There’s no doubt that modern social networks have let us down. Filled with hate speech and abuse, moderation and anti-abuse tools were an afterthought they’re now trying to cram in. Meanwhile, personalization engines deliver us only what will keep us engaged, even if it’s not the truth. Today, a number of new social networks are trying to flip the old model on its head — whether that’s attempting to use audio for more personal connections, like Clubhouse, eliminate clout chasing, like Twelv, or, in the case of new social network Telepath, by designing a platform guided by rules that focus on enforcing kindness, countering abuse, and disabling the spread of fake news.
Many of these early efforts are already facing challenges.
Private social network Clubhouse has repeatedly demonstrated that allowing free-flowing communication in the form of audio conversations is an area that’s notoriously difficult to moderate. The app, though still unavailable to the broader public, courted controversy in September when it allowed anti-Semitic content to be discussed in one of its chat rooms. In the past, it had also allowed users to harass an NYT reporter openly.
Meanwhile, Twelv, a sort of Instagram alternative, ditches the “Like” button concept and all the other features now overloading Instagram, which had once been just a photo-sharing network. But, unfortunately, this also means there’s no easy way to find and follow interesting users or trends on Twelv — you have to push friends to join the app with you or know someone’s username to look them up, otherwise it shows you no content. The result is a social network without the “social.”
Telepath, meanwhile, is a more interesting development.
It’s pursuing an even loftier goal in social networking — creating a hate speech-free platform where fake news can’t be distributed.
No social network to date has been able to accomplish what Telegraph claims it will be able to do in terms of content moderation. Its ambitions are optimistic and, as the network remains in private beta, they’re also untested at scale.
Though positioned as a different kind of social network, Telepath isn’t actually focused on developing a new sharing format that could encourage participation — the way TikTok popularized the 15-second video clip, for example, or how Snapchat turned the world onto “Stories.”
Instead, Telepath, at first glance, looks very much like just another feed to scroll through. (And given the amount of linked Twitter content in Telepath posts, it’s almost serving as a backchannel for the rival platform.)
The startup itself was founded by former Quora employees, including former Quora Business & Community head, Marc Bodnick, now Telepath Executive Chairman; and former Quora Product Lead, Richard Henry, now Telepath CEO. They’re aided by former Quora Global Writer Relations Lead, Tatiana Estévez, now Telepath Head of Community and Safety; and Ro Applewhaite, previously research staff for Pete Buttigieg for America, now Telepath Head of Outreach.
It’s backed by a couple million in seed funding, led by First Round Capital (Josh Kopelman). Other backers include Unusual Ventures (Andy Johns), Slow Ventures (Sam Lessin), and unnamed angels. Bodnick and his wife, Michelle Sandberg, also invested.
When talking about Telepath, it’s clear the founders are nostalgic for the early days of the web — before all the people joined, that is. In smaller, online communities in years past, people connected and made internet friends who would become real-world friends. That’s a moment in time they hope to recapture.
“I’ve benefited a lot by meeting people through the internet, forming relationships and having conversations — that sort of thing,” says Henry. “But the internet just isn’t fun in the ways that it used to be fun.”
He suggests that the anonymity offered by networks like Reddit and Twitter make it more difficult for people to make real-world connections. Telepath, with its focus on conversations, aims to change that.
“If we facilitate a really fun, kind, and empathetic conversation environment, then lots of good things can happen. And it might be that you potentially find someone you want to work with, or you end up getting a job, or you meet new friends, or you end up meeting offline,” Henry says.
To get started on Telepath, you join the network with your mobile phone number and name, find and follow other users, similar to Twitter, then join interest-based communities as you would on Reddit. When you launch the app, you’re meant to browse a home feed where conversation topics from your communities and interesting replies are highlighted — orange for those replies from people you follow and gray for those that Telepath has determined are worth being elevated to the home screen.
As you read through the posts and visit the communities, you can “Thumbs Up” content you like, downvote what you don’t, reply, mute, block, and use @usernames to flag someone.
Another interesting design choice: everything on Telepath disappears after 30 days. No one will get to dig through your misinformed posts from a decade ago to shame you in the present, it seems.
What’s most different about Telepath, however, is not the design or format. It’s what’s taking place behind the scenes, as detailed by Telepath’s rules.
