Over the past eight years, Scandinavian indie developers Frictional Games have exerted a powerful influence on horror gaming, first with slow-burning phenomenon Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and now with the mind-bending and philosophical SOMA.
At the end of a year that has only enhanced their reputation further, co-founder Thomas Grip spoke to Mark Butler about what drives him, his mixed feelings on the legacy of Amnesia, and why SOMA might prove to be the end of an era for Frictional in gameplay terms.
Thomas Grip, joint lead of Swedish indie horror trailblazers Frictional Games, and director of this year’s much talked about sci-fi sensation SOMA, seems all too delighted when I tell him just how disturbed his latest game made me feel.
“I’m happy that you felt uncomfortable!” he laughs. “That was the whole purpose. That feeling we were going for is one I’ve had before, when reading books on philosophy.
“There’s a certain chill in your belly, or that crawls along your spine. That existential dread that we were aiming for.”
Existential dread is right. As we previously discussed in a post-playthrough blog back in October, SOMA – in which protagonist Simon explores an underwater research base full of bizarre robotic creations – is a horror experience that strays far beyond ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night.
It’s an exploration of existence, moral ambiguity and what it means to be human.
“I’m so interested in consciousness,” muses Grip. “How can we know other people are conscious, and so on?
“It was extremely hard to put those concepts into a game.”
Indeed it was. Frictional started out with countless different ideas, and had to figure out what worked and what didn’t through copious trial and error.
“It had to be stuff that arose as you played it. It also had to have the player think about most of these things for themselves.
“There were three crucial cornerstones. Firstly, the player character needed to express emotions towards different things. It was a personal experience. If Simon didn’t react, then players didn’t react. He was a catalyst through empathy.
“Secondly, we fused the puzzles to the themes and story. For example, pulling wires out to progress and this robot screaming ‘no!’, because you’re killing it at the same time. That way, the gameplay itself gave emotion.
“Thirdly, pretty late in the project, came the idea of choice. But these decisions weren’t about ‘choosing your own path’. They were moments for the player to think about their actions. Consequence was never the point.”
Coming off the success of Frictional’s 2010 breakout horror hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent, SOMA was a decidedly ambitious project to take on.
Why did the developer decide to create such an ambitious and challenging title, when they could have simply extended the Amnesia formula and laughed all the way to the bank?
“You need to understand the situation we were in after Amnesia,” explains Grip. “We had a goal of selling 20,000 units, and we initially sold 30,000. We were over our goal, but not completely financially secure. So we did think about using Amnesia assets to do something similar again.
“But it never stopped selling. Two, three months after, it became clear we were going to have more money and resources than we expected. We were very small at that point. Just five people.
“It was obvious to me that we shouldn’t just do something just like Amnesia again. We were bored of that. Suddenly we realised: ‘We can do anything!’
“We didn’t need money in the bank. There was no pressure on us. That affected the project a lot, for good or bad. We were a lot more ‘wasteful’ with resources.
“It’s actually less ambitious than what we started with! It was meant to be a completely different system, but we realised we couldn’t do that and make a philosophical game at the same time.”
But there’s also another interesting twist to Frictional’s motivation. Bizarrely, the firm were essentially victims of their own success.
An initial cult hit propelled by critical acclaim and word of mouth, Amnesia gradually grew and grew in infamy until it was nothing short of an internet phenomenon – a fast-rising new breed of YouTube ‘Let’s Play-ers’ finding it ideal for their purposes of building a large subscriber base, offering as it did plenty of opportunity to shriek theatrically into their cameras.
Amnesia was the game that sailed a thousand YouTube reaction videos.
In response to this, and the title’s genuinely well-earned influence on the wider horror gaming genre, a whole host of ‘hide and seek’ horror games sprung up, utilising Amnesia’s formula of powerlessness and avoidance with varying degrees of success.
As a side-effect, this saturation of ‘clones’ – which Grip describes as “the best kind of flattery” – actually made it impossible for the originators to return with something along the same lines.
“When we first showed people Amnesia, and it was hiding from monsters, barricading yourself in rooms and no weapons, they were excited. Five years on, there were so many games that did that, that had grown the Amnesia formula, that we couldn’t just do the same. People would have been: ‘Oh no, not another one of those games!’
“There’s a great TED talk about a PR consultant hired to do promotions for a lake resort, and instead of just suggesting they build a big spa or something, they go ‘no no no – build the world’s biggest lava lamp!’
