This is a partial re-write which covers much of the same material in my blog post, Losing Your Humanity in Amnesia and A Machine For Pigs. Ultimately I used this opportunity to explore some different threads in the story and draw new, if similar, conclusions.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a first-person survival-horror adventure game developed by Frictional Games for the HPL Engine. Following the perspective of Daniel, a 19th century explorer, the Player begins the game without any memories and is forced to traverse a large and seemingly abandoned castle, stalked by otherworldly presences. Across their journey, the Player learns more about Daniel’s unethical past: a series of desperate practices under the supervision of Baron Alexander of Brennenburg, consisting of torture, kidnapping and dark alchemy, following his possession of a mysterious stone orb found within the tomb of Tin Hinan.
For the sake of clarity, I will refer to actions taken by the protagonist in the notes and diaries as belonging to "Daniel" and actions taken during the events of the game as being the "Player’s". While the characterization of Daniel is certainly informed by the Player’s interaction as him, the content written for the game portrays his life in terms that only relate to the Player’s experience indirectly. His journey is one haunted by themes of guilt and innocence while the Player’s journey is marked by ideas relating to memory and identity. Critically, the memory-loss plot device acts as an in-universe explanation for the split in characterization between Daniel and the Player.
Daniel begins the narrative as a relatable protagonist with understandable motivations. His voice work by actor Richard Topping is clear and likeable, and his relationship to the more explicitly untrustworthy Alexander of Brennenburg shifts the responsibility of the shameful and inhumane actions taken before the start of the game away from Daniel. Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that both men chose to make the same decisions with similar motivations. In order for Daniel’s innocence to be maintained, he at first negotiates excuses and justifications with himself and pins the blame on Alexander. Of course, Alexander is not innocent either, and could even be interpreted as solely responsible for Daniel’s ‘fall from grace’ as it were. However, it was Daniel’s unwitting decision to steal the stone orb from the tomb of Tin Hinan that was the initial nexus of his dark descent, one that culminates in the ‘Paint the man, cut the lines’ sequence, wherein Daniel fully succumbs to the cruel, alchemical rituals performed on human bodies. The narration of this scene, which gives a sense of Topping’s masterful range as a voice actor, provides insight into Daniel's urgent, manic thoughts; at this point, he's a far cry from the likable protagonist we met before, having shifted across the spectrum from innocent to guilty.
On the other hand, the Player, being unaware of Daniel’s actions at the start of the game, is encouraged to fill in the vacuum of his characterization. The mystery of their missing memories provokes questions regarding identity and, more broadly, a sense of displacement and fear over being lost. Moreover, the ominous letter from Daniel instructing the Player to kill Alexander forms the basis of an intriguing search regarding Daniel’s previous self. Because the Player does not yet know Daniel, they are free to assess him as a ‘third party’, keeping their own sense of identity intact. By the end of the game, however, the Player is not only fully aware of Daniel’s actions but are forced to contend with them personally, through how they interact with the body and ‘spirit’ of Agrippa, and how they deal with Alexander when they ultimately confront him. This encourages the player to assume Daniel’s identity as their own, however they feel about his actions.
This isn’t to say themes don’t overlap between Daniel and the Player. From the perspective of the theme of memory, Daniel’s gradual fall from being a well-intentioned and relatable protagonist could be interpreted as him 'forgetting' his values as he is indoctrinated by Alexander of Brennenburg. The excuses and justifications he makes for how his actions betray his morals reach a climax when he murders a girl who attempted to escape from him. This action forgoes his own motivations — don’t align with the rituals he kidnapped the girl for in the first place — and the horror of the decision serves as an elucidating moment for him. Here, Daniel can be understood to ‘remember’ his values, and this is when he resolves to take actions for the sake of his own humanity.
Meanwhile, Daniel’s guilt initially stems from his collection of the stone orb, an act characterized as akin to “pushing a star out of the night sky”. It was this decision that sent the Shadow after Daniel but he did not understand the significance of the crime when he committed it. Even though Frictional Games employs a lot of Lovecraftian imagery, such as the inclusion of strange artifacts, ruins of ancient civilizations, inhuman and unearthly intelligences from dark realms, etc, the horror of Daniel’s story is about his unwitting ‘sins’ becoming manifest and rising to haunt him. This directly mirrors the experience of the Player, who must also contend with the Shadow while not initially understanding their relationship to it, as a result of the amnesia-potion. This reinforces the themes of guilt and responsibility. Both Daniel and the Player are forced by circumstance to take responsibility for their actions despite feeling personally innocent, but Daniel’s actions in the face of this are to perform unspeakable actions in the name of his own salvation, where the Player is granted the opportunity to undo these things and still retain their own humanity.
To that end, Daniel poses this question: “Can one regain their humanity while still possessing the memory of their own sins?” And while he at first answers his own question with “no, they cannot” by choosing to drink the amnesia-potion, the player ultimately learns (or ‘remembers’) those sins anyway, and manages to redeem both Daniel and his humanity, not through forgetting but rather holding themselves accountable. But this does not always seem to be the moral, and at the beginning of the game, Daniel’s humanity can be understood to have already been restored as a result of the Player’s humanity being intact. In other ways, the amnesia-potion can be seen as critical to his rebirth as a protagonist. The structure of the game itself takes on a reflection of the torture originally perpetuated by Daniel, as he is confronted with horrible and scarring acts and ideas, before being granted amnesia, only to reexperience these same nightmarish visions. But rather than be stripped of his personhood by this trauma, he is able to wield his own torture as a redemption through self-flagellation. However, the player is still haunted by the representation of Daniel’s sins even when they are unaware of these sins in the first place, and Daniel’s redemption is not fulfilled through amnesia alone. It is in uncovering Daniel’s diary entries that the Player is able to make informed decisions in the name of their own humanity, sending a clear message that memory is not an inhibitor to the morality of ‘sinners’, but ultimately a clarifying and valuable resource towards understanding the path toward redemption.