Users who join Telepath must agree to “be kind,” which is rule number one. They must also not attack one another based on identity or harass others. They must use a real name (or their preferred name, if transgender), and not post violent content or porn. “Fake news” is banned, as determined by a publisher’s attempts at disseminating misinformation on a regular basis.
Telepath has even tried to formalize rules around how polite conversations should function online with rules like “don’t circle the drain” — meaning don’t keep trying to have the last word in a contentious debate or circumvent a locked thread; and “stay on topic,” which means don’t bombard a pro-x network with an anti-x agenda (and vice versa.)
To enforce its rules, Telepath begins by requiring users to sign up with a mobile phone number, which is verified as a “real” number associated with a SIM card, and not a virtual one — like the kind you could grab through a “burner” app.
In order to the create its “kind environment,” Telepath says it will sacrifice growth and hire moderators who work in-house as long-term, trusted employees.
“All the major social networks essentially grew in an unbounded way,” explains Henry. “They had 100 million-plus active users, then were like, ‘okay, now how do we moderate this enormous thing?’,” he continues. “We’re in a lucky position because we get to moderate from day one. We get to set the norms.”
“Day one” was a long time in the making, however. The team rebuilt the product four times over a couple of years. Now, they say they’ve developed internal tools that provide moderators with visibility into the system.
According to moderator head Estévez, these include a reporting system, real-time content streams organized in to buckets (e.g. a bucket for “only new users”), as well as various searchable ways to get context around a report or a particular problematic user.
“Really good tools — including real-time streams of content, classifiers for problematic behavior, searchable context, and making it hard for banned users to return — mean that each moderator we hire will be quite scalable. We think that there are network effects around positive behavior,” she says.
“It’s our intention to scale up fast and high accuracy moderation decision-making, which means that we’re going to be investing a lot of engineering effort in getting these tools right,” she adds.
The founders have decided not to use any third-party systems to aid in moderation at this time, they told TechCrunch.
“We looked at a bunch of off-the-shelf [moderation systems], and we’re basically building everything that we need from scratch,” says Henry. “We just need more control over being able to tweak how these systems work in order to get the outcome that we want.”
The investment in human moderation over automation will also require additional capital to scale. And Telepath’s decision to not run ads means it will eventually need to consider alternative business models to sustain itself. The company, for now, is interested in subscriptions, but hasn’t made decisions on this front yet.
Banning the trolls
Though Telepath has only 4,000-plus users in its private beta, the two-person moderation team is already tasked with moderating posts from across the thousands of pieces of content shared on a daily basis. (The company doesn’t disclose how many violations it takes action against per day, on average.)
When a user breaks the rules, moderators may first warn them about the violation and may require them to take down or edit a specific post. No one is punished for making a mistake or being unaware of the rules — they’re first given a chance to fix it.
But if a user breaks the rules repeatedly or in a way that seems intentional, such as engaging in a harassment campaign around another user, they are banned entirely. Because of the phone number verification system, they also can’t easily return — unless they go out and purchase a new phone, that is.
These moderation actions don’t necessarily have to follow strict guidelines, like a “three strikes rule,” for example. Instead, the way the rules may be enforced are determined on a case-by-case basis. Where Telepath leans towards stricter enforcement is around intentional and flagrant violations, or those where there’s a pattern of bad behavior. (As with Reply Guys and sealioning behavior.)
In addition, unlike on Facebook and Twitter — platforms that sometimes seem to be caught off guard by viral trends in need of moderation — Telepath intends for nothing to go viral on its platform without having been seen by a human moderator, the company says.
Telepath is also working to develop a reputation score for users and trust scores for publishers.
In the case of the former, the goal is help the company determine how likely the user is to break Telepath’s rules. This isn’t developed yet, but would be something used behind the scenes, not put on display for all to see.
For publishers, the trust score will be how factually correct they are what percentage of the time.
“For example, if the most popular article in terms of views from the publisher is just completely factually incorrect or intentionally misleading…that should have a bigger penalty on the trust score,” explains Henry. “The problem is that the incumbent platforms have rules against disinformation, but the problem is that they don’t enforce them out of this desire to appear balanced.”
