From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, a text adventure that only has itself to blame for being forgotten, really. Even if it did offer the chance to strut around town in that amazing hat.
While recent years have seen the word ‘Amnesia’ earn its street cred thanks to a certain horror series, there are reasons it’s a yawner when used as a plot point. It’s convenient for writers, who get to start with a clean slate and a reason to explain anything. It’s so overused that if the average person woke up with amnesia, even they would sigh at starting the day on such a cliché. Even if they didn’t recall exactly why. This mid-’80s adventure does things differently to most though, enough so that it should be at least a little better remembered.
“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. Then the blank of WHERE AM I balloons into the bigger, the total blank of WHO AM I? It’s a question without an answer. You have… Thomas M. Disch’s AMNESIA.” Sadly you don’t also have Thomas M. Disch’s WALLET. That would be much more helpful.
Amnesia wastes no time, kicking off with this most stock of setups (just to pick one game with damn near exactly the same premise, try Deja Vu: A Nightmare Came True (opens in new tab) from about the same time) with one of the more entertaining implementations.
Just for starters, when the game asks “What’s a person to do in such a situation?”, you can type “go back to sleep”, and that works. You have a mysterious, not-too-surprisingly cryptic dream about subways and mysterious figures, before waking up in the same position. Decisions like this also play into your score, which is rated based on how much you played as a detective versus a survivor, though how much more there is to find either way, I don’t know.
Getting up, there’s also a bit of character control. Three things are locked down, you’re white, male and reasonably built, with a fourth that will be increasingly important in a second — that you’re stark naked and there are no clothes lying around. However, Amnesia adds, one thing that you can’t simply glance down at is your face. Cue a ‘what do you think you look like?’ section. Your hair, is it light or dark? Let’s say dark. Long or short? Short. Beard or moustache? Neither. Eye colour? Blue.
“You could hardly be more completely mistaken!” chortles Amnesia. “For when you look into the mirror, the stranger you see has long blonde hair. He has a full beard. And his eyes are emphatically brown!” If it could start Cossack-dancing while whooping and flipping the bird, you know that it would.
After this, Amnesia becomes a surprisingly advanced adventure for its time (1986) by mixing a bit of simulation with a heftier than normal amount of narrative. Descriptions are detailed, and interaction quite dense. Your out-of-clothes-experience can be mitigated by picking up the bedsheet and wearing it, or doing the same with a towel, or ignored entirely by just walking stark naked out of the room in search of adventure. The latter works about as well as you’d expect, especially if you forget the room key, but it’s more interesting than simply “You can’t do that.”
It’s also at times deeply, deeply bizarre. If you go streaking through the corridors for instance, it’s not long before unsurprisingly you’re arrested. This being an amnesia story, being arrested is a Very Bad Thing indeed, since it’s not like your true identity is likely to be a guy who works in a bagel shop or something, but the game doesn’t end there. Not quite. It goes on for several pages in which you get arrested for being an escapee from a Texas prison, and go to court, only nobody believes you and your wife Denise comes and testifies against you. And still it’s not over! You get sentenced to death, and given two choices: to face the firing squad, or commit suicide. Taking the firing squad route, you choose your last meal from a choice of barbequeued ribs, roast turkey or steak and potatoes, each of which triggers a flashback that, too late, confirms your belief that you must be innocent.
But it’s still not over! You get to choose your last words… and then… and then it’s still not over because you get a last cigarette and only then is it game over.
And that’s just Death A. If you take the suicide option, you end up literally on the banks of the river Styx where Charon the ferryman only shows up every five years to ask if you’ve remembered your name yet. “Then, if you’re wrong, you’ve got a few years to think of another name that might be yours. Eventually in the course of all eternity you’ll probably come up with the name that corresponds to the name on his list.”
Oh, and this is still interactive. Charon actually asks for a name, you type it, and then he goes ‘Nope!’ and buggers off again before returning five metaphorical years later. It doesn’t matter what you try. Andy Riley, Desmond Coyle, George Byrne, David Nicholson, Declan Lynch, Ken Sweeney, Neil Hannon, Keith Cullen, Ciaran Donnelly, Mick McEvoy, Jack White, Henry Bigbigging, Father Hank Tree, Hiroshima Twinkie Stig Bubblecard, Johnny Hellzapoppin’, Luke Duke, Billy Ferry, Chewey Louie, John Hoop, Hairycake Linehan, Rebulah Conundrum, Peewee Stairmaster, Jemima Racktool, Jerry Twig, Spodo Komodo, Cannabranna Lammer—not even Todd Unctuous.
Amnesia is weird.
Despite this, the action in the hotel isn’t particularly free-form, though it offers a better illusion of it than most. Poking around on this naked or half-naked journey, it soon becomes obvious there’s not many places to go except for the health club upstairs. Here, there aren’t any guards to care if you remembered a towel—though ambling into the “Dolls” changing room isn’t a great idea—but the sauna produces a sweaty flashback of being locked in a cell, beating at the door, and screaming the same senseless words over and over. Which, this being Amnesia, you get to choose.