“If you want to stand out, you can’t do the same as everyone else. If you try something different that no one else is doing, your risk is not ‘what is everyone else doing?’, it’s ‘how can I get people excited about this?’ It’s in your own hands then.”
It’s tempting to wonder whether Grip and his comrades feel slightly aggrieved at the fact that, thanks to the online antics of a certain fellow countryman and his ilk, their Lovecraftian baby ended up becoming synonymous with obnoxious reaction clips and the like, rather than being remembered for its highly powerful and inspiring ideas, and refreshing new approach at a time when horror games needed a serious kick up the backside.
The developer is fittingly philosophical about that.
“One of the things we had to deal with around SOMA, and Machine For Pigs with The Chinese Room, was that the legacy of Amnesia had become ‘you’re chased by monsters and it’s really scary’.
“But Amnesia is actually a lot about puzzles and narrative, and thematic elements too. The protagonist who becomes more and more repugnant as you learn about his backstory, for example.
“For some fans, these things are part of the legacy. But for most people, the legacy became a guy running around in a castle screaming.
“These things are great, and I’ve heard about people getting together for Amnesia nights, which is brilliant, but it is annoying when it’s not really what you feel about your game! I can’t deny that. But you can’t control what spin the game takes.”
SOMA, on the other hand, appears to have already acquired a legacy much more in line with what Grip and Frictional were intending.
“One thing that pleased me was that the philosophical experience went through better than I thought it would. Everyone talked about the story, and the thought-provoking elements.
“I’m happy that most of the stuff we put into the game has been brought up positively. It’s been awesome reading through what people thought of it.
“People are debating philosophical ideas about existence after playing our game. Mission accomplished!”
One thing that did achieve some negativity, however, were the monster encounters in the game, which annoyed and frustrated a lot of players.
“I think one of the reasons was that this kind of thing has now been done a lot, and people are tired of it,” says Grip. “More refined versions of that like Outlast and Alien: Isolation built on it a bit more.”
In fact, Grip goes so far as to suggest that this feedback will directly influence Frictional’s next project.
“We’re working on our next game. The monster encounters didn’t quite work in SOMA, so I think that marks the end of an era. Or at least the beginning of the end.
“There’s a ton of things I’m interested in. I’ve been thinking about concepts, and one thing in my head right now is being able to plan your future according to what you know now.
“How can we add more planning, without being very ‘gamey’ with out systems? How can we do games that are scary, but give players more abilities than running and hiding? These are all questions we’re considering.”
One thing you might not know about Frictional, and something that makes their success all the more fascinating, is that they have always worked remotely from one another, and continue to do so, predominately communicating, co-ordinating and creating together purely over the internet.
“We try to have meet-ups, but we rarely see each other in person,” notes Grip. “Maybe a few times a year? While creating Amnesia the team had never met in person at all.”
How the hell do they manage it?
“Honestly, I have no idea! This is how I’ve always worked. I’ve never worked in an office. We just started out very small, very synched in terms of what we wanted to achieve, and we had the right people for it.
“We have hired some people who couldn’t work in that way, but now I don’t see any issues. The only big thing is that you lose the social side, and you can’t go around looking at people’s monitors.
“But on the upside, we don’t have people coming around looking at our monitors! We can just get on with our work. It’s about building on the good stuff as much as possible, and making up for the bad stuff as much as we can.”
Looking back over the history of the developer’s games to date, from Penumbra: Overture in 2007 to genre-defining Amnesia and now the highly discussed SOMA, it’s hard not to wonder what drives Grip on his mission to transform and evolve horror gaming.
You sense a real love of crafting experiences that disturb, and provoke and ask powerful questions, directly challenging the audience to face and overcome terrifying settings and ideas.
“I love horror, and I particularly love the aesthetics of horror,” suggests Grip. “The worn down house full of decay and rust. A dark night with a strange light glowing in the distance. In real life, I often take walks down dark paths just for fun!
“Horror is also a genre where you can discuss and explore taboo subjects. Something that in an ordinary conversation would be weird, but that can be tackled in a horror experience. ‘Just what would you do to live?’, and so on. There’s a big crossover between horror’s questions and thought experiments in philosophy.
“Horror is the only genre in games that derives its name from a specific emotion. Others are generally mechanic-defined. But in horror it doesn’t matter what you are doing – it only matters what you feel.”
SOMA is out now.