9 Years, 9 Lessons on Horror

It has now been over 9 years since we released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. That is a bloody long time, and feels like we should celebrate that by talking about the craft of horror games.

Horror games are quite a different beast when it comes to the game industry at large. Most other genres revolve around what the player does. In a turn-based strategy you take turns doing strategy:

Into the Breach

 In a first-person shooter you shoot things from a first-person perspective:

Doom

In a Match 3 game you match three thingies:

Candy Crush: Soda

In a horror game, the activity is not at all as important. What is important is that the experience is a spooky one. This makes designing horror games different from designing within other genres. Many times the standard industry tricks just won’t work, which makes one think about game design in a different light.

In the past 9 years we have learned a great deal about horror games, and to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to share 9 lessons we have learned over the years.

That being said, I don’t see these lessons as only useful for horror games. There’s quite a bit of overlap with other genres, especially any games that aim for a narrative-heavy experience.

And finally – this is by no means an exhaustive list. Still, the lessons here are at the core of the craft of making scary video games.

Lesson 1: Horror is not enjoyable

The basic emotion of horror is not a pleasant one – yet people play horror games wanting to experience horror. This is the paradox of horror as entertainment. This paradox requires game developers to be careful in how they deliver the experience to the player.

You could draw an analogy between horror games and rollercoasters. The basic purpose of a rollercoaster is to simulate the sensation of falling. Under controlled circumstances the experience of falling is thrilling and fun (at least for a good portion of people). But if you put someone in a barrel and push them down a cliff, chances are they will not find the experience fun at all. Even if they survive unscathed, the whole ordeal would be a horrible experience.

The same is true for horror games. If you have a game that only relies on jumpscares – figuratively throwing people off a cliff in a barrel – few people will consider that fun. This became apparent in certain maps in Penumbra. We thought it would be good enough for a scary gameplay section to have a maze and some monsters. Instead of becoming mazes of fear, they instead became mostly… annoying. Amnesia: The Dark Descent had similar issues towards the end, where the monster encounters were just that, not supported by any other aspects. At that point the game no longer felt as entertaining.

Well, a familiar face.

Lesson 2: Players are working against you

For a horror game developer, the worst enemy is… the players. Seriously, if we could sit around and make games without having to worry about what the players will do and think when playing the game, life would be so much simpler!

As mentioned before, being scared is not a pleasant feeling. Therefore the players will try to optimize the feeling away, often unconsciously. In the end, the players will ruin the intended experience for themselves.

Take the demon dogs from our first game, Penumbra: Overture. The game takes a bunch of time to build them up as creepy monsters that stalk the dark mines. However their AI has some weaknesses that some people are very quick to catch. Hence the dogs become easy to defeat, and are no longer scary.

Can’t get me. I’m on a box.

And the crazy thing is that the players complain when this happens! They probe the system for flaws and choose to exploit them, yet want the dogs to remain scary. So their behaviour ends up going against their will.

Some games solve issues of player exploitation simply by making the enemies extremely hard (think Dark Souls): they make sure the monsters are just as hard to beat as they look scary. Another approach is to instead skip much of the gameplay (think Dear Esther): if there are no mechanics, there’s nothing for the player to exploit – problem solved, right?

I don’t think either of these solutions is optimal. Instead I think one should aim for a third route: making the players think about actions in a more narrative fashion. More about that later!

Lesson 3: Scares alone won’t make a horror game

Horror is like a spice that defines a dish. You cannot do without it, but you can’t cook a dish solely out of spices either. That would be just gross.

As an example, let’s take three horror movies I consider to be at the top of their genre: Alien, The Exorcist and Ringu. All three movies deal with very different subjects, have different styles, and are overall different from one another. But there is one thing they have in common: they all have very few scares in them!

Instead each movie is mostly about the characters, the discussions, the anticipation of the horror – building up the atmosphere and the dread of things to come. Very little time is spent actually facing the horror.

Let’s get back to our roller coaster analogy. When you think about it, the actual roller coaster ride lasts a very short time. Most of the time is spent doing things like buying a ticket, standing in line, and hearing other people scream. All these actions are not superfluous extras – they build up for the actual ride, and are crucial to the overall experience.

