Deconstructing Amy

I’m going to take a moment to further my look at the recent PSN/XBLA game Amy, because many are quite wrongly trashing it, when in reality things aren’t that bad.

Amy is a story; a conceptualised idea. It’s about the lead character Lana and her connection with an autistic child called Amy, whom it is made clear Lana “liberated” from a bunch of scientists who discovered she had innate supernatural powers. When the train they are travelling on crashes, the pair are sent on a quest to escape the town, avoiding monsters and a suspicious military agenda that has far-reaching consequences.

Amy isn’t the worst game I’ve played. Let’s get that clear. But I’m not going to make excuses for it – the game could have, and arguably should have, been better.

The real problem with Amy isn’t in the concepts, because the game has plenty of really nice ideas. As I mentioned in my quickie, the atmosphere is thick and – surprisingly – used as a mechanic, as in the infection that is running rampant is literally the atmosphere. Away from the titular Amy, Lana is susceptible to the infection too – she is not immune, and relies on the little girl, and a few decontamination shots, to keep the disease at bay. This gives a sense of urgency and drive that often is lacking among the usual super-human cast that we see in survival horror games, who all have some kind of attachment or role to play in the wider scope of the plot. Lana, despite being the main controllable protagonist, is clearly a third wheel – she is the supporting cast, but still with a role to play protecting Amy, who is the main character.

This is a lovely concept. As is the idea that this little girl Amy – a troubled, scared and lost little child with severe autism and an uncanny knack for using computers and magical glyphs – needs to be protected. She is the important part of the game, the main focus, and her talents are necessary to obtaining keys and unlocking doors. She may not look like much, but it is clear very early on that Amy is no ordinary child – which again, adds a level to the story that gives a sense of urgency.

The game itself, however, leans heavily on already-done genre mechanics that we all take for granted. Coloured keycards to unlock certain doors – a mechanic used since Doom first appeared and probably before then as well – add a very basic sense of exploration, as do the genetic locks, finding the correct DNA profile to open a door means tracking down one of a number of corpses and working out which one is the right sequence – all too often, it is the one furthest away, or annoyingly the very last one you find, meaning exploration is a forced part of the game.

Combat is a little clunky, but at the same time, not the main show. Lana is a normal woman using whatever she can find to defend herself and Amy, so combat doesn’t need to be wholly convincing – I think we are often spoiled by the idea of professionally-trained gunmen and women who know their way around a variety of weapons. On the other hand, the game throws out enemies like soldiers and mutants that can kill Lana instantly, which means the game requires you to work your way around the problem, or simply hide, or both. These puzzles may seem to many unnecessary, but to me they’re actually a really nice addition, as the last game to utilise hiding in such a manner was Amnesia: The Dark Descent (a very good indie horror game), and before that, Haunting Ground on the PS2 – a game woefully ignored by the majority of people, despite cries of the genre becoming stale.

The problem then isn’t that the game uses these concepts. Or that it’s bad.

For me, the issue with Amy is simply that it tries too hard to be more than the sum of its parts – more than the many concepts and mechanics it has on offer, and in that, it hints towards a more complete and original experience than it actually is. Amy, sadly, is not original. But then, it didn’t really need to be either, it is just that in its drive to somehow be different, it has ended up being the same, and that is obviously disappointing to many.

By trying to marry lots of ideas, the broth has no discernible body or distinct seasoning that would elevate it above “okay”. It’s functional, although obviously rushed out for some unbeknownst reason and as a result it has the occasional bug, glitch and mechanical failure. The result is just an okay game, that doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre nor inherently fit wholly inside its confines, desperate as it appears to want to be so much more.

Amy will be divisive, because many of its ideas are pretty old-school. And there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be old-school, as long as that is the aim. And yet Amy wants to be more. And yet is a lesser game because of it.

The result is a mixed bag of nice ideas and average gameplay, at no point being special but at no point being wholly terrible as a result. It’s just a nice, albeit safe and rather straight-forward exercise in mechanics and ideas that has probably had more coverage than it probably deserved.

I said not long ago that I was toning down my view on “potential”, and Amy is absolutely a great example of why I think we should all be a little less concerned about what might have been, because Amy hints so often towards being great, that the potential is there. And yet, it is not realised. It is not executed with any conviction. But that doesn’t make it an inherently terrible game – far from it, if people took a step back, Amy is actually for the most part a rather enjoyable experience, despite its limitations and restrictions. Judging Amy on what might have been is what is disappointing so many – the hype, the interviews, the high-brow concepts and the deliberate aping of Ico, a game that gamers adore so much it hurts sometimes, have all alluded to Amy being better than it is. And it isn’t.

But that doesn’t mean because it doesn’t meet these high expectations that it is somehow worse as a result. It’s okay. Not bad. Alright. Fairly entertaining. Some will love it, some will hate it, others will be indifferent to it.

Amy is an example of why potential and expectation can often be debilitating. Go in expecting a rough, but nice trip through a game that has no real surprises and you’ll get a lot out of it. Go into Amy expecting it to somehow be the second coming of the Survival Horror genre, you will inevitably come out disappointed.

Amy is alright. But yes, she could have been so much more. Just enjoy the brief, albeit unsurprisingly safe, fling and you’ll have some fun. But she won’t change your life, and she won’t change the genre.

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