Bodnick adds this challenge is not as insurmountable as it seems.
“Our view is that, actually, a handful of outlets are responsible for most of the disinformation…I don’t think our intent is to build out some modern-day truth system that will figure out if The Washington Post is slightly more accurate than The New York Times. I think the main goal will be to identify repeat disinformation publishers — determine that they are perpetual publishers of disinformation, and then crush their distribution,” says Bodnick.
This plan, however, involves setting rules on Telepath that fly in the face of what many today consider “free speech.” In fact, Telepath’s position is that free speech-favoring social networks are a failed system.
“The problem, in our view, is that when you take this free-speech centered approach that sort of says: ‘I don’t care how many disinformation posts Breitbart has published in the last — three years, three months, three weeks — we’re going to treat every new post as if it could be equally likely to be truthful as any other post in the system,’” says Bodnick. “That is inefficient.”
“That’s how we will scale this disinformation rule — by determining which relatively small group of publishers — I’m guessing it’s hundreds, low hundreds — are responsible for publishing lots of disinformation. And then take their distribution down,” he says.
This opinion on free speech is shared by the team.
“We’re trying to build a community, which means that we have to make certain tradeoffs,” adds Estévez. “In the rules we refer to Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance — to maintain a tolerant society, you have to be intolerant of intolerance. We have no interest in giving a platform to certain kinds of speech,” she notes.
This is the exact opposite approach that conservative social media sites are taking, like Parler and Gab. There, the companies believe in free speech to the point that they’ve left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, saying that no one filed a report about the threat, and law enforcement hadn’t reached out. These MAGA-friendly social networks are also filled with conspiracies, un-fact checked reports, and, frankly, a lot of vitriol.
The expectation is that if you go on their platforms, you’re in charge of muting and blocking trolls or the content you don’t like. But by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.
Twitter, meanwhile, tries to straddle the middle ground. And in doing so, has alienated a number of users who think it doesn’t go far enough in counteracting abuse. Users report harassment and threats, then wait for days for their report to be reviewed only to be told the tweet in question didn’t break Twitter’s terms.
Telepath sits on the other end of the spectrum, aggressively moderating content, blocking and banning users if needed, and punishing publications that don’t fact check or those that peddle misinformation.
And yet, despite all this extra effort, Telepath doesn’t always feature only thoughtful and kind-hearted conversations.
That’s because it has carved out an exception in its kindness rule that allows users to criticize public figures, and because it doesn’t appear to be taking action on what could be problematic, if not violating, conversations.
A user’s experience in these “gray” areas may vary by community.
Telepath’s communities today focus on hobbies and interests, and can range from the innocuous — like Books or Branding or Netflix or Cooking, for example — to the potentially fraught, like Race in America. In the latter, there have been discussions about the capitalization of “Black” where it was suggested that maybe this wasn’t a useful idea. In another, sympathy is expressed for a person who was falsely pretending to be a person of color.
In a post about affordable housing, someone openly wondered if a woman who said she didn’t want to live near poor people was actually racist. Another commenter then noted that gang members can bring down property values.
A QAnon community, meanwhile, discusses the movement and its ridiculous followers from afar — which is apparently permitted — though supporting it in earnest would not be.
There are also nearly 20 groups about things that “suck,” as in GOPSucks or CNNSucks or QuibiSucks.
Anti-Trump content, meanwhile, can be found on a network called “DumbHitler.”
Meanwhile, online publishers who routinely post discredited information are banned from Telepath, but YouTube is not. So if feel you need to share a link to a video of Rudy Giuliani accusing Biden of dementia, you can do so — so long as you don’t call it the truth.
And you can post opinions about some terrible people in which you describe them as terrible, thanks to the public figure carve-out.
Cheater and deadbeat dad? Go ahead and call them a “disgusting human being.” VP Pence was referred to by a commenter as “SmugFace mcWhitey” and Ronny Jackson is described as “such a piece of sh**.”
Explains Estévez, that’s because Telepath’s “be kind” rule is not intended to protect public figures from criticism.
“It is important to note that toxicity on the internet around politics isn’t because people are using bad words, but because people are using bad faith arguments. They are spreading misinformation. They are gaslighting marginalised groups about their experiences. These are the real issues we’re addressing,” she says.