When we first made the study section of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we implemented a ton of jumpscares. Books fell down from shelves, doors banged, pianos started playing and so forth. But as the map became more complete, it felt like something was off. So we reduces the scares to just a couple, and instead focused on letting the player learn the castle’s mysteries. At first we were afraid this would make the level too boring – but as it turns out, spacing the scares apart made players much more scared than previously.

In horror, less is often more.

Lesson 4: Fun gameplay is just too… fun

In a horror game more than any other, the players go in expecting to have a bad time. And as designers we want them to feel anxiety, despair, and a whole array of negative emotions. But gameplay – because it’s so damn engaging – tends to counteract all these juicy emotions.

Let’s use Dead Space as an example. When I started playing it, I was really scared, walking around slowly and peeking around every corner. Then, about an hour in, I learned how to kill the monsters, and what tricks I needed to survive.

Dead Space 2 promo art
All of the fun, none of the horror!

Not only did I get good at killing the monsters, I thought it was great fun! The things that used to terrify me now became a source of amusement. Instead of dreading the monster sounds they now made me excited – oh great, another necromorph to dismember!

So where did the fear go? It was simply overshadowed by the rewarding gameplay.

Us humans tend to have this thing called attention, and we only have a limited amount of it. If the game is constantly engaging the player with thinking about their aim, checking ammo, and looking for loot, there’s no room left for much else. In other words, the players’ brain will lack resources to frighten themselves.

The early designs of Amnesia: The Dark Descent included genre-typical weapons, and even guns. We also experimented with very elaborate puzzle set-ups, everything from swinging chandeliers to redirecting rays of light. All these caused the same issues as Dead Space. They were too fun, and took attention away from what mattered: getting scared.

Eventually we decided to reduce the “fun” elements the gameplay had – and it paid off.

We saw this very clearly when watching Let’s Plays of the Amnesia games. Since players didn’t have things like combat to pay attention to, they reacted to things they might not have even noticed in other games. A vague sound, almost like a footstep, was suddenly a reason to look for the nearest cupboard to hide in. Had the players minds been filled with thoughts of loot boxes, they would have never reacted like this.

Lesson 5: Narrative is a core element in good horror

So if engaging gameplay can be counteractive to the horror, and you need to be careful with the scares, what do you fill a horror game with?

While no silver bullet, narrative is a big part of the equation.

By building up a narrative, us game designers can make game worlds bigger and more intricate than they actually are in-game. We can prime the player into doing a lot of the scaring for themselves.

In order to explain this, let’s take a random image let’s take a random image of a quaint town:

Aww, I wanna go there. 🙂

This feels like a great place for an evening stroll, right?

Now let’s give this image some backstory. Put on some spooky music, like the Amnesia soundtrack, and read the following:

It has been two weeks since a huge storm cut the town from the rest of the world. All means of communication are down.

Today, our emergency services received a call – it just started out as static, a joke that kids would play, but then the screaming started. The screaming of people, then an otherworldly roar, nothing a man nor beast on Earth could make. I had to find out what happened to these people up the serpentine road from us. 

I am now here, yet no one else seems to be. It’s like everyone vanished. But as the cold sun sets down over the mountain, I get a sense of unease…

…And now look at the picture again.

The worst monster of all is leaving the lights once you’ve been murdered horribly.

Not so cozy anymore, right?

A new context leads to re-interpreting the environment based on this information, and get into a different mindset based on it. While you previously admired the view, you are now scanning it for signs of danger.

A big part of horror takes place inside a player’s head. And by fueling their imagination, we can turn a cozy village into a place of terror and despair.

Looking back on which areas worked in Penumbra, this component became apparent. The most loved environments were those where players could use lore and environmental clues to fantasize what happened… and what could happen. The expansion, Penumbra: Requiem, lacked a lot of this background information. So despite us designing some of our best puzzles and implementing interesting visuals, Requiem was received quite badly. Without a strong narrative component, the players didn’t get the experience they wanted.

Penumbra: Requiem, or as we call it, The Marc Game.

Lesson 6: The world must feel real

In order for a horror narrative to have proper impact, the world it takes place in must be taken seriously by the players. But what does “serious” mean? Grey and brown tones with no cartoonish elements? Not quite.

