Amnesia previews have started coming in thick and fast. If you don't know already, Amnesia is the new IP from my chums over at Frictional Games, the guys who - by taking a punt on me for Penumbra: Overture - gave me the break I needed to kick start my career as a games writer.
There are a couple of things I'd like to highlight in this post regarding the game. The first is that the early previews - based on a couple of hours' code from the beginning of the game - are roundly positive and that now's the time to pre-order. I realise previews are always roundly positive, but still. They're being - to my mind - positive about the right bits.
The second is that, not being involved with this game, when Amnesia comes out I'll be interested to see if the experiment Frictional is attempting with their narrative structure is pulled off. Part of the point of establishing Plot is Gameplay's Bitch was to be as candid about development as possible, and while for what I hope are obvious reasons I don't particularly want to say an awful lot about Amnesia before it comes out, I certainly don't want to be left in the "Me too" / "Told you so" camp once the game's released. To that end, let me tell you a little about...
What Concerned Me
To put the following comments into context, I should state that I was involved briefly with Amnesia back when it was known as Lux Tenebras. Since then everything bar the setting and familiar Frictional gameplay has changed, and while I have played the first few hours of the game, I'm commenting largely from a theoretical standpoint based on design work and discussion between myself and Thomas (Grip, Frictional Co-Founder).
The story-telling approach Frictional is adopting on Amnesia is very passive (the story itself, that is, rather than what it demands of the player). Their objective has been to instill the game world with a history, diminishing almost entirely active, present tense story in favour of allowing the player to discover that history and to construct his own picture of events. To put that a more graspable way, there'll be lots of written notes, SS2-esque overheard dialogues, and a twisting character backstory to unravel. There will be (at least from what I understand) less of what we pursued in Black Plague in terms of tying puzzles into the active narrative.
Frictional's objectives in this are to provide a less hand-holding experience, to allow the player to digest the story at his own pace, and to allow him to personally contextualise his in-game actions rather than relying on NPCs. These are admirable goals, and I hope their experiment pays off, but I have my concerns. The reason I was proud of Black Plague was precisely the better job we did of justifying the puzzles and the game progression, and of placing the story emphasis in the present tense. It's my feeling that the relative narrative weakness of Overture and Requiem stems from their reliance on passive story, and that Amnesia may reawaken those issues. I know when I stated my concern that Amnesia was a Requiem, rather than a Black Plague follow up, Thomas disagreed. September will tell.
What I Think Will Work
What I do know for a fact is that Amnesia will prove the most polished, and the truest Frictional game to date. The central goal of the writing in their games has always been two fold: to drive the player through the world, and to reinforce the threatening atmosphere established by the visuals and expertly employed by the gameplay, making Frictional's releases some of the most frightening games ever made. While I fundamentally query how successfully the former can be pulled off, Mikael Hedberg is an experienced writer who cut his interactive teeth on the in-game descriptions in Black Plague, and so the latter will I hope be delivered on in spades.
When Amnesia hits the shelves on 8th September 2010 it'll be very interesting to watch the critical reactions: for a game whose narrative will ostensibly look and sound like an iteration of what was begun with Penumbra, will reviewers even identify the shift in approach?
Despite my concerns, I'd thoroughly encourage you to support indie development and to pre-order Amnesia from the Frictional store. It's guaranteed to be a fascinating experiment and the most confident expression of Frictional's horror credentials to date.