She also notes that online “civility” is often used to silence people from marginalized groups.
“We don’t want Telepath’s focus on kindness to be turned against those who criticize powerful people,” she adds.
In practice, the way this plays out on Telepath today is that it’s become a private, closed door network where users can bash Trump, his supporters and right-wing politicians in peace from Twitter trolls. And it’s a place where a majority agrees with those opinions, too.
It has, then, seemingly built the Twitter that many on the left have wanted, the way that conservative social media, like Gab and Parler, built what the right had wanted. But in the end, it’s not clear if this is the solution for the problems of modern social media or merely an escape. It also remains to be seen whether a mainstream user base will follow.
Telepath remains in a closed beta of indefinite length. You need an invite to join.
How to Make Grits From Fresh Hominy
True grits are usually made with dried, ground hominy—corn that has been soaked in an alkaline solution to render it more nutritious and delicious. This is harder to find in the Pacific Northwest than one might think. Even though Portland practically has a fetish for southern food, most of the “grits” you find in area grocery stores are sold as “grits aka polenta,” which is not what I’m looking for. Not at all.
That extra soaking step is what makes grits taste like grits. Without calcium hydroxide (or some similar caustic substance), your ground corn porridge is bland and blah. Nixtamalization—which you can learn all about here—is the key to giving it the toasty, sweet, aromatic notes that make this particular bowl of breakfast mush better than the others.
There aren’t however, many recipes for turning freshly nixtamlized corn into grits. There are a few that show you how to dry and grind your corn and then turn that into grits, but I simply don’t want to do all of that. Luckily, if you can make risotto (and have a food processor) you can make grits from fresh hominy. I was only able to find one recipe for doing so (on the Anson Mill’s site), so I used that as a template and—because I cannot help myself—made a few adjustments.
But, before we get to that, you should familiarize yourself with the process of transforming corn into hominy, so go do that if you haven’t already. Once you’ve made at least a cup of the stuff, all you’ll need is water, salt, and a little butter for flavor. You will not need cream or milk. The creaminess in grits comes from their own, naturally occurring starch, not dairy, so please save the milk for your cereal and the cream for your coffee.
Grits made with freshly nixtamlized corn are—depending on how finely you break them down—a little more toothsome than the kind you buy pre-ground. They retain some of the hominy’s chewy texture, which I enjoy, but the more finely you prepare them with the food processor, the closer to “regular” grits they will be.
Once you’ve pulsed your hominy into something that looks like grits, it’s almost exactly like cooking risotto, the only difference being that you do not toast them in fat before you add liquid, as doing so will coat the little corn bits and prevent them from absorbing water. Toast them in a dry pan until they are hot and fragrant and start to stick to the end of a wooden spoon, then gradually add salted water, stirring with each addition, until they soften and swell and release their starch. Then—and only then—should you add butter to taste.
Fresh Hominy Grits
- At least 1 cup of freshly prepared hominy (not dried or canned)
- At least 2 cups of water per cup of hominy
- 2 tablespoons of butter per cup of hominy, divided
Add the hominy to your food processor and pulse until it is broken down into fine, grit-sized pieces. The smaller your bits, the quicker the grits will cook, and the creamier they will be (though those little toothsome bits can be fun). Add the grits to a dry stainless steel pot, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until they are hot and fragrant and steaming. While the grits are heating, lightly salt the water and bring to a boil in a separate sauce pan (or kettle).
Once the grits are hot and starting to stick to the end of your wooden spoon, start adding water, about 1/3 cup at a time, stirring with each addition until it is absorbed. The grits will be quite tight and firm looking at first; just keep adding water and stirring until they soften and swell. Eventually, they will loosen up and release their starch, which is what will make them creamy.
Taste as you go. It’s possible your grits will look the part before they are cooked enough, so keep cooking until they are soft on your teeth, adding more water as needed to keep them from dying out. Once they look and taste right, add one tablespoon of butter (per cup of hominy you started with), stir, taste, and adjust with more butter or salt if needed. Serve with hot sauce, cheese, shrimp, and/or more butter.
