably headphones, where the player’s audio perception of their world can be entirely overwritten by the perception of the virtual body.

To the modernist, this total overwrite of the sense is a massive boon, as it limits outside distractions that might break the illusion. To the cyborg, it is a convenience that limits outside distractions as well, but for the purpose of not breaking concentration rather than illusion. The third and final step is to give the body a way to move: the keyboard or controller.

This is where the modernist has the most trouble explaining how the illusion persists: how can the player believe they are moving around when they can feel that their legs are not moving- and more importantly when they are aware they are dictating such movements through their hands? This can be partially explained by the player’s willing suspension of disbelief, but it is better explained by the fact that,”surprisingly, [vision) appears to give more potent information about our balance than the specialized balance organs in the inner ear, and the join and skin receptors that signal pressure and sway” (Smyth, 142).

The cyborg, meanwhile, has no such issues with the cont the epitome of Chion’s idea of the added value of layering visual and audio and in our case, mechanics): the vision on its own might suggest that the player inhabits a body, the mechanics might suggest that what the player controls has weight, and the audio might suggest that someone is running on stone, but together they serve as more than the sum of their parts: the creation of a virtual body that confirms its own existence through its senses (5).

The cyborg-player, then, in sharing these senses, also confirms the existence of the virtual body, and can choose to inhabit it. As Stelarc says, “the self becomes situated beyond the skin” (478). The modernist-player, however, ideally has no choice in the matter: their vision and hearing have been replaced with the vision and hearing of the virtual body, and their other senses can do little to inform them of the condition of their real body- the illusion complete, the player has no choice but to believe what they are seeing and hearing is true.

Thus the player has been given a virtual body to inhabit- but this fact on its own will not create the anxiety and fear the game wishes to produce in the player. To do that, it must now threaten to undo what it has done: to disrupt and destroy the body it has created, to tear the player from the position it invited, or forced, them to take in the first place. The first step in creating fear in the player is to create tension and anxiety.

This is necessary because it primes the player to react to later fear triggers more intensely- in the same way that priming someone with negative and pain-related words before introducing a painful experience enhances the perceived pain (Richter et. al.), priming a player with anxiety, making them expect future reasons for fear, enhances that fear once experienced. But what is there to be anxious of in a virtual world?

This is why there was a need for the virtual body to be created and inhabited by the player: the game cannot threaten the player’s body, safe behind the monitor, but the player audio cues also serve to create anxiety by promising the player a loss of agency.

The sounds of a monster or beast growling echoing down the corridors of the castle serve to remind players that their virtual body could be attacked at any moment; as players stand in the dark or look at disturbing events and their sanity decreases, vision blurs, movement wobbles, and it seems control of their new body is going to wrested from them. The level design also serves to enhance these threats: the castle is filled with shut doors and 90 degree angles that obscure vision and could hide monsters behind them (Extra Credits).

In other cases, after the first time the player encounters an invisible, water-bound creature, the mere presence of water the player must near or cross holds the promise of another attack. To the modernist-player, anxiety is produced differently. The modernist player may still fear loss of control- but more importantly they fear pain, suffering, and death.

Again there is an aspect of anxiety of fear itself, as fear is a kind of suffering, and so the knowledge of the genre of the game again works to produce anxiety. However, the effects of decreasing sanity do not threaten the modernistplayer, they instead merely serve as visual and audio obstacles; instead, it is the threat of harm and death to the virtual body, interpreted as threats to the real body, that the modernist most fears. The idea that one may encounter a monster make them anxious not because they may lose control of a new set of senses, but because it truly seems like a matter of life and death.

However, the anxiety caused by the threat of future threats can only go so far; on its own, the player will soon enough become aware that there is no real threat and thus anxiety will vanish. It becomes necessary, eventually, to deliver on the promised threat of loss of control, bodily harm, or fear to the player.

To this end, there are three true threats in the game: the effects monsters, and startling or disturbing events. The modernist and the cybor the player wishes to see and hear only what they need to see and hear to complete the game, but the hallucinations defeat this, the player wishes to see with clear vision, but the blurriness defeats this; finally, the player wishes for unhindered movement and the ability to flee from threats, the virtual body’s collapse defeats this.

