How ‘Amnesia: The Bunker’ Gets Open World Horror Right

Humanity has been telling tales about simulated realities since the very dawn of storytelling, so it makes sense that modern audiences are absolutely fascinated with open-world gaming. Be it fantasy role-playing titles that allow you to step into the shoes of a more magical version of yourself or crime sims that encourage you to live out your most violent daydreams upon unsuspecting NPCs, franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto are the closest we’ve come to the immersive digital worlds that were promised to us by science fiction.

However, when it comes to horror games, the genre usually benefits from a highly curated experience with little room for side adventures. Give players too much free reign over their monster slaying and item collection and you usually end up with a gameplay loop that doesn’t mesh well with virtual frights. That’s why open world horror titles don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to balancing freedom with scares, with initially promising titles like the ill-fated Days Gone being criticized for dampening the horrific elements that made these projects interesting in the first place.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to open world horror, as quite a few recent titles have learned from the mistakes of the past and are giving large scale scares another chance. The latest of these sandbox terrors comes in the form of Frictional Games’ ambitious sequel Amnesia: The Bunker (read Reyna’s full review here), a first-person thrill-ride that traps players in the shoes of a French soldier imprisoned in a World War I bunker with only a demonic man-eating predator to keep him company.

And while the game is impressive enough with its innovative use of physics puzzles and a genuinely terrifying narrative mostly told through epistolary tidbits, today I’d like to discuss what other developers could learn from Frictional’s labyrinthian experiment. But before we dive into the specifics of what makes The Bunker such a compelling sandbox, I think it’s worth looking back on the evolution of open world horror as a whole.

More impressive than the original GTA!

With the exception of text-based adventures (which usually allowed for more player freedom due to the lack of complex graphics), the first open world titles were mostly relegated to top-down RPGs. It was only with the advent of easily accessible 3D technology that developers began to show more interest in adding sandbox elements to other genres. However, the ever-increasing costs of development meant that more niche experiences like horror games rarely received the financial push necessary to produce a convincing open environment.

In fact, I’d argue that Konami’s original Silent Hill was the first real Survival Horror pioneer when it comes to immersing players in an explorable three-dimensional world. While the game is still mostly linear, with Harry Mason being forced to complete a series of urban “dungeons” in order to progress and having no real reason to explore the rest of the town other than collecting extra resources, the developers at Team Silent still managed to push the PlayStation to its absolute limit when crafting a believable all-American town. Sure, the game takes a few shortcuts by blocking off certain areas, but it was still a sign of things to come.

The new millennium brought with it an obsession with open worlds sparked by the massive success of Rockstar’s GTA sequels, and it wasn’t long before developers were attempting to revamp existing horror franchises with this new and expensive approach – usually with mixed results.

In 2008, we’d see Eden Games’ baffling revival of the Alone in the Dark series, which attempted to combine an episodic structure with sandbox exploration as players were forced to scour an apocalyptic rendition of Central Park for items and monsters. Naturally, the result was an unfocused experience that couldn’t capitalize on neither its scares or its blockbuster elements (though I admit that I have a soft spot for the game’s clunky fire-based combat and clever inventory management system).

A few years later, Silent Hill: Downpour would expand the franchise’s iconic setting into a fully-explorable map, complete with hidden areas and optional side-quests. Unfortunately, the added padding and recycled assets ended up diluting the experience while also making the main story feel less urgent (and consequently less terrifying). This would become a recurring theme in future open world horror titles like The Sinking City, with optional content often including more traditionally game-y elements that ruin the immersion that makes gaming ripe for scares in the first place.

We saw some improvement during the survival boom of the 2010s, with titles like DayZ and The Forest boasting gigantic maps and encouraging exploration while still factoring in resource management and disturbing enemies as a part of their core experiences. That being said, the collaborative nature of most of these titles mean that their scares were often hampered by online interactions – after all, it’s hard to feel truly frightened when you’re having a good time with your friends (or when you’re being trolled by strangers, for that matter).

Bigger world, bigger problems!

While these aren’t the only examples of horrific open worlds gone awry, most of these misguided titles tend to share a common thread when it comes to conflicting design choices. After all, a real horror game shouldn’t feel like a leisurely adventure, it should feel like grueling trip through hell. That’s why I think Frictional Games did right by the Amnesia franchise when they managed to find an entertaining middle ground where players could explore to their heart’s content (with clear inspiration from Metroidvania titles) while still having an ever-present Lovecraftian horror keeping them on their toes.

It helps that the title has a solid foundation rooted in its main character’s predicament, with the game handing you a singular objective (escape) and allowing for organic scares along the way. The Bunker’s unpredictable antagonist means that you never feel safe as you explore the titular environment, though the game also rewards inquisitive players that think outside the box, achieving a rare balance that feels like a natural evolution of the franchise’s focus on environmental manipulation and the freedom to experiment with unorthodox problem solving.

In some ways, one might argue that The Bunker is the ultimate evolution of the ideas that were first introduced in Frictional’s Penumbra games all the way back in 2007. Even though some of the mechanical limitations feel arbitrary (like how you can shoot padlocks but not chains), the game’s focus on unscripted terrors proves that player freedom can also be used to create organic scares that wouldn’t have the same effect had they been planned beforehand.

At the end of the day, not all horror games can (or should) take the sandbox route, but when they do, I believe the winning formula is to allow enough freedom for player choices to matter, but not so much that they lose sight of the horrors at hand. And if future horror titles can apply the lessons learned by The Bunker to their own open world adventures, I think we’re headed for an interesting era of horror gaming.

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