I awoke hung over. Cruel midday light framed the edges of the blinds; my mouth felt like something had died in it, and my brain felt as unstable as the bubble in a spirit level. From the street outside rose the judgmental sounds of Sunday. Humanity was functioning while I lay in semi-comatose squalor.
What did I do last night?
I extended an unsure hand from my bed, padding at the floor in search of the water, which of course I had not remembered to prepare. Instead, I grasped the reassuring cool of my MacBook and pulled it toward me unthinking. Being online is a halfway house to civilization, I thought; with the computer I could convince myself I was connecting with the world, relieve some hangover guilt.
With effort I sat up, opened the Mac, waited for my familiar desktop mess to fill the screen with colour. I got only grey-white writing on all black – the functional aesthetics of MS-DOS. A strange message was emblazoned across my screen.
“You wake up feeling wonderful.
“But also, in some indefinable way, strange.
“Slowly, as you lie there on the cool bedspread, it dawns on you that you have absolutely no idea where you are. A hotel room, by the look of it. But with the curtains drawn. You don’t know in what city, or even what country.
“Press ENTER to continue.”
What was this? Was I finally being inducted into The Matrix? If so, my inducers had got it wrong about me on a few details. 1.) I emphatically did not feel wonderful; 2.) There was nothing indefinable about my sensation of strangeness; and 3.) While my blinds were down I recognised, without a shadow of a doubt, the room I was in as my own. Nevertheless, I pressed ENTER to continue. A new message appeared.
“Then the blank of WHERE AM I? balloons into the bigger, the total blank of WHO AM I?” my screen stated. “It’s a question without an answer. Your memory is an open book – with every page blank. You have no name, no known address, no memories of friends or relatives, or schools or jobs. You have…
“Thomas M. Disch’s AMNESIA”
On this word, “Amnesia”, ironically, I remembered everything. How the previous night, before going out, I had read a short article in the Paris Review about a text-based game from the 80s called Amnesia. It was described as “an emblem of a brief time when gaming and experimental fiction shared similar agendas, and when ‘interactive novels’ seemed as if they might emerge as a popular art form.”
Not having known such a time existed, I was intrigued; and had immediately set about finding a DOS simulator along with the game in question. By the time everything was installed, I was late to see my friends, so I set the game to fullscreen with the implicit intent of baffling a forgetful future me. And it had worked. I’d fallen for my own joke. Good one, I thought.
Now, with little better to do than wait for the throbbing in my temples to abate, I might as well play the damn thing. I continued hitting the Enter key until the prompt disappeared and the text on the screen just ended with a flickering cursor. “I” was still lying in bed, but was now being invited to write the next line…
First, some background. Thomas Disch, the game’s author, was a writer and poet who first rose to prominence during the sci-fi boom of the mid-60s. By all accounts, he was an irascible prima donna with jealousy issues and an unpleasant tendency towards racist commentary in his nonfiction, but his early work granted him a partial reputation as the James Joyce of apocalyptic literature. Not one for pulling punches, his first novels tended towards the theme of human extinction. In the pulpishly bleak titles The Genocides and Camp Concentration Disch had us respectively devoured by aliens and consumed by a pandemic desire for a super-drug.
Amnesia came later in his career, written when Disch’s star was already on the wane. It was born out of a contract with his publisher Harper & Row, rather than any burning ambition on the part of the author – though later on, Disch became convinced he’d created a misunderstood masterpiece. On the surface, Amnesia is a second person mystery, cobbled together from a shooting gallery of noir tropes – sadistic Texan hit men, chesty voiced femme fatales, gun-toting mob bosses etc. – with a number of dark, surreal departures thrown in along the way.
Even in its lighter moments, though, playing Amnesia means peering into a void. There are a limited number of instructions one can enter that will actually result in plot progression, and the game provides no helpful list of options. Rather you, as a gamer, are presented a flickering cursor against black, and asked to type out full actions that must intuit the author’s corridors of intent. Viz. To progress, you are being asked to step inside Disch’s mind – and this is not always the most pleasant place to be. Also, getting the phrasing right can take a while. The instruction “Go into the bathroom”, for example, may not be recognised because the word “into” is not one Mr. Disch favors using. As such, in general, one should be prepared for error message to follow error message until one enters the specific combination of characters that Mr. Disch originally conceived. Indeed Amnesia is a book whose pages are hard to turn.
As I played Amnesia, sat up in bed that Sunday morning, the emotional weight of my hangover started to press down on me. In the game I had risen from bed, discovered myself naked, wandered from bathroom to bedroom and back again, been briefly interrupted by a hotel maid, and eventually looked out the window to discover myself in Manhattan, observing: “Skyscraper after skyscraper (contesting) for light and air like the pines of a stone forest.”