Where at full sanity the first-person perspective combines with player action to create a body the player can identify with, at low sanity the player is robbed of perception and action and the effect becomes not that of the “active” camera but that of film’s subjective camera: used to create detachment, claustrophobia, and non-identification with their new body ( Galloway, 40).

However, non-identification does not mean that this body is disowned- the experience is much like phantom limb syndrome: felt by those who had a limb and lost it, but not by those who were born without. Given a virtual body to inhabit and then taking away control of it does not simply leave the cyborg-player in the state they were before being given the body, instead they feel the absence of control where they had it before; they are crippled, made powerless. The modernist-player, meanwhile, has little problem with the sanity system as a source of fear in and of itself, but in the presence of the threat of harm, it enhances fear by making it more difficult to escape that threat.

Audio hallucinations make it harder to keep track of out-of-sight enemies through sound by taking up audio space, blurry and distorted vision makes it harder to navigate, and should the virtual body fall to the ground it becomes nearly impossible to recover in time to escape any chasing monsters.

There is a special case in the form of hallucinatory enemies that show up in specific areas if a player’s sanity is low enough- but as they are neither regular occurrences nor is it especially evident that they are a result of low sanity, they fit more under the purview of startling incidences. In the other cases, the obstacles to safety make own death, as it is merely a prosthesis- the modernist-player fears for their life. Finally, we arrive at the third threat to the player: sudden noises or sights intended to take them by surprise.

These range from pairings of intrusive sights and sounds that last mere moments and are intended merely to startle (commonly called jump-scares) to more more subtle or complex arrangements- such as a swelling of eerie music accompany the entrance to a new area- or the loud screeching that is heard when a monster begins chasing you.

To the cyborg, these cause a loss of control of themselves, of their physical body (for example jumping in fear, screaming, dropping the controller and running out of the room, etc.), and are thus a response to be feared. To the modernist, these responses are merely indicative of the more important underlying panic responses- a form of suffering that the modernist fears.

While the buildup of anxiety is created by the three above threats, it ultimately serves the purpose of helping to realize this third one. Indeed, the idea that a horror game will cause great enough fear in the player as to produce involuntary action is what ultimately determines the critical success of the game. Here both of the above kinds of fear, and the anxiety that precedes them come into play. Heightened anxiety is required to produce greater fear in the player; but a trigger that promotes action is needed to turn that anxiety into visceral fear.

To the cyborg, the two above methods of delivering on threats of fear serve as this trigger: the fear of death, pain, and loss of control to the virtual body are essentially no different from threats of death, pain, and loss of control to the real body; as threats are realized and heightened anxiety gives way to fight-or-flight responses, the true body is induced into action. Similarly, the modernist is stimulated primarily by fear of death, pain, and suffering of the virtual body, which in their case is indistinguishable from the real body. In summary, the creation of a virtuvirtual body allows virtual threats to cause action in a real body.

However, all three of these threats – from sanity loss, from the monsters, from jump-scares- are not capable of producing fear in the player forever, from the perspective of both the modernist and the cyborg. The fear of the monsters diminishes most, ironically, should you fail to escape them and be reduced to zero health.

In that case, vision fades to black, the player is given an encouraging “You have to carry on” in subtitle, and then they are returned to an earlier checkpoint, virtual body restored. To the modernist, this diminishes the fear present in the game significantly, as they have died once in fact, relatively painlessly), and only been set back a bit. Perhaps in the name of entertainment, the player will suspend disbelief and attempt to put this out of their head, but for practical purposes the illusion of mortal danger no longer suffices as a viable threat.

The cyborg is similarly relieved: they remain in control of the virtual body they thought destroyed. There is still a reason for a small amount of fear on the part of the cyborg, however, as dying undoes and progress made since that last checkpoint- it relocates the player against their will and requires them to repeat some puzzles that may have been only half-solved before- some amount of control has been clearly lost.

While the fear of sanity loss effects never truly existed to the modernist, to the cyborg it diminishes with familiarity with the system. The cyborg eventually comes to re-interpret the sanity system as not a force external to the virtual body that reduces his control over it, but rather a force internal and integral to the body- a limitation the virtual prosthesis has much like the inability to sprint forever or to fight effectively.