The ambitious effort to piece together America’s fragmented health data
From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiologist Melissa Haendel knew that the United States was going to have a data problem. There didn’t seem to be a national strategy to control the virus, and cases were springing up in sporadic hotspots around the country. With such a patchwork response, nationwide information about the people who got sick would probably be hard to come by.
Other researchers around the country were pinpointing similar problems. In Seattle, Adam Wilcox, the chief analytics officer at UW Medicine, was reaching out to colleagues. The city was the first US COVID-19 hotspot. “We had 10 times the data, in terms of just raw testing, than other areas,” he says. He wanted to share that data with other hospitals, so they would have that information on hand before COVID-19 cases started to climb in their area. Everyone wanted to get as much data as possible in the hands of as many people as possible, so they could start to understand the virus.
Haendel was in a good position to help make that happen. She’s the chair of the National Center for Data to Health (CD2H), a National Institutes of Health program that works to improve collaboration and data sharing within the medical research community. So one week in March, just after she’d started working from home and pulled her 10th grader out of school, she started trying to figure out how to use existing data-sharing projects to help fight this new disease.
The solution Haendel and CD2H landed on sounds simple: a centralized, anonymous database of health records from people who tested positive for COVID-19. Researchers could use the data to figure out why some people get very sick and others don’t, how conditions like cancer and asthma interact with the disease, and which treatments end up being effective.
But in the United States, building that type of resource isn’t easy. “The US healthcare system is very fragmented,” Haendel says. “And because we have no centralized healthcare, that makes it also the case that we have no centralized healthcare data.” Hospitals, citing privacy concerns, don’t like to give out their patients’ health data. Even if hospitals agree to share, they all use different ways of storing information. At one institution, the classification “female” could go into a record as one, and “male” could go in as two — and at the next, they’d be reversed.
Emergencies, though, have a way of busting through norms. “Nothing like a pandemic to bring out the best in an institution,” Haendel says. And after only a few months of breakneck work from CD2H and collaborators around the country, the National COVID Cohort Collaborative Data Enclave, or N3C, opened to researchers at the start of September. Now that it’s in place, it could help bolster pandemic responses in the future. It’s unique from anything that’s come before it, in size and scope, Haendel says. “No other resource has ever tried to do this before.”
Patient health records are fairly accessible to scientists — under health privacy laws, the records can be used for research as long as identifying information (like names and locations) are removed. The catch is that researchers are usually limited to records of patients at the places that they work. The dataset can only include as many patients as that institution treats, and it’s geographically restricted. Researchers can’t be sure that patient data in New York City would be equivalent to patient data in Alabama. Using information from multiple places would help make sure the results were as representative as possible.
But it can be risky for institutions to share and combine their data, Wilcox says. Moving data outside of the control of an organization risks a data breach, which could lead to patient mistrust, open the institution up to legal issues, or create other competitive disadvantages, he says. They need to balance all those concerns against the potential benefits. “The organization needs to approve it. Is this a good idea? Do we want to participate in it?” Wilcox says.
Institutions often answer those questions with a “no.” They want to maintain ownership and control over their own data, says Anita Walden, assistant director at CD2H. The pandemic changed that culture. People who may typically be reluctant to participate in programs like this one were suddenly all-in, she says. “Because of COVID-19, people just want to do what they can.”
Getting institutions to send in their data was only the first step. Next, experts had to transform that data into something useful. Medical institutions all collect and record health information in slightly different ways, and there haven’t been incentives for them to standardize their methods. Many institutions spent hundreds of millions of dollars to set up their electronic medical records — they don’t want to change things unless they absolutely have to.
“It’s like turning the Titanic at this point,” says Emily Pfaff, who leads the team at N3C merging different institutions’ data. The companies that make the software for electronic health records, like Epic, also don’t make their strategies for storing data available to outside researchers. “If you want to practice open science with clinical data, which I think many of us do, you’re not going to be able to do that with the data formatted in the way that the electronic health record does it,” she says. “You have to transform that data.”
Countries like the United Kingdom, which have centralized health care systems, don’t have to deal with the same problems: data from every patient in the country’s National Health Service is already in one place. In May, researchers published a study that analyzed records from over 17 million people to find risk factors for death from COVID-19.
