It's been almost a decade since Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but you can still feel its effect on modern horror. Frictional Games' first-person scarefest didn't just set a benchmark, it struck at the perfect time to capture the eyes of a burgeoning YouTube audience. It's easy to stomach the frights if you're not the only one scared, after all.
Amnesia: Rebirth, announced last week, is Frictional Games' return to the world of Amnesia. After the series debut and one slice of DLC, the studio left The Chinese Room to pick up on the threads with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs while Frictional worked on 2015's underwater techno-thriller, Soma.
Over the last decade, Frictional Games has only developed two games. In that time though, Frictional's been growing internally, getting ready to roll out more games on a faster pace than once every half-decade.
So why is now the time to return to Amnesia, and what lessons has the studio learned in the years since? Creative director Thomas Grip and creative lead Fredrik Olsson gave us some insight into how the years and successes have helped Frictional Games grow into a new version of itself.
USgamer: It's been just about a decade since the original Amnesia. Why was now the time to return to it?
Thomas Grip, creative director: We had ideas that we wanted to try out and felt that now was the time. It started out as us mainly wanting to explore various environments mentioned in the first game's lore. For instance, the desert is an interesting place for a horror game to take place in. We might have returned to Amnesia earlier if Soma didn't take so long to make!
Do you see Rebirth as a sequel to The Dark Descent? And if so, where does that leave A Machine for Pigs?
TG: A Machine For Pigs had almost no connections to The Dark Descent when it came to either story or mechanics. It was more of a follow-up in terms of themes and atmosphere. Rebirth has lots of story connections to the first game, and many of the old mechanics are still there, in revised forms. I think people will feel that Rebirth is much more of a direct sequel than A Machine For Pigs.
Were there any lessons learned from developing Soma that you're looking to bring to Amnesia?
TG: Lots! The biggest one is to have narrative pay-offs over a longer time-span. Soma was really hard to work on as you couldn't sum up the goals of the game in simple, contained gameplay sections. Instead the true nature of the game only became apparent after a few hours of play. This was really hard for the team, and many didn't understand what we were after until very late.
Rebirth will also go for a similar approach and it has been much easier for the team this time. All those who were on the old team knew what to expect and for newer team members we could always use Soma as a reference. This allowed us to put a high level of focus from an early stage and still have the whole team on board with it. I think this has been extremely beneficial for the game.
Soma had a "safe mode" update post-launch that removed the monsters. Is this something you'd consider for Amnesia: Rebirth at launch? How do you feel this affects the way players interact with your games?
Fredrik Olsson, creative lead: Safe mode basically made Soma more accessible to a broader audience. There's a big group of people out there, who can't really stomach the horror that comes from being hunted by monsters, but that love a good story and experience overall. Whether or not we will add a safe mode to Rebirth remains to be seen—perhaps we will add a hard mode instead (like we did for Amnesia), or perhaps something completely different. This is something we want to leave up to the game itself and the feedback we'll be getting from the players once the game is out. The decision should be based on a combination of how we want players to experience the game and how people seem to be consuming it.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent was one of the games that was very popular right when Let's Plays were gaining traction. Now we're in the age of streamers. Have you ever considered streaming elements or mechanics meant for the play-with-an-audience format?
TG: I love the whole streaming phenomenon for many reasons. One of my favorites is that it sort of teaches players to play games 'properly,' as they're designed to be experienced. This is especially important for horror games where a good performance by a streamer is very similar to a good play session for a normal user.
I don't see us adding any features that are specifically made for streamers. For instance, allowing viewers to trigger scare moments and stuff like that. I don't think that meshes with the sort of feelings we want to evoke from our games, and instead turns them into carnival attractions. I would rather just make games that are very interesting from the 'player journey' standpoint and are just as interesting for streamers to play for their audience. That feels like a much better goal to aim for. To have games that allow players to act out and give them freedom to respond to events in their own way. This is something that would help us make better games in general as well.
FO: Yeah, one of the best things with having released a game is being able to watch a streamer who's just finished playing through our game as they talk through the things that are going through their mind afterwards.
Have you ever considered working in other genres, outside of the horror space?
FO: The vision we have set for the studio is not tied to horror in any way. It's a fairly simple one (on paper); we want to create games that make you view the world differently. We want to get into people's heads—like we did with Soma—and have them process and question things in a way they might not have otherwise. This vision really opens up the playing field when it comes to genres. Who knows—maybe in the future you'll see us making dating sims that will have people question their views on relationships!
How does Frictional Games build the perfect scare? What sets your studio's version of horror apart from others creating their own horror games?
TG: The perfect scare is something that takes a long time to build. The best horror movies, like Ringu, are all just trying to achieve one perfect scare moment. While we are not going that far, our focus has really been on building fear over a longer period. We are not that interested in simply having jump scares as the core experience. We want something that runs deeper and that taps into more complex emotions. This is something that I think we managed to do quite well in Soma, and something we want to do again with Rebirth. I'd say that this is what sets our horror games apart from the crowd.
In the last decade, Frictional has put out two games. In 2016, you announced you were working on two unannounced projects—by your definition, you are a "two-project studio." Are you planning for a more frequent rollout of games in the future? How does self-publishing your games factor into that equation?
FO: The process of moving over to a two-project studio started after Soma, and even if this is not an easy transition, it's one that we feel is looking very promising. The main purpose of this move is of course to be able to release games much more frequently than before. Apart from the financial prospect of more frequent releases, there's an even more important gain when it comes to team morale and overall project fatigue. Working on a project for years before you're able to talk about it can be very frustrating for everyone involved. This system also allows us to have very long and conclusive pre-production periods. Having the luxury of self-publishing our games is key to this transition. The golden rule is to never have two projects in production at the same time, as that type of situation can easily lead to an unhealthy internal tug-of-war when it comes to resources. Not being tied to a publisher allows us to be flexible and adaptive to the needs of the project that's currently in production.
TG: Rebirth is the project that is now in production. After we release it later this year, most of the Rebirth team will move on to the project now in pre-production. A small portion will also start on pre-production of a completely new project. As Fredrik said, it has been quite difficult to get all of this working, but feels like we have gotten all the hard problems solved and it looks very promising for us as a studio. Only releasing a game every five years takes a toll on you.
With the next generation of consoles looming, are you considering whether Amnesia: Rebirth will be compatible with the next PlayStation?
FO: We are keeping an eye on the next-gen consoles and how things are evolving in that area. How it will affect Amnesia: Rebirth, however, is too soon to say.
This interview has been edited for clarity.