Let’s draw a parallel between real and imagined worlds. If you suffer from nightmares, there’s a trick to that: make a habit out of knocking on walls, tables, or whatever is closest to you. Eventually you will start doing the same when you’re asleep. However, when you knock on walls or a table in a dream, your hand is likely to go through the surface – that’s how you’ll know you are in a dream, and no longer need to be afraid of the world around you.

Making horror games is basically a business of creating nightmares. But it’s hard to be successful when you have a bunch of players (those damn players again!) constantly doing the equivalent of “knocking on surfaces”, simply by playing the game. As soon as they discover some sort of glitch the immersion of a terrifying world breaks, and it takes a long time to build it back up again.

Let’s look at an example from Penumbra again. In Penumbra we want the players to imagine that the demon dogs are “real”, implying all the traits (demon) dogs possess. So, we want players to be worried about encountering a dog, and hiding from it. However, some players “knocked on surfaces” by messing around with the environments, and figured out that the dogs can’t reach you if you camp on top of a box. So, whereas a real dog could jump up on the box and chomp the player up, the AI dog cannot. Therefore the fantasy of dogs as “real” is lost, and the game loses a bunch of its scariness.

Penumbra: Overture by IsisMasshiro on DeviantArt
The intended reaction when encountering a demon dog

Because of this effect, game developers have to be careful about how they construct environments, and what tools they give to the player. There should be enough things to do to make the place feel real. But not so many as to aid players in breaking the illusion.

Lesson 7: Keep it vague

You know creepypasta and scary photos you can find on the internet? Almost always the thing that makes them scary is that they leave a lot to the imagination. Seeing a silhouette and glowing eyes out in the corner of a photo feels threatening. A close-up glamour photo of the same monster does not.

AAH! What IS that?
Oh, just our good friend Terry bringing us a gift. (by ThiccBoiMyers on Discord)

As mentioned before, much of the horror comes from simply not being sure what the hell you’re looking at. It’s when there is a gap in our knowledge, a certain amount of uncertainty, that horror can really shine. This is especially true when you combine it with some sort of danger element.

It is quite common in games to make sure the player understands the systems in place as clearly as possible. This often results in some really daunting tutorials. Of course for some games, like fighting games, it’s important to have in-depth knowledge about the systems to be able to optimise the game. In horror games we actually want the opposite!

A vague and uncertain game system is like a creepy photo. You can make out enough to get an idea of what’s going on, but there’s still room for the imagination to go wild. Let’s use the health meter in Resident Evil as an example. Internally it is an analog property, a decimal number from 0 to some value, but the player will only ever know that it has “three” states. This strikes a great balance between giving information and being vague, and helps crank up the tension.

The sanity system in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is similarly vague. You know scary things – whatever those are – lower your sanity, and bad things – whatever those are – will happen if it drops too low, so you don’t want to risk it.

This was not always the case. We started out with a pretty straightforward gameplay system, hoping players would play along with it. However, people either game it or got frustrated by it. When we tweaked it so it was much less clear how it worked, it sparked player’s imaginations and it was much more enjoyable.

Alex isn’t looking so good.

Lesson 8: Players need a role

All stories are driven by the characters that are contained within it, and how a plot plays out is determined by the characteristics of these characters. Just imagine how different Jurassic Park would be if the annoying lawyer guy was replaced by Judge Dredd! So, in order to get the most of any narrative, it is crucial to establish roles.

Games are no different. The role that a player inhabits will determine what actions they have at their disposal, what their goals ore, and so forth. Knowing the character is a vital component in order for the player to be an active part of the story.

Yet this is one of those components that many horror games forget. You are often thrust into a story as some generic character. Often the thought behind this is that the player would “play as themselves”, but this is not how any narrative really works. In order to properly parse a story situation, you need to understand what kind of person is dealing with it.

Say that you come across a corpse. You are playing as Sherlock Holmes, a corpse means a case! You will want to search for clues and try to solve the mystery of how this person died.

Now imagine you’re playing as a flesh-eating ghoul. Now the same corpse is suddenly dinner – yum!

An alternate universe where Daniel is turned into a ghoul. Bon appetit!

In most areas, horror games are well beyond your average game in terms of narrative. But for some reason, a large portion of horror games just fail to set the player role properly. It’s strange, relying on a narrative backbone, yet losing so much of the atmosphere by not defining the player role.