But in the US, for N3C, it’s not as simple. Instead of a COVID-19 patient’s data heading directly into a national database, the new process is far more involved. Let’s say a pregnant woman goes to her doctor with symptoms of what she thinks could be COVID-19. She gets tested, and the test comes back positive. That result shows up in her health record. If her health care provider is participating in the N3C database, that record gets flagged. “Then her health record has a chance to get caught by our net, because what our net is looking for, among other things, is a positive COVID test,” Pfaff says.
Her data then travels into a database, where a program (which had to be created from scratch) transforms information about the patient’s treatments and preexisting conditions into a standardized format. Then, it’ll get pushed into the N3C data enclave, undergo a quality check, and then — without her name or the name of the institution the record came from — be available for researchers.
Nearly 70 institutions have started the process to contribute data to the enclave. Data from 20 sites has passed through the full process, and data is accessible to researchers. At the end of September, the database held around 65,000 COVID-19 cases, Pfaff says, and around 650,000 non-COVID-19 cases (which can be used as controls). There’s no specific numerical goal, she says. “We would take as many as possible.”
Using the data
As some experts were working to get medical institutions on board with the project and others were figuring out how to harmonize a crush of data, still others were organizing to figure out what, exactly, they wanted to do with the resulting information. They sorted into a handful of working groups, each focused on a different area: there’s one focused on the intersection of diabetes and COVID-19, for example, and another on kidney injuries.
Elaine Hill, a health economist at the University of Rochester, is heading up a group focused on pregnancy and COVID-19. The first thing they’re hoping to do, she says, is figure out just how many people had the virus when they gave birth — only a few hospitals have published that data so far. “Then, we’re interested in understanding how COVID-19 infection affects pregnancy-related outcomes for both mother and baby,” she says. Thanks to the database, they’ll be able to do that with nationwide information, not just data from patients in a handful of places.
That wide view of the problem is one key benefit of a large, national database. Different places across the US had different COVID-19 prevention policies, different regulations around lockdowns, and have different demographics. Combining them gives a more complete picture of how the virus hit the country. “It makes it possible to shed light on things we wouldn’t be able to with just my Rochester cohort,” Hill says.
Some symptoms or complications from COVID-19 are also rare, and one hospital might only see one or two total patients who have them. “When you’re gathering data across the nation, you have a bigger population, and can look at trends in those rarer conditions,” Walden says. Larger datasets can make it possible for analysts to use more complicated machine learning techniques, as well.
If all goes well with N3C, the project could offer a blueprint for better data sharing in the future. More than that, it can offer a concrete tool to future projects — the code needed to clean, transform, and merge data from multiple hospitals now exists. “I almost feel like it’s building pandemic-ready infrastructure for the future,” Pfaff says. And now that research institutions have shared data once — even though it’s under unique circumstances — they may be more willing to do it again in the future.
“Five years from now, the greatest value of this data set won’t be the data,” Wilcox says. “It’ll have been the methods that we learned trying to get it working.”
Amnesia: Rebirth is an elegant sequel to a horror classic
When is a society — or a life — past saving? The reassuring answer is never. But Amnesia: Rebirth, the latest game from Swedish studio Frictional, isn’t designed to be reassuring.
Rebirth is a successor to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a 2010 horror classic defined by its shameless jump scares; grotesque monsters; and chilling story about guilt, cruelty, and memory. Frictional has gone back to Amnesia a couple of times. First with a short 2011 add-on called Justine, and again by publishing Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, a separate game developed by The Chinese Room. But Rebirth, which will be released tomorrow, is the first new, full-length game in the series.
Amnesia: Rebirth has an immediately familiar cadence. Like The Dark Descent, it’s a game that torments players by delivering stretches of tense, dread-inducing exploration; frantic chases; and moments of revelation before they’re pushed back into the dark. For me, it was a nine-hour-long cycle of dread, panic, and recovery, a loop so well-honed that it’s all but explicitly referenced in the plot. But Rebirth tweaks the original game’s design and themes in compelling ways.
Rebirth is an oblique sequel to The Dark Descent. It uses the same first-person design and gives players the deliberately awkward point-and-click interface that Frictional has used for over a decade. It also has narrative links to the first game. But it’s set in 1937, several decades after the original, and it’s focused on a different protagonist: Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon, a French draftswoman joining an archaeological expedition to Algeria. After surviving a desert plane crash, Tasi wakes among the wreckage with gaps in her memory, a mysterious amulet around her wrist, and a trail of notes that her husband Sahim has left to mark a path.
