Monster of the Week is a three-part series where we dive into the creation of iconic monsters from video games with the game developers who helped bring them to life. Stay tuned for more in the weeks to come!
Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a phenomenon. It jumpstarted Let’s Plays and streaming like no other horror game before it; compilations of people playing it and screaming quickly crowded the likes of YouTube. I was one of its many fans—though I was a year late to the party, only picking it up in 2011. And even then, it took me years to properly beat it. In college, I fell into an accidental tradition with it: I would dive back in around Halloween time, play it for a couple hours, and then be too scared to continue until the next year. By 2014, I finally beat it.
Its scariest monster is one that’s become synonymous with it in the years since: the Water Lurker, also known as the Kaernk. When you venture into the flooded archival room for the first time, it’s easy to think, ‘Okay, the coast is clear.’ But soon though, you see splashing about. You realize you’re not alone. It’s petrifying.
And the monster? It’s not even visible, and it’s because of time constraints at developer Frictional Games.
“The initial idea was that there was supposed to be tentacles. It was actually inspired by, do you remember… I think it was the first Star Wars movie when they’re all in this waste disposal thingy and there’s water and there’s lots of garbage and there’s tentacles coming up. So we wanted, or at least I wanted, something like that from the beginning. That was the initial seed, having tentacle-something coming out of the water,” Amnesia co-designer and co-founder of Frictional Games, Thomas Grip, tells me. “Then when it came to actually making the monster, I was like Shit, we don’t have time. […] We have to figure out something simpler here.” Grip wondered what the team could get away with, when splashes entered his mind. Then the Kaernk was born.
The memorable splashes ended up being scary enough, but if there had been a “super big budget,” Grip says the Water Lurker easily could have had tentacles squirming all the way out of the water, as if they were trying to grab the player. It was an early design in terms of Amnesia’s development, with it being discussed at least two years before its release.
In my pre-interview research, I even found a sketch that was labeled as concept art for the water monster on a fan-curated Wiki page. Grip laughs when I mention it. “It has to be fan art. It’s just my water splashes, so I have no idea what it looks like,” he says. “What it actually is like in the game is that it’s just, I think, it is a sphere that’s red and we just said don’t draw… Probably the most benign monster ever in terms of visually.”
Internally, Kaernk is referred to as the Water Lurker, which remains its most recognizable moniker. During the development of a puzzle in Amnesia though, Frictional Games realized that the Water Lurker would be a silly name to have appear in-game, so according to Grip, writer Mikael Hedberg came up with the “official” name.
“The idea was to instill fear so the monster is only like, when you encounter it for the first time, you sort of associate it with the water it’s in,” says Grip. “I think that’s the first time you actually see water in the game, so every single time you encounter water again you’re gonna think, ‘Could the monster be here?'” It also feeds into another major mechanic of Amnesia: the protagonist’s sanity, and his intense fear of the dark. After the run-in with the Water Lurker the first time, that fear passes onto the player: now you’re afraid of any water you see, and the game plays with that.
It’s the unseen that makes it tense. The Kaernk is attracted to meat, and being a walking hunk of flesh, that means you’re always a target. Of course, there are ways to distract it. You can throw meat for it to munch on for a few seconds—great for opening up a door—or throw a box just to bait it in an opposite direction for a few much-needed seconds. You ultimately deal with it in a completely different way from the other monsters you encounter in Amnesia, which is what makes it so memorable. “You’re not really hiding from it line of sight wise; you’re hiding from it element-wise,” Grip says, likening the encounters to being a game of hot lava, only with water being the death trap instead.
This characteristic, Grip explains, actually happened wholly by accident. He implemented “a few lines” of code so that the Water Lurker would be distractible, which had an unintended consequence. “I jumped from box to box, which I knew were safe areas from the Water Lurker. And when I did that, I jumped to a box and I heard splash splash splash. What the hell? What was that noise? Why am I hearing splashes? So I’m like, I must have imagined it or something. So I jumped to another box and I hear splash splash splash. This is creeping me out. Like this was—I think it was actually quite late at night—this monster’s starting to really sound… like I’m actually getting pretty frightened here. And then it turns up and I understood it. It’s following the sounds I make when I jump from crate to crate. That was super cool, so then I was like wow, why don’t we just keep that behavior? So that was not an intentional thing at all.”
The Kaernk doesn’t just appear once or twice either—it pops up across the whole story at different sections. And whenever you enter a flooded room with conspicuous boxes to jump on, it’s unnerving because you think, “It’s back.” Or is it?
“It’s just like a roller coaster,” Grip continues. “If you have a roller coaster, part of the interesting, or the fun, about it is waiting in line. Like ‘Oh, am I really going to ride on this thing?’ And you see someone else going and screaming, so as long you build all of this up within yourself, then the actual scare is almost like a relief. So what you want to concentrate on is this fear, these moments before the player is actually scared because when they’re scared the player is, ‘Oh wow! Now I’m scared and it really shocked me, but, you know, now I know how bad it’s gonna get.’ Whereas before you get that shock, you’re like shit, if I see that monster again… internally you’re super afraid of the consequences, and your imagination knows no bounds just how bad it’s gonna be.”
Some players have passed around a tip for dealing with the Kaernk like an urban myth: you can toss a box or barrel on top of where it’s splashing and seemingly kill it. They dissipate into a yellow goo, as seen in some clips on YouTube. Grip is surprised when I ask why the Water Lurker is the only killable monster in Amnesia.
“Super unintentional, that has to be like a bug; it goes through the floor or something like that. That’s totally not by design,” says Grip in minor disbelief over the unresolved bug for a near-decade old game at this point. “I honestly didn’t know that.”
Legends like these are emblematic of the shareable nature Amnesia has developed over the years. I didn’t hear that you could kill the Water Lurker until browsing an old forum that mentioned it, and later discovered the fact buried in Wikis and on YouTube, captured on tape. Were the videos altered? It’s extremely possible, but in 2019, it’s all the proof we have. For a small indie game that ended up redefining modern horror games as we know them, with the likes of Resident Evil 7 and Outlast taking heavy inspiration, Amnesia was the first to do a combat-free horror that didn’t feel frustrating, and to this day, is the best at it.
The Water Lurker came about through a series of accidents: budgetary reasons, a lack of time to animate another monster, emergent interactions through a few lines of unrelated code. Kaernk the Water Lurker wouldn’t exist, or be as terrifying as we know it, without these circumstances paving its way by sheer happenstance. And Grip, to this day, is very proud of its legacy.
“I hope that I could someday recreate something like a monster like the Water Lurker; that had that sort of not just run around and then hide,” he says. “I think there was a very lucky hit on not having any money and then, yes, having a certain design that just very easily allowed us to prototype the thing, and a lot of things just came out of that and worked really well.”
When people talk about Amnesia, the Water Lurker is the first monster they talk about. To Grip, that’s really its legacy: like everyone says, even with all the jaw-unhinging, skin drooping monsters of one of the most influential modern horror games, the scariest beast to this day is the one we never even lay our eyes on. For all we know, it could be that fish-like fan concept art, or the tentacle creature Grip dreamed up in his head, or an Evangelion-like sphere—as it’s actually rendered in-game. But without any visuals, it will always be a true mystery. That’s what makes it really scary.