Dangerous Amnesia: Examining a Specific Trope

Technically that would probably result in executive function difficulties!

So quite a while back I did a post about Writing Amnesia: a risky trope where I talked about Amnesia, while being a relatively common story trope, can be a little difficult as it can undermine character development. I decided to revisit the topic as I recently played a game which used a very niche aspect of the trope where the MC has amnesia, (re)discovers a nefarious plot and in fact finds out that they themselves were a major part of it along the way.

(Some Spoilers ahead largely for a pair of games Amnesia the Dark Descent, and Lamentum)

While I’ve recently encountered this more in horror video games, it is a common trope in (usually B-grade) murder mysteries where the killer ends up being…. The Main Character Themselves.

This is not always pulled off with amnesia, although its often employed as otherwise the whodunnit story would make no sense (and sometimes still doesn’t) and is often a bit over the top as an obvious attempt to be ‘twisty’ rather than an intriguing story.

But today I’m more interested in a more cosmic horror perspective where characters delve into a mystery only to discover they’ve already delved into it before, and – at least in the games I’ve played! – , have done a considerable amount of wrong along the way to their goals.

In Lamentum the story beats go something along the lines of: our MC Victor meets and marries Alissa, who falls incurably ill after their marriage. We initially see the pair travel to Grau Hill were an obviously magically problematic statesman Edmond lives and promises to look into a cure for Alissa. Very quickly things take a turn for the eldritch as Alissa disappears and Victor awakes after some kind of episode and the mansion is full of freaky monsters.

While its obvious something ‘has happened’ its only as the game progresses and we meet some other characters that the amnesia elements comes into play. The initial hint is that all the characters Victor meets appear to know him, but not Alissa (although this sort of doesn’t quite work as will discuss later). As the story furthers we finally learn that Victor has in fact been a major part of the magical goings on (which is a very soft way of saying multiple majorly evil deeds) – not a recent visitor caught up – and in fact Alissa died and Victor’s goal is to resurrect her.

The amnesia part of the trope serves several functions in a story like this. First it provides some obvious extra intrigue personal to the MC, rather than simply exploring a horrorland we are also teased with some information about their own involvement. The amnesia is a necessary element because otherwise it raises the question of why the MC doesn’t reveal their knowledge or behave with their knowledge intact. Something that Lamentum does quite well is that they position the MC’s action as essentially the same, e.g. one Victor ignorantly continues the process to resurrect his wife even though he is oblivious to the plot.

There are some limitations however – having a character with amnesia can risk repetition, e.g. it gets fairly old fairly quickly when every character you meat has the same “how do you know me, have you seen my wife” dialogue. The obvious problem being that the story doesn’t want to reveal that Alissa is dead too soon so have to make it so the characters simply never heard of her (despite the being whole reason Victor is there).

This is a major problem of the trope where its practically useful for creating intrigue and mystery but also highly risky where readers/players will feel vaguely annoyed either at being kept in the dark or by unnatural contrivances.

Ethics

The other side to this amnesia trope is that its used to ‘whitewash’ the character ethically so that their own evil actions can be drip-fed to the audience. This makes sense as stories can depict morally corrupt characters from the get-go, but it does create a significantly different tale. Having a more apparently heroic character be revealed as part of the evil creates a uniquely tense situation at the climatic end of the story where you have some powerful choices to be made – will the MC return to the evil plan, or fight against it. Also obviously avoids potential audience disgust at the beginning.

(if for example the MC’s evil actions were revealed from the start it wouldn’t make sense to have a choice like that in the end as they’d still just be working through their plan)

Again their are some obvious risks here. Revealing that the MC has been up to depraved stuff might alarm audiences, or disrupt the flow of the tale. How this is done is key, in the case of Lamentum its actually quite a deft strategy where Victor’s involvement AND wife’s demise are revealed together – it might seem a little tacky but it creates an interesting double effect. At first the plot seems like it may be leading towards a revelation that something went wrong with trying to cure Alissa and thusly her disappearance. However when its revealed that she in fact passed away and Victor’s goal is a resurrection, this ramping up of stakes makes us more comfortable with his increased immoral behaviour for said goal…

Note: I am not saying that this technique justifies evil actions OR that audiences would feel neutral. Rather that the double reveal makes it easier to accept than not.

So like my previous post I think there are some general risks to using amnesia which I’ll quickly summarize below:

You need to be careful not to erase your character OR effectively create two characters (unless that’s the effect you want)

Characters actions need to be integrated carefully – if an MC is punished for forgotten actions they will seems like a victim, if they are not held accountable they’ll seem like a villain.

Contrived reveals only stretch so far, an advantage of video games is you can place plot information pretty much where you want in the game to have it work, in a novel it will be hard to explain to an audience why an amnesiac MC only bumped into other characters in order of plot reveals.

Anyhow – hadn’t posted for a while so figured I’ll find a post out of the most recent game I played 😀

Thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Dangerous Amnesia: Examining a Specific Trope

  1. I appreciate posts on games, mainly because I haven’t had time (nor the appropriate systems) to play them myself. I actually used amnesia in one of my manuscripts, and yes, I can totally relate to it being repetitive. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Definitely try Disco Elysium! It sounds quite generic to be a drunken detective with amnesia and an ex-wife, but the story, setting, tone, and how game mechanics tie it all together is inspired. Full of reminders about who were and choice on who you become.

    Liked by 1 person

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