That the system isn’t immediately intuitive (that is to say, most players have not experienced audio or visual hallucinations is key to the reasons it causes fear; but like all systems that the cyborg can form a feedback loop with, it can be made to be internal [QUOTE]. In other words, the cyborg internalizes the limitations on the virtual body the sanity system create: the sensation of a phantom limb is replaced with the knowledge that the “limb” is meant to be detachable.

Finally, different aspects of events made to startle the player lose their fear factor primarily depending on whether the player can anticipate them or not; both the cyborg and the modernist players fear these for slightly differing reasons, but both diminish in the same way. Most sudden events-doors opening, wind suddenly dousing lights, etc., cannot be anticipated unless the game has been played through previously- and so in theory they should serve their purpose the entire way through.

The second category of these events, the appearance of monsters, is difficult but not impossible to anticipate: you always know that another encounter with the monsters is possible, and they typically show up in spaces with many hallways, doors, and turns- both to obscure the position of the monster and to allow the player to escape them. Over time, the player may come to recognize spaces the monsters may appear, and thus anticipate their appearance, diminishing the effect of their sudden arrival.

Other factors of the game mitigate this, however- hallucinatory monsters sometimes appear in places where the player cannot escape them, from unusual places (such as inside a closet), etc. These moments catch the player who thinks they have figured out when monsters can and cannot appear off guard- and to the player who has not yet nailed down when they may appear may be confounded by seemingly inconsistent data.

What are we to conclude when the modernist and postmodern/posthuman cyborg interpretations of the game differ so greatly? As earlier stated, perhaps the truth can be found in their combination- of note is that while both interpretations disagree on what aspects of the game create fear, they do not necessarily state that that which they do not find a source of fear are excluded from being sources of fear.

The cyborg fears loss of control and the modernist fears suffering- each would try to explain the other away by claiming what the other claims to fear is merely an aspect of what the one truly fears. In attempting to explain the other away, it is perhaps that both perspectives simultaneously form and ignore the larger point: that loss of control is a form of suffering, a kind of pain; and that pain and suffering are forms of or indicative of a loss of control.

Perhaps the virtual body is both illusion and real: the cyborg does not extend themselves into the realm of the virtual, but into the realm of the processor, graphics card, and hard drive; the virtual body merely an illusion, a convenient metaphor to understand the interactions made in this realm; the merging is not of wetware and software but of wetware and hardware.

Works Cited

Frictional Games, “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”. Frictional Games (2010). Alexander R. Galloway, “Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture”. Electronic Mediations Volume 18. University of Minnesota Press (2006).

Deborah Atkinson, “That Willing Suspension of Disbelief: How art and social media are reviving affective expression”, ( Willing Suspension of Disbelief How Art and Social M edia Are Reviving Affective Expression) (2013).

Michel Chion, “Audio-vision: Sound on Screen”. Columbia University Press (1994). Stelarc, “Prosthetic Head: Intelligence, Awareness, and Agency” (2005).

Extra Credits, “Extra Credits – Shiver with Antici-pation – How Horror Games Create a Tension Cycle”, Youtube ( v=OyiAR2BXtKU&list=UUCODtTcd5M1JavPCOr Uydg&index=10) (2014).

N. Katherine Hayles, “How we became Posthuman: Virutal Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics”, University of Chicago Press (1999).

Richter, Maria et al. “Pain-Related and Negative Semantic Priming Enhances Perceived Pain Intensity.” Pain Research & Management: The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society 19.2 (2014).

Norman Miller & Gary Marks, “Assumed Similarity between Self and Other: Effect of Expectation of Future Interaction with That Other”, Social Psychology Quarterly 45.2 (1982).

Smyth, Mary M. & Wing, Alan W., “Psychology of Human Movement”, Academic Press (1984).

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Contemporary Explanations of Virtual Bodies and Fear in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. (2021, Oct 05). Retrieved from

Contemporary Explanations of Virtual Bodies and Fear in Amnesia: The Dark Descent

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