Like The Dark Descent, Rebirth sends players to retrace a story that its protagonist has forgotten at least partly to save their own sanity. The game is less lonely and quiet than Frictional’s earlier work, which sent players into almost entirely abandoned worlds. But it’s still an emphatically isolating experience. The setting of Rebirth feels awe-inspiring in a way that The Dark Descent’s setting didn’t allow — not just horrifying or hostile, but grand and strangely beautiful. Its chapters shift between desert sandscapes, underground ruins, and, in one of the game’s rare nods to its period setting, a French colonial outpost.
It also spends a lot of time in a different world altogether, thanks to Tasi’s amulet. Though Amnesia is often described as Lovecraftian, Rebirth owes as much to the eerie, decaying grandeur evoked by Lovecraft’s weird fiction contemporary William Hope Hodgson, author of foundational dying Earth novel The Night Land. It’s a story not about an individual monster — although you’ll meet plenty of them — but about an entire civilization that’s made itself monstrous by accepting pain as the price of normalcy. The game’s story delves into places and concepts that the first game only hinted at, and it mostly makes them creepier than they originally sounded.
Frictional’s last project Soma downplayed puzzles and other mechanical elements, even offering a feature that removed its monsters. Rebirth swings back toward an earlier, more explicitly game-like style. Its puzzles are simpler and a bit more organic than those of the first game, designed to get players poking around the edges of a level trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do. But they still follow recognizable point-and-click adventure conventions. There’s also a version of The Dark Descent’s trademark sanity meter, which drains in darkness and messes with players’ perception when it’s low but can be boosted by lighting candles or using a lantern with limited power.
Amnesia’s horror has always been a complex sleight of hand, as the games evoke a palpable threat of failure without actually stalling or frustrating players too badly. In The Dark Descent, this meant that sanity slippage was ultimately cosmetic — it produced creepy visual effects but, except in a “hardcore mode” that was added after launch, it couldn’t permanently damage you.
Without revealing too much detail, this is not true in Rebirth. Its oppressive darkness is tangibly dangerous, and rationing matches and oil — a system that felt a little perfunctory in The Dark Descent — is a far more satisfying part of the game. Meanwhile, instead of giving players a game-over screen, Rebirth (sort of) lets you fail forward if you die but at a subtle narrative cost. The whole system is framed around something more original and less reductive than “sanity,” and it’s become more elegant and interesting with the change. There’s even a Death Stranding-esque mechanic that I can’t describe without spoiling a major plot element, but that works surprisingly well.
Rebirth’s story doesn’t require knowing anything about The Dark Descent, and it might actually be more compelling to discover certain elements for the first time. But — to be somewhat vague — the series cleverly recontextualizes its original protagonist’s greatest enemy.
Frictional has a long-standing fascination with humanity’s moral relationship to godlike beings. Its early, deeply underrated Penumbra series is about an ancient civilization (known as the Tuurngait) that prizes extraordinary mercy and collective good, and a man who ultimately chooses to destroy them out of fear. Rebirth inverts the relationship: it’s about discovering powerful, super-intelligent beings with distinctly human motivations for terrible atrocities.
Very little of this, it’s worth noting, has much to do with the game’s historical period or its setting in Algeria. Similar to Penumbra, which used a name from Inuit mythology for a basically unrelated entity, Rebirth nods very lightly to Arabic folklore by way of H.P. Lovecraft. But it’s focused on Tasi’s own personal tragedies and their connection to a strange and ancient world, touching only glancingly on real events like the violence of French colonialism. There’s a game to be made about that kind of horror, but its omission here feels like Frictional understanding where its interests and its limitations lie — and avoiding shallowly exploiting territory that would require a far deeper and more nuanced exploration.
Amnesia: Rebirth doesn’t reinvent horror games the way The Dark Descent does. But it refines one of the genre’s greatest entries into something more awe-inspiring and deftly designed, without abandoning its highest goal: making you shiver as you take your first step down a pitch-black tunnel.
Amnesia: Rebirth launches October 20th on PC and PlayStation 4.
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