You wake up in a hotel room in New York City. You have no idea how you got there. You have no idea who you are. And you have no clothes.
So starts Amnesia, the semi-legendary text adventure game from 1986. Amnesia was Electronic Arts’s attempt to challenge Infocom’s domination of the text adventure genre. To write the game, they brought in author Thomas M. Disch. Disch came up with a twisty and complex story where each choice often led to unexpected tangents. The game featured a detail recreation of Manhattan, one that you could experience only if you could figure out how to find some clothes and get out of the hotel without getting arrested. Of course, even after finding something to wear, it’s probable the many players decided to go ahead and marry the mysterious woman who claimed to be the main character’s fiancée. Those players found themselves suddenly whisked off to an Australian sheep farm, where they lived out their days happy but unsure of who they actually were. For them, the game ended quickly but without many answers. Others, however, braved the streets of a virtual Manhattan is search of their identity.
Who are you? Throughout the game, there are clues but they’re not always easy to find. There’s a large collection of eccentric and bizarre characters who can help you or hinder you. You have to avoid the police who want to arrest you and the people who are trying to kill you. Of course, even if you defeat those assassins, the game also features random encounters with people who will ask you for directions and who will shoot you if you give them the wrong answer. This feature was actually something that EA added to the game to punish anyone who had borrowed the game disk from a friend. The game originally came with code wheel that you could use to determine which streets intersected with each other. If you bought the game, you would be able to give people the proper directions. If you didn’t buy the game or, if you’re playing the game in 2023 at the Internet archive, you would end up making a random guess and hoping that it didn’t lead to you getting shot by a tourist.
(Fortunately, there’s an online version of the code wheel.)
Even if you die, the game doesn’t necessarily end. You might find yourself waiting in Purgatory. After a certain number of turns, Charon might approach and ask if you’ve figured out your name. If you give him the right name, you can move on. If you don’t know your name, Charon leaves with a promise that he’ll return in another thousand years.
Amnesia is a challenging game. It’s also a frequently frustrating game. Thomas M. Disch was an author and the game reads like a long and dense novel. There are times when Disch seemed to forget that the point of Interactive Fiction is that the player is supposed to have complete control over their actions. At the same time, Amnesia’s descriptions are so detailed and many of the events are so unexpected that this is a game that benefits from frequent replaying. And the game itself is so difficult that when you actually manage to accomplish anything, whether it’s getting out of the hotel or finding a place to sleep or even giving someone the right directions, you feel as if you’re the greatest player alive.
Or at least you do until the next puzzle comes along.
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