Another big reason for defining roles is that it can help with some of the issues addressed earlier. For instance, it can limit the number of actions the player feels is rational to take. For example Penumbra’s protagonist Philip is a physics teacher, so while he could perhaps fight some demon dogs, it would be more logical to run and hide from aggressive humanoids.

This lesson we clearly learned in SOMA. At first we thought about having a non-speaking Simon with very little character. However, this made player distance themselves from the events. Things got a lot more personal when they played as a character who was reacting to what was happening. While players previously wouldn’t ponder the strange events in-depth, Simon pushing them in the right direction it worked much better.

Lesson 9: Agency is crucial

When I talk about agency, I’m not talking about the CIA. What I mean is agency of the free will kind. A game that has a lot of agency lets the players make decisions and feel like an active part of the narrative.

This is closely tied to the previous lesson. Not only do we want to give players a role, we also want them to own that role. They need to feel like they really inhabit the character they are supposed to play. A game can achieve a lot by combining agency with keeping things vague – and letting players decide to take uncertain decisions.

Say that you are faced with a dark tunnel – dark tunnels are pretty scary!

Now imagine that the game explicitly tells you that your goal lies beyond the tunnel. There’s no choice, you gotta go in. And if the game forces you do something, it will also make sure you do actually have the means to complete this quest – in this case get to the other side of the tunnel.

What’s the worst that could happen? 🙂

But what if entering this dark tunnel was voluntary, or at least presented as such? The game vaguely tells you that there might be something important there – but you don’t know, and might also be a certain death. All of a sudden the tunnel feels a lot less safe. By adding agency and making entering the tunnel an uncertain choice, all sorts of doubts pop up in the player’s mind.

There’s also a number of other ways to add agency. Say the player needs to do something unnerving, like Amnesia’s Daniel drilling into a corpse to get blood out. In the game it is clear that there is no other option. Overall reactions to this was not very strong.

Just petting a guy’s head while the drill drills a hole in it.

Compare this to similar moments in SOMA, where intended course of action is much less clear. Here players are forced to actually think through what they need to do, and get emotionally involved in the process of it.

While SOMA did do this part better, it also had its shortcomings. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the game was divided into hub maps, so there was no one path or right order to do things. These choices increased anxiety. Whereas maps in SOMA were way more streamlined, and we noticed a considerable drop in scariness due to this.

In closing

And them’s the rules! As said before, these are not the only ones, but I believe these come out on top when listing the most important ones. You could also go into them with a lot more depth, but I wanted to keep this blog concise. A lot of my previous blogs in the design tag dive deeper into related subjects.

Finally, I want to close by saying that, because of all these special requirements for horror games, I don’t think you can approach them like other games. Instead of “finding the fun” and iteratively building upon that, horror game design needs to start with some strong principles.

When designing a horror game, you want to hone into what you’ve chosen as your core principles, be it atmosphere, theme, or something else. Then, as you progress in development, you don’t want to evaluate the game on how “fun” or “nice” it is to play – but in how well it fulfills its set core principles. And a cornerstone for being able to do that evaluation is to keep the above lessons in mind.

This in itself is a huge topic of its own, and will need to be dealt with in some future post. Stay tuned for more!

Mental Models

Some images on this post have been lost.

The reality that we sense in front of us is a fiction created by our brains. A host of modules process information in various ways and the end result is a mental model of the outside world. Knowing how this works is crucial to game development as the shape of these mental simulations has a huge effect on how a game feels and plays.

Look around the room or the place you are currently in. It certainly feels like what you are seeing is really there, right? However, that’s not really the case. Reality is in fact made up by subatomic particles that constantly exchange various force particles amongst each other [1]. What you think of as a chair is really just a collection of particles that happen to form a temporarily semi-stable configuration. The reason why you see it as a chair only has to do with how your brain chooses to process the various data that it collects through its senses.

In the previous post on presence I mentioned how the brain is made up of modules, each of them having their own specific purpose. The results from these various modules are then used to form a collective image of your surroundings. For instance, there is a particular module that recognizes faces and, if damaged, it can no longer recognize people – the person affected will only see an object made up of some hair, a nose, two eyes and so forth. Recognizing individual people will only be possible if they have a particularly stand-out feature, like a large beard. Apart from that, all faces will look alike to this person. The normal flow of information is broken and something that most of us take for granted, an intrinsic part of our reality, is no longer present.