The memory continues through starvation and a repeated refrain of “There is no way out” until finally you wake… to find yourself lying on a massage table. There are worse places to wake up naked, and indeed you get a freebie while the staff break open ‘your’ locker and finally bring some clothes. They’re nothing special, just a T-shirt, some trousers and so on, but they allow for more comfortable exploration. Or at least, they would, if there wasn’t a white tuxedo waiting by the time you get back to your room.
So, to hell with that cheap crap, right?
There’s a reason it’s there though, explained by a phonecall—a man who calls you “John” and seems to be under the impression that you’re marrying his daughter. “Your bride is starting to think you may be planning to leave her standing at the altar!” he booms. “So unless you want me to come up there with a shotgun, you get into them fancy duds and report to the lobby on the double!”
Can you just strip off and walk downstairs? This is Amnesia. Of course you can.
A better approach though is to, well, not do that. And in a way, Amnesia can become the shortest adventure ever if you decide that you don’t actually give a crap about what happened and simply marry this guy’s daughter, Alice. There’s no sting in the tale if you do. Together, you head off to Australia where you live on a sheep farm she owns, have six kids and essentially live happily ever after. “Gradually the feeling that there is a blank at the center of your life fades away,” Amnesia comments, only casually adding “On your deathbed you are still wondering who you are and what you’d done and what your life might have been like if you hadn’t married darling Alice and devoted your life to the breeding of sheep.”
But that’s the boring ending. What happens if you say ‘no’?
Of course, there’s always a catch. Leaving the cancelled wedding, you discover what you’d only otherwise know from alternate timelines—that you’re a wanted man, and the police are watching your room. Unfortunately, you discover this from a bellboy who wants your wedding ring in exchange for his temporary silence, and whether you say yay or nay, your plush hotel room is now officially off-limits. That means there’s only one way to go: out into the streets of what turns out to be Manhattan. Luckily, you’re from the streets. Or at least, a street. How hard can it be to survive dressed in a bright white tuxedo and matching hat with no money, your face on every police dashboard, and no clues?
Surprisingly so, when the first person you meet does this.
Weirdly, it’s copy protection that actually demands you give the guy the wrong information, but it has to be the right wrong information according to the copy protection codes or he realises it’s wrong and just kills you even if it’s right. The game even acknowledges this, without apology. But then, this is Amnesia. Also, in case you’re wondering, no, you can no longer strip naked on a whim. This isn’t Police Quest.
At this point, Amnesia takes on something of a simulation element, with the need to find food and shelter, and earn a little money to stay alive. Manhattan is surprisingly detailed, if mostly non-interactive, with areas ranging from Rockefeller Plaza to Tiffany’s to Barnes and Noble, the bookstore chain. Unfortunately you can’t go into these places, and don’t have much time to explore. Falling asleep means instant death. Luckily, there’s a tenement not too far away. Unluckily, it’s designed more or less the same as the dodgier parts of Detective, with not many niceties, but instant death on tap. Still, it’s a safe place to sleep, and one that our hero somehow knows he’s conveniently been before.
One sleep later, it’s time to get back to Operation: Remember Shit. First up, cash. Begging provides some starting funds, with an eight-year-old kid offering “Hey whitey, you need bread? Wanna earn easy money?” What are the odds that it’s a legitimate business interest he has in mind?
Tssk, you cynic. He suggests washing windshields, and even gives you some Windex to get started.
Still, screw that, especially in a good suit. Begging is pretty easy, as long as the roll of the dice every time doesn’t result in your arrest by a cop; more than enough to get started with the investigation. An address book from the sauna locker offers some starting points, at least technically. Actually, like a lot of these games, that’s simply the in-game representation of some copy-protection codes provided with the game itself, ‘feelies’ to give them their true name. Even so, this part of the game is pretty vague about what you’re meant to do, and quite punishing with how much it makes you eat and sleep before heading out on each new lead. Death is only ever a wrong subway stop and thus detour away.
Tracking down Alice again provides some hard information, along with another marriage proposal. Apparently you’re a bit of an fan of identity swapping, who could do with being a little more choosy. “It all started a year ago when the real Xavier Hollings—” the man everyone thinks you are, probably because… well… you are— “got busted for drugs. Between the bust and his trial, while he was out on bail, he contacted you and got you to agree to stand trial for him—and serve his time, if you had to. You took his place, and got sentenced to five years at Revoltillo. As soon as you went into prison, he had to go into hiding, and then when you escaped, killing a guard in the process, he was in a fix. And very pissed off with you, I would think. How about it? Does a sheep ranch look more appealing now?”
Yes, clearly, even though she delivers all of that under a metaphorical flashing neon ‘Bullshit’ sign. But that’s not the right answer. Alice also adds that the amnesia thing isn’t new; that you’ve been prone to going Memento on her for a while, before running off at the first hint of questions about a woman called “Denise”—a woman who claims to be your wife, and why would she lie?
You may be wondering if all of this means that Amnesia has stopped being strange.
OH COME ON!