Despite the frequent evocative imagery of Disch’s prose, in my hangover daze I struggled to see far beyond the ever-present blackness on the screen. Among its other achievements Amnesia is notable as the only game EA ever produced which does not, from beginning to end, present a single image to the player. There are only words. And any fragment of world building that those words achieve are just a brief glimmer of light in a very long, sinuous darkness. So I left the hotel room, a towel wrapped around my waist. I read that I was in a corridor. I imagined a corridor, only to find it filled with blackness; the game’s visual dreariness was flooding the graphics of my imagination.
There was something appropriate about this. Not being able to see in front of me, struggling to remember what I had left behind (once you’ve passed through a scene it is gone and cannot be reread). A black fog of amnesia blanketed all directions; the in-game Now was the only thing that was in any way tangible. And even that felt sparse, frightening, and uncertain. A quote by Nabokov surfaced in my addled consciousness: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” One heck of a thing to be thinking about, hung over on a Sunday morning.
In real life, I got up, made myself a cup of tea; relocated to my sofa, washed down some aspirin, continued playing.
One of the other disconcerting elements of Amnesia, I discovered, is there not being a clearly defined mission. No one tells you to find out who you are, or discover how you ended up in a hotel room naked, alone, and forgetful. That you would wish to do so comes from your relationship to Disch’s narrative. It is up to the gamer to decide whether Amnesia is a story to be explored or a game to be completed. Wandering blind down a hotel corridor, nothing but a towel covering my decency from the great darkness, I felt only one driving impulse: the one to stay alive.
Over the next hour’s playing, I found myself in the hotel’s health club and then passed out in its sauna, an event from which I was massaged back to life. I returned to my hotel room to find a tuxedo, put it on, and received a phone call from a man in the lobby who forced me to marry his daughter at gunpoint. I then – out of the blue (or black, rather) – lived happily ever after, moving to Australia to work on a sheep farm until my dying day, never discovering who I was, or even my real name. Game over.
I couldn’t stomach a replay. I was overwhelmingly glad to be out of the black labyrinth. But at the same time – and granted it may have been something to do with my fragile mental state – Amnesia had affected me. I wanted to know more.
A little online research later, I discovered the ultimate of all play-through cheat sheets: a PDF of Disch’s original manuscript for the entire game. It was gloriously white with black lettering – the photographic negative of the game – and between each block of text, in what seemed to me then a zenith of clarity, were all the possible gamer inputs, clearly spelled out, followed by the directions they could take you in.
It turns out Disch designed Amnesia as a series of scenarios or nodes, from Hotel Rooms to Dream Sequences to New York Streets, and so on. New paths are, obviously, unlocked by certain actions and, seen as a whole, form a veritable maze of words. Other nodes are just cul-de-sacs: grizzly deaths, anaemic happy endings. Still others require switchbacks, unlocked at times by such fatalistic instruction as “accept my situation”. All of these may or may not lead to answers.
Having acquired the PDFs I felt myself soaring above the firmament. Gliding effortlessly from scenario to scenario, I could finally experience the game from a writer’s eye view. The simple act of scrolling had never felt so elegant or freeing (also, my aspirin had started to kick in). I’d been given the ability to see through walls, round corners, into character’s minds.
As such, the full grim world of Amnesia was revealed to me: countless story strands that would have led to my character’s pain, death, and emotional collapse glowed from the white of the page.
All those black corridors, which had ultimately delivered me to an Australian sheep farm, had in fact been mere tightropes over a deep pit of psychological torment and despair. A few bad commands here or there and I might very well have ended the game on the banks of the River Styx, gnashing my teeth in eternal limbo, unable to get the ferryman to take me across due to my inability to remember my own name.
Disch’s script ran well over 400 pages – though it turns out not all of this writing ended up in the final game. It made me wonder what might have been the best way to experience Amnesia. In-game, you will only ever explore a portion of Disch’s world: its full intellectual scope is denied to you, even if its emotive impact gains strength as a result. Is Amnesia better seen as a tour de force of postmodern writing or, as it was originally marketed, a text-based choose-your-own-adventure game?
That morning, due primarily to an overwhelming hangover, I was not able to immerse myself fully in Amnesia. Indeed I much preferred the safety of distance – watching the horror film with the lights on, as it were; reminding myself at every plot twist: it’s just a story, it’s just a game. Part of this may have been a result of my frustration with the game’s limited understanding of commands, but it also no doubt stemmed from Amnesia’s occlusive aesthetics: its perpetual torture of my hung-over imagination by means of grey-white letters set against a fathomless black screen.