This is an extremely important point and it’s essential to fully grasp it. It’s not as if people who lose the ability to see faces still really see faces but don’t “recognize” them. This is the good old “homunculus in the head” fallacy. When you look at the world around you, you are not really seeing details. You are being fed a stream of information and that stream contains things like “that is a chair”, “the chair is made of wood”, “that is the face of your mother”, and so on. If the brain module that does the processing needed for a particular piece of information is damaged, it’s not like your “mental view” remains the same – information is what your mental view is made up from. To get a better idea of this, look at this image:

When first looking at it, most people see this image as simply a collection of dots. But if you look carefully for a bit you will see the form of a dog appearing. Once you have managed to spot this dog, it becomes impossible to unsee. Your brain has gone from interpreting the image as a collection of dots to seeing it as a dog. If you were to lose a brain module this process would be reversed. What was once an image of a dog would turn into a collection of dots. The dog would not still “be there” – it would be erased from your perception of reality.

Your view of reality is not what reality is like, it is a mental simulation based on interpretations of data collected by your senses. You are really living your life in a sort of virtual world that the brain constructs for you [2].

This doesn’t mean that your view of reality is a complete lie, though. It is still based on things that do exist and is a crucial tool for getting around and being able to make decisions. Even though a chair is a made up concept with no basis in reality, it still is very useful. It tells you something about what to expect and what your options are. For instance, if you are presented with either sitting down on a chair or on a pile of broken glass, your mental simulations are invaluable and can quickly give you pretty accurate estimates of what sitting down on each of the alternatives would mean. Note that these mental simulations are not confined to a single aspect of an object. There are things like shape, materials, current light conditions, the physical dimensions, emotional attachment, ownership and many other things that are all connected to an object. When you focus your gaze on an object, that is what you “see” – not some crystal clear pixel-by-pixel representation.

This array of properties is not always correct, though. For instance, if you try and pick up a carton of milk that your brain has modeled as filled (=heavy) and it turns out to be empty (=light), you will lift it with way too much force. But most of the time, because of the practice you’ve had at experiencing reality, your brain is pretty good at providing a good simulation.

Let’s move on to games. When you are playing a game, you are not playing the game that is presented on the screen. You are playing the game that you are currently modelling in your mind. The brain turns clusters of pixels into abstract icons (eg “a power-up”) and then attaches all sort of concepts to them. Just in the same way as it does when you encounter a chair in real-life. The modules in your brain use pre-existing knowledge and experience from interacting with the game and build up a mental model of how it is all connected.

The best example I know of this is from Brian Upton’s book “The Aesthetics of Play“. In the book he presents the example of navigating an environment in a game. What doesn’t happen is that the player bumps into every wall and object, trying to figure out the bounds of the simulation. Instead the player analyses the scene in front of them and then mentally figures out a path to follow. This means that there is a lot of gameplay that takes place inside the player’s head. In fact, unless the player is actively trying to test the systemic bounds of the game, almost all gameplay happens within the player’s mental simulation of the game.

What all of this means is that is that we should be less concerned about the data (images, sounds, etc) that we send to our players and focus more on the sorts of mental simulations it gives rise to. This is an extremely important aspect of game making, and it has far-reaching consequences. No matter how much more realistically you render an object, it doesn’t matter if the player’s mental model chooses to represent it as something else.

The mental model is closely linked to our ability to anticipate. This is something that happens in all kinds of media [3]. For instance when watching a film and a character steps on a banana peel, we predict that they will slip and fall. As we see the foot approaching the banana our brain is already simulating possible outcomes and various filmic tricks, such as editing, are based around this happening in our minds. All mediums rely on this, but creating anticipation in games is extra tricky because of interaction.

In order for us to work with this we need to learn how these mental models are formed. There are three basic ways in which this happens: by using built-in knowledge, extrapolating from past experiences or learning through experimentation. These three modes complement one another, but it is useful to start by looking at them one at a time.

