It’s marvelous when an independent game developer creates something that gets the big dogs off their high horses. This is the case for Frictional Games, who brought onto the world Penumbra, a first-person adventure-horror series. The Penumbra games showed that it didn’t take six-digit budgets to make a great game, and that sometimes, less is more. Their next game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is looking to be a winner. I interviewed Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional, about Amnesia and their philosophy of design.
From the looks of it, Amnesia is an amalgamation of the elements that made the Penumbra series a great one. Aside from the narrative context, what are the features or differentiations that make Amnesia special?
Thomas: It is true that a quite a lot of things are similar in Penumbra and Amnesia. People that have played Penumbra will recognize the basic design, physical interaction and focus on atmosphere. When it comes to things that are different, I think there are four main things:
The physics interactions have been improved. For example, it is now easier to close a door, making sequences such as fleeing from a hostile creature a lot easier (it was almost impossible to quickly close a door in Penumbra).
The game has been more streamlined and more focus has been put on making the game an experience, instead of a challenge. This means that puzzles are not meant to stop the player but rather to increase immersion.
There is a large focus on making the player feel like the protagonist in the story; there are no comments or such from the main character and players are forced to draw their own conclusions. We also removed any sort of cutscene.
The story is set in a new time era and contains completely different environments. There are no connections between Penumbra and Amnesia story-wise.
Penumbra’s formula to being a successful horror game was its understanding of the environment it built; the focus is a sense of immersion as opposed to “boo” moments. Is Amnesia designed as an immersive game with the horror aspect following suit, or vice versa?
Thomas: We set out to do a horror game from the start and knew that making an immersive experience was critical to that, so I don’t think they’re separate. Once the immersive factors are in, adding the horror is much easier, and comes almost naturally. That is not really how we designed the game though, and a lot of the themes in the story are based mostly on the horror aspect of the game.
What inspired Amnesia’s (and Penumbra’s) style of horror?
Thomas: There has been many different sources of inspiration during the three years we have worked on the game, but I think a few stand out. I am an avid fan of reading about the history of science and descriptions of how different groups of scientists worked during the 17th and 18th century; this was an inspiration to the first draft of the story. Also, things like the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments have been a base for the themes that are present in the game. These elements (and more) form the basis of the events and feelings we want to provoke. When it comes the actual design of the horror, there are many sources as well. Lovecraft and Poe are of course ever present, where the readers’ imagination is played with and used to evoke feelings of dread. There is also a lot of movies such as 70’s horror flicks like The Omen, The Exorcist, etc. that work on a more psychological level, rather than just showing gore. I could go on and on about inspirational sources, but those at least give a little taste.
The Penumbra games are games I’d classify as truly immersive. As designers, what’s in the toolbox that really makes for an immersive experience?
Thomas: I think the physical environment helps a great deal in making the surroundings feel real. When you can only interact with a limited part of the environment, it starts to feel like a prop more than an actual game world. It is also a matter of creating locations that have character through story and sounds and that works with the gameplay.
You mentioned sound. Games like Thief II: The Metal Age and Silent Hill were much more effective in their presentation because of their well-designed sound dynamics. It seems to me that sound is vastly overlooked by game developers. Do you think that’s true?
Thomas: I am not sure if it’s that overlooked, for instance many shooter games have proper and authentic firearm sounds. I think it more has to do with sound taking a backseat place, behind graphics. In our games, sound is brought up front (because of the design, as well as resource issues) and I think the same is true for the games you mention. Sound is such a powerful device, since it’s much easier to make a realistic sound than a realistic visual and can therefore have a lot of impact. Also, hearing sounds makes the player imagine visuals, but the other way around is not that common, so it is a very nice tool when trying to mess with someone’s head.
Along the same lines, what makes a good horror game?
Thomas: The one biggest thing is to stimulate the player’s imagination and hint at things rather than showing them. The horror that can be created in a player’s mind will also be able to have more impact than whatever a modeler can create in our engine. In order for this approach to work, it is important to have an immersive game and to have situations that forces to player into thinking what might have happened and what might lurk behind the next corner.
Do you feel other games that attempted that sort of approach have succeeded?
Thomas: Silent Hill does some of it quite successfully, and All Alone, a text game, is extremely powerful by messing with the player’s mind. There are other more recent games that do this successfully, but it’s almost never a larger part of the game. Most games seem to focus on having a game mechanic at the core, and then just try and fit everything else onto that. Instead, we try to adapt the mechanics to support the horror design. Unfortunately not many games do this.
Why the emphasis on physics?
Thomas: It actually started out as a way to save on doing animations. When implemented, it gave a lot of extra perks. As explained previously, it is essential to us when making an immersive experience.
How much does story factor into Amnesia? Are the plans for the game to be episodic like Penumbra?
Thomas: Story is very important and something that we start on the moment we start the game. The gameplay and story must support each other to create the kind of experience we want. Amnesia will be a self contained story and there will not be a cliffhanger ending.
Frictional has a very distinct persona and style. Do you have a desire to head in a different direction for future games? Perhaps a happy, non-nightmare-inducing 2D platformer?
Thomas: Personally, I want to try out new things and not just rehash things that have already been done, so I don’t think you’ll see us making more a “standard” type of game. This is also a business decision, as the only way we can be heard is to make sure our games stand out from the crowd. If we were to make a normal first-person-shooter, we would be drowned out by all other releases. This does not mean that we will always be making horror games though; we might try out some other themes in the near future.
I love that mentality. That sense of making something unique, which might not immediately catch on is the driving force to truly innovative games. I feel it’s no coincidence that most games that enter uncharted waters are made for PC—does Frictional plan to continue being a PC-only developer?
Thomas: We would love to make a game for consoles but so far we have not had the resources for it. Hopefully we can do something in the future. As you say, PC is a very good platform for us since it is much easier to start up a project and no special equipment or contracts are really needed. As long as you have a PC, you can create and distribute your game, especially now that the digital market has grown quite mature.
What’s in the future for Frictional?
Thomas: Right now we just want to release Amnesia and get that done. We have some other stuff planned, but nothing I can really talk about at this point.
Many thanks to Thomas for taking time out for this interview! Amnesia will be released on September 8. You can pre-order Amnesia from several of the digital distribution services, but I recommend doing it directly from the site—they definitely deserve the money!