There is something wrong with the people at Frictional games. How can there not be to produce such horribleness as Penumbra and Amnesia? We needed to know what’s going through their heads so took the time to drag Thomas Grip from Frictionals darkened basement, disconnected his iPod that plays nothing but discordant string music, stopped him muttering chants from a big book with a pentagram burned on the front, and asked him some questions.
Let’s start from the top. How did Frictional come together?
It started with Jens (the other co-founder) helping me with sounds for a horror game I made in my spare time. We then decided to make a bachelor thesis together and after that joined the same course in which the Penumbra Tech Demo was created. Because the tech demo was so successful, Me, Jens and another guy named Anton (who left the company after Overture) decided to make a commercial version of it. Then half a year later (January 2007) Frictional Games became official.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to make horror games?
For me personally, it was way back. I have been interested in all things horror for as long as I can remember. At first it was just not really a decision, it was just a matter of making the kind of game we wanted to do. Since then horror has turned out to be a good niche for us, especially with most other games being more about combat, than actual horror.
There aren’t an awful lot of really good horror games, do you draw your influences from any particular movies, artwork or authors? Many have said that your games have a very Lovecraftian air, for example.
There are tons of influences and Lovecraft is certainly high on the list. Then there is also countless of other books, films and personal experiences as well. It is really lifetimes of influence that is put into our games.
When it comes to games influences, a lot of inspiration has been taken from games that might not be exactly our genre. I personally am I great fan of Interactive Fiction and these are a great inspiration. For Amnesia, Bioshock has been a big influence, especially the first 30 minutes (before combat started) of the game. I found that section extremely immersive and in a way, Amnesia was an attempt to make an entire game like that.
You use your own engine, which is rare for a relatively small studio – why do it as oppose to using something off the shelf? Like, why didn’t you just Source?
The main reasons are.
- We get an engine that works with the game as intended. We can design the engine to fit the game and we do not have to worry about it lacking features that we need.
- Now that the engine is developed, it is a lot cheaper for us.
- I find it a fun personal challenge and really enjoy working on this sort of stuff.
Your games seem to be more about “terror” than the straight up jumps that normal “horror” games go for – was it a conscious design decision to break from this or did it just seem the natural thing to do?
Very conscious. I think the main thing is that we try and make the players scare themselves, instead of just slamming the horror into their face. It is a bit of a risky decision, but when it works, it is very effective. We are tired of the common “jump out of closet”-scares and wanted to try something different.
The reaction to Penumbra and Amnesia in the Gaming Daily camp has been very positive but the initial response is often “I had to stop playing” – how do you go about making a game that is horrific, and thus fundamentally unpleasant, as well as being something you want people to keep playing and hopefully complete. I mean, playing a game requires more from you than a film or a rollercoaster or something, it’s not passive – you need a will to continue, you can’t just hide behind a cushion.
Actually, there has not been any conscious design choice to make sure that players should be able to endure. We just went full speed ahead and tried to make the game as scary as possible. If something helps people moving on, I think it is the same thing that makes the game scary: contrasts. We try and have light levels after dark ones, calm after hectic and so on. This a way to make sure players does not get to used to the horror element, but it also serves as a pause from the more intense parts, and gives players a reward when completing a nasty section.
Also, the game is not just about horror, but story, exploration, etc too. Hopefully these elements are also part in what keeps players interested.
Has there ever been anything you had to drop out for being “too scary” or weird that you thought might just stop people playing?
Not really. There have been things that we had to cut because of lack of resources and so on. But I think we have went pretty much full out in this game. Since we did not have any retail version, and thus ratings, to worry about we just added what we felt should be in the game.
Why do you think noone has ripped off your control system? It’s so obviously the next step in adventure gaming.
I can only speculate of course, but I think the main reason is because it is quite cumbersome . It makes it harder to make puzzles, interactions and so on. By using physics you really open a can of worms. There is just so much that can go wrong and it is hard to control the behavior and possible outcomes. Physics works good for limited and smaller interactions (opening doors and pulling levers) but when you start pushing stuff around it can get quite complex.
I have written a blog post with more details for those interested.
Penumbra must have been financially successful for you to make the sequels and then go on to Amnesia, but you never really upscaled your operations. There must have been the temptation to get a big office with a helicopter pad and everything.
Well, we could barely afford making Amnesia the way we did make it :) So it is not like we have the choice between being a small studio and expanding. The way we work now is much out of necessity. That said, we also like being a small team, having flexible work hours, and so on. However, having a proper office of any kind would be a good step up to be honest. My computer is currently in a cramped up corner in the living room, next to the TV. This had made me quite the expert in in Top Model, Project Runway, etc (or whatever program my girl friend is watching) though! :)
So, after Penumbra you started on Amnesia – how did you go about making something even more horiffic? Was it a case of sitting down and thinking “ok, what’s the scariest stuff we can think of?”
We already had a bunch of ideas while making Penumbra really. The biggest change is probably just to give the player more freedom and to make the game more forgiving and streamlined. It might sound strange that a simpler game has become a scarier one, but judging from feedback, this has been the case for many players.
The critical reaction to Amnesia was brilliant – how did it do in terms of sales?
It has gone over our goals! Currently, a month after release, we have sold 36k units (excluding Russian boxed sales), and our goal that determined if we could continue or not was 24k. So feels quite good to have exceeded that already. That said, because of the immense postitive response from players and media, we where actually hoping for a bit more. The current sales does not free us from financial worries, but they have made the company in a better state then it has ever been. So, summing up, we are quite pleased.
So what’s next for Frictional and you can’t use the terms “can’t say”, “exciting stuff”, or “details soon”.
A new game that will take our ideas further and hopefully create a very unique experience. [bah - ed]
Lastly, what games do you play for fun? Or do you just sit in a darkened corridor with some kind of eery amplified droning noise in your leisure time?
Haha, actually, I actually do listen to dark ambient in a gloomy room at times. It is not one of my usual activities but it does happen :). When it comes to games Professor Leighton is favorite of mine and I seem to play 15 minutes of Angry birds each day recently. I also love Interactive Fiction and have a sweet tooth for God of War. The problem with making games for a living, is that I very seldom play games just for fun. I either analyze the experience or get caught up in wondering how they made some graphical effect.