Amnesia has in fact not stopped being strange. Talking to Alice triggers an encounter with a portrait artist outside the museum, who is fascinated with your white suit. Once again, Amnesia turns into the stripping game as you head to Central Park and exchange outfits in public. Somewhat tenuously, this also provides the lead that if you go and draw pictures in the park, someone you know will probably show up to continue the plot. I say ‘the lead’. Really, I just mean ‘it’s that kind of game’.
And you would not believe how hard even getting to this point is. Our hero, whoever he is, has more trouble staying awake than a narcoleptic Night Nurse tester whose hearing aid perpetually fills his head with all 17 volumes of the Norwich Tax Code. It’s made worse by the fact that you can’t load from inside the game, but have to quit and start up again every time he just collapses on the street. You’re also fighting a huge map and an ungainly subway system to get around anywhere, with no safe spots to crash properly save for the grass at Central Park and his borrowed tenement—at least, unless I’m missing them. Oh, and even if you are rested, being on the street after midnight is instant death.
This is probably why nobody ever mentions this game in polite conversation. Its full name would have to be “****** **** *** *****-shitting ********* piece of **** Amnesia”, and that would be rude.
Thankfully, if due to one of those ‘somewhat unlikely’ encounters, hope is on the horizon in the form of Bette—your forgotten love. I could say that this is because she finally offers our hero answers and spiritual solace, but really, it’s because she offers a free bed and endless food. At this point in the adventure, that’s even better than an Australian sheep ranch. At the very least, it provides a measure of time to figure out what’s going on without constantly starving and collapsing.
A floppy disk retrieved from a safety deposit box fills in more of the gaps—that our hero has been keeping a journal of Alice… or is it Alison, it seems unclear… threatening him into marriage, that everything kicked off with a strange disease in Texas, and something about not trusting a skull? Eh, probably not important.
At this point, the adventure is actually more or less over, thanks to the villains being almost adorably desperate to jump around and scream about how clever they are, with the biggest challenge being to get to them for their monologue without ending up out too late to get back to safety (instant death) or using enough moves to collapse (instant death) or failing one of the random copy-protection tests (almost instant death, you get another chance). The first one of those quickly proves a real problem, as unless you head out in the morning, every event eats through your time like the Very Hungry Caterpillar exploring Chocolate World. Wow, does this get annoying.
Finally meeting the villains, led by the mysterious Denise, the truth is revealed. And shockingly for Amnesia, it’s really kinda silly. You really are Xavier Hollings, but you’re not a druglord or anything like that. Instead, you’re the former owner of a pharmaceutical company who discovered that… I am not making this up… dishwashing powder in a Texas river was breaking down into a memory-erasing drug that Xavier decided to call Letheum, which is Greek for “I know Classics”. I shall repeat this:
This is what’s happening. Really.
Seeing the profit in Xavier’s discovery, a conspiracy formed. Alison started spiking your food with it in an attempt to win your heart, while spurned wife/fiancée Denise got her femme fatale on with the help of a look-alike. Only instead of killing you to get you out of the way, Alison suggested they let her marry you and go run a ranch, only that plan’s not working, so instead your doppelganger Zane is trying to have you taken out, only he was the one in the prison that you have flashbacks off and now the plan is to get you in all kinds of trouble so that they can get their hands on your hugely valuable Letheum formula… or something… despite only you having access to it, meaning that if they got rid of you…
Really, none of this is important. The key question, not asked, is what in blazes led you to lock yourself naked in a hotel room without so much as a pair of underpants? The explanation is that our hero got drunk the previous night and left them in the hotel sauna… but then how did he get back into his room? And didn’t any of the people who tell him this bother to stop him before he goes flapping off into the night and giving the maids a funny new story to tell in the staffroom?
And why do almost no amnesia stories ever justify all the mystery?
In Amnesia’s case, it hardly matters. As frustrating as its simulation elements are, it’s a relatively well-written example of its craft and at least keeps the craziness coming thick and fast. Its main problem beyond the instant deaths is that the mystery it sets up isn’t really one that can play out properly on the streets of New York, not just because the actual conspiracy happens in Texas, but because only about four people in the city even play a minor part in it. That means lots of empty streets and unused locations, with puzzles little more than doing Stuff until the villains finally decide “Balls to this, we’ll just tell you what’s going on and try to shoot you.” If they’d just done that from the start, using their specialist skills like ‘knowing exactly where you are at all times’, they’d have been much, much more successful.
As it is, their plan more or less just guarantees that either they get beaten, or you go to the firing squad and the secret of making Letheum that’s that’s worth 40 million clams goes to the—
Wait, a firing squad? I literally just noticed that. What the hell, Amnesia? That’s actually slightly odder than having the hero go and hang out with Charon on the banks of the Styx.
For all its problems, Amnesia is one of the more interesting non-Infocom text adventures of its time—a brave attempt to do something new, even if it didn’t work, which actually makes it a bit of a shame that Disch didn’t have another crack at some point. At the very least, it’s better written than most when not simply walking around Manhattan, and makes the effort to let you do some of the silly stuff that other games just give a flat no to. The overall plot may not be up to much, but the regular eyebrow-raising moments certainly make for a more interesting process of discovery than most.
A lost interactive fiction classic though? Ha. No. Forget it. In more ways than one.