Built-in Knowledge

This is what our brains come equipped to deal with when we are born. They’re essential to a human and you can pretty much assume that anyone playing the game will have them. Basic things like shape, lighting, perspective and so forth are all part of this category. It also includes behaviors like how pouring the content of a large glass into a smaller one will cause it to overflow, rotation of 3D shapes and how objects ought to act if you drop them. Social things like facial expressions are also part of this sort of knowledge. The facial expression connected to disgust is universal, hardwired, and does not depend on mimicking.

The one thing you need to realize about any built-in knowledge is that it’s extremely hard to break. It takes a lot of effort to convince a person that dropping a ball will make it fall upwards. It is basically impossible to make a person intuitively see a mad face as a positive response. This is all hardwired knowledge that comes with equally interesting pros and cons.

If you can tie some basic functionality of your game directly to some built-in knowledge then it will instantly come off as intuitive to any player. For instance, if you want the player to feel disgusted by an enemy it’s good to know that disgust is a disease-avoiding behavior. This knowledge allows you to trigger built in responses and also suggest what sort of events and interactions will strengthen a mental model that gives rise to feelings of disgust.

On the contrary, if your gameplay relies on something that goes against built-in knowledge, you either need to be prepared to spend a lot of time building the proper mental model or to ditch the concept altogether. Sometimes it is of course OK to break the rules, but remember that conforming to built-in knowledge is what makes a world seem believable. And if you want to focus on evoking basic human emotions, this basic believability is crucial. Without that you also lose a bunch of connections which are foundational to our emotional world.

Past Experiences

This is a huge area and it includes everything the player has learned throughout life. It is also something that can vary culturally. What I will focus on right now are two parts of this: past experiences with games versus past experiences with real life.

When you are first presented with a scene in the game there is a ton of stuff for you to process. If you see a red barrel and you have played games in the past, there is a big chance that you will think the barrel will explode when being shot upon. This interpretation relies on more than simply having encountered this specific object before. It relies heavily on what sort of game you are playing (point and click behaves differently from a quake-like shooter), what actions you think are possible (can you shoot it?), and so forth. So players come in with a lot of expectations and preconceptions on how things ought to behave. All of these will not just change how the player feel about the game, they will directly affect how the player think the game actually is like.

A monster can either be a horrible threat that you wanna keep away from, or it can be the source of what makes the game fun in the first place. The view the player takes directly affects how they behave and also has a long reaching effect on the experience of playing the game. For instance, in our game Penumbra the player has the ability to use weapons but they are very weak and inefficient. For players that interpreted the game as one where you’d best avoid any monsters, this worked great and they used the weapons as a last desperate effort to escape – as we had intended. Their mental model was one where the weapons and monsters were just like in real life. For other players the game was interpreted as a one where you could fight back. For these players it didn’t work at all. The weapons felt frustrating to use and the monster was an annoyance. Their mental model was based on how videogames usually work. Despite interacting with the same system, seeing the same visuals and hearing the same sound, these two types of players experienced radically different games.[4]

To combat this in Amnesia: The Dark Descent we started the game with a quick notice on how the game was supposed to be played. This, together with other design changes of course, made a huge difference in how players approach the game. Unlike built-in knowledge, things learned from past events are quite malleable and it is possible to adapt them according to new situations. Which leads us to the final foundational way in which mental models are formed.

Experimentation

From the moment we are born (and possibly even earlier) our brains are hardwired to analyze, generalize and make assumptions. Whenever we encounter a new object we try it out in a variety of ways (squeezing, chewing, throwing, etc) in order to figure out what it is like. We then store that information and pull it out whenever we encounter a similar object. Everyone who has been near a small child knows about this process, and so does everyone who has played an unfamiliar game.

As noted before, the moment we see a scene from a new game, we make a whole load of assumptions of what everything is like and how it functions. But it is not until we get to interact with the scene that our assumptions get confirmation and are cemented. Unless the game is similar to another game we’ve already played, we know that we have new lessons to learn. These first impressions are crucial to how the rest of our experience is shaped [5]. This is why the opening of a game is so important. If a player gets the wrong idea about something it can be really hard to get rid of that faulty mental model.

Once the player interacts with something it will tell them about some aspect of the object. For instance, if they can pick it up or not. The player will then try to generalize this knowledge, often by using pre-existing information. So if a glass bottle can be picked up, they will assume that it’s possible to pick up plastic bottles as well. Furthermore, if you throw a glass bottle and it breaks, it means the player will assume that everything made of glass is breakable. And so the experimentation continues as the game is played. Every new aspect is connected to other things the player already knows and an increasingly detailed mental simulation is built. The next time the player finds a bottle lying around,  a lot of attributes will be assumed the moment it comes into view.

The basic gist of the above shouldn’t be too surprising, as it’s pretty basic stuff. But the key thing to remember here is that these are not just things that form opinions. They form actual reality for the player.

To be able to look at an object and assume a bunch of attributes is what makes the world feel alive. It allows the player to use their hardwired brain faculties to explore, interact and make plans. The world might be rendered using toon shaders and feature talking rabbits, but if it allows for a rich mental model it will feel “real”. Remember, it isn’t about the objective facts of what you see (eg a teapot using highly realistic PBR-based shading), but what processing it gives rise to.

In order to make this happen, you can’t just put objects and interactions into a world at random. The player must be able to explore the elements of the world, and in doing so they must be met by a consistent set of rules. The brain doesn’t have an infinite amount of resources, and will therefore optimize when possible.

So if an object looks like something found in the real world, but you are unable to interact with it, it will not be given any further attributes. As it isn’t of any importance, it will simply become part of the background. In a similar vein, the simplest explanation will also be used when possible. If there are ten keys lying on a table, but only the one that unlocks the door can be picked up, then players will stop modeling these objects as any sort of real keys. They will instead be seen as quest items, possible to pick up when it is convenient for the designer. When there’s no consistency of any sort, the player’s brain will just skip trying to do any modeling and rely on direct experimentation when needed (trial and error, basically). In these cases, players will have a very fuzzy mental model of an object and the object won’t feel very “real”.

An important aspect of this is that it’s not always a bad thing that the brain optimizes away things. For instance, if you are making a simple shooter you don’t really need to take any wall ornaments into account. You should just focus on the overall layout and the positions of the monsters. Everything else is a distraction.

It is, however, crucial to keep all of this in mind. There may be many cases where you don’t want the player to optimize away certain objects. If you want the player to feel like the environment is a real place, you really need to make sure that as many details as possible can have intricate attributes in the player’s mental simulation. It becomes even more important for characters where you want the player to model internal emotions, needs and goals. If your goal is to make the player feel like they are encountering real people, you want those people to be part of their mental model. This is what it means to make something feel real and alive.

All of this doesn’t mean that one’s goal should be to model everything in as detailed a way as possible. In fact, in many cases this may be counterproductive. Details could mean the player makes more assumptions, leading to the structure being more fragile and more likely to crumble. Keep in mind that all we want to worry about is the end result – how the player perceives the experience. The actual content – images, sounds and so on – that we send to the player is just a means to an end.

It’s at this point where narrative-focused games become very different from classical ones. In a classical videogame, it’s almost always a good thing for the player to learn the systems exactly as they are. The better the player understands how all the underlying mechanics work together, the more competently they can play the game and the more fun they will have. Narrative-focused games are different. Here we often want to suggest a lot more than what is in the systems that we have at our direct disposal. Pulling this off requires a collection of tricks where the common thread is to try and make the player do the hard work. I will go over these tricks in future blog posts.

Next week there will be a discussion on how systems and story come together to form a mental model and more discussions on the most common pitfalls and opportunities when designing for mental simulations that feel alive.

Foot notes:

[1] It is actually much more complicated than this as your current reality is a sort of vertical slice of a much later Hilbert space where everything is modeled as waveforms.

[2] And even the idea of a “you” is a mental construct. Check the previous blog on presence for some discussion on this.

[3] Brian Upton goes very in-depth into this area in his book.

[4] The game was not this evenly divided into groups, but the general gist was this kind of behavior.

[5] There are a lot of psychological reasons for this such as the ultimate attribution error and anchoring.

Halloween sale, one week of horror

Originally posted by Jens.
Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.

Amnesia & Penumbra are now available for as little as 5 USD! That is 75% off the regular price. You can get the games from our store and various partners on and off during the next week or so.

The offer from our store will be available until the 3rd of November.

Yes… it is sad that we have almost not posted any news since the last Halloween sale a year ago. Who knows, maybe we’ll get our act together and post something intriguing next week?

Happy Halloween!

Originally posted by