Videogames have a serious amnesia problem. For decades, videogame protagonists have had an alarming high rate of amnesia, not just compared to real people, but even compared to characters in other media. From Fallout: New Vegas’s wasteland drifter,to Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s hapless archeologist, to Silent Hill 2’s miserable widower, and more recently- the dead-beat detective in Disco Elysium. This begs the question- why do games fall back on amnesia so often, and what can we do to reel in this tendency?
I dive into the topic with examples and visuals in
, but these are my thoughts.
As far as I can tell, there are three real reasons games use amnesia. First, it’s an easy excuse to insert world-building exposition that a normal person wouldn’t need. Disco Elysium literally has a quest where you are tasked with finding a well-educated person to explain to you the history and physics of the setting.
The second reason for amnesia’s ever-presence is that it makes adding twists to your game dead simple. When your character’s entire life is a mystery to them, it’s easy for painful or shameful elements of that past to come back and bite them at inopportune moments.
The last (and lamest) reason for games to over-use amnesia is to allow the protagonist to be a player-insert while still having baggage. By giving the protagonist amnesia, you create a degree of separation between their life and them, allowing you, the player, to casually assume the role of “person who’s learning about their past for the first time”. This is important for setting up all of those gut-punch reveals, because the developers want you to feel like you’re the one who did all this bad stuff in the protagonist’s past.
When you frame it like this, it’s easy to understand why amnesia is such a popular writing device, especially in games. So, what’s the catch? Well, the catch is simple- it doesn’t work.
The problem with exposition isn’t just that it’s weird for people to randomly inform you about basic setting elements. That is weird, don’t get me wrong, but the larger problem is that explicit exposition is boring. There are better ways of informing the player about the setting, and any game will have to use these techniques regardless of how much exposition is also included. Not only that, but when you do need to devote a scene to explaining setting details to the player, there are much better ways to do it.
A good scene should be full of character, drama, and tension. By contrast, pure exposition- like our “learning about the setting” quest, Get a Reality Lowdown- is stiff, awkward, and rambling. There’s no drama, no tension, and we aren’t fleshing out or demonstrating a character. It’s just exposition. Amnesia doesn’t make exposition more interesting. What amnesia does to a story is much more insidious – it justifies exposition. It gives writers an excuse to frame their exposition more poorly.
So amnesia doesn’t make exposition better. What about twists? Surely amnesia is a twist-machine. There could be anything lingering in an amnesiac’s past! Well, that’s true… but there could be anything lingering in anyone’s past. A good twist doesn’t have to be a surprise to the protagonist, even in a game. For example, a character who is ashamed of their past and wants to make up for it without acknowledging it is virtually identical to a character who doesn’t remember their past at all and has to piece it together. The biggest difference is that the story beats hit harder if the protagonist is forced to take ownership of them, instead of distancing them from it by making it feel like a separate life.
The last point in favor of amnesia as a writing device is that it makes the protagonist a better player-insert. By robbing the protagonist of their past, we make them a blank slate for the player to project onto. It’s okay that we don’t know their past, because neither do they! Except, this really doesn’t work either, because a character’s backstory doesn’t define them for the audience, their personality and appearance do. Unless the game is in first-person, with no modeled body, and no player dialogue, the game is already making assumptions about the protagonist which the player will have to buy into. You have to buy into looking and dressing the way the protagonist does, you have to buy into speaking the way the protagonist speaks, you have to buy into thinking the way the protagonist thinks, and you have to buy into doing whatever the protagonist is required to do.
Amnesia doesn’t make characters blank slates, because characters are not defined by their backstory, they’re defined by their personality and their choices. Some of these choices and personality can be left to the player, but the game is always going to have to assert something about the protagonist, and the most important aspects that have to be omitted or defined have nothing to do with the character’s memory. Even in games with a great deal of roleplaying choice for the player, developers still make decisions about the character by choosing what options to include, what options to omit, how to word those options, and how it’s voice acted (if at all).
So altogether, amnesia is not nearly as effective a writing tool as it might seem. It’s an easy, cheap tool that excuses weak writing more often than it enables good writing. On top of that, it’s been so wildly over-used that it elicits eye-rolls any time it comes up. “Ah, yes, another amnesiac protagonist. Of course.”
There’s one last reason that the abundance of amnesiatic protagonists in gaming bothers me- amnesia is a real disability. It’s not just some clever writing trick that someone devised long ago, it’s a real thing that affects real people, and none of the games that feature amnesia are actually about amnesia. Amnesia is used as a tool to accomplish unrelated narrative goals, but the realities of living with amnesia are almost never actually addressed. I would love a story about a character with amnesia whose core conflict actually stemmed from that amnesia. Amnesia is a terrifying, monstrous effect that turns loved ones into strangers and invalidates decades of your life. For a piece of media to seriously confront that and deal with it in a mature way would be great. But that’s not what we get. Instead, amnesia is treated as a throwaway pulp trope like zombies or femme-fatales.
So next time you play a game where the protagonist has amnesia, ask yourself what the story actually gains from it. Would the narrative still work if the protagonist didn’t have amnesia? How much would have to change? Would it still hold up? And if you’ve played a game that handles amnesia maturely, or whose narrative genuinely wouldn’t work without amnesia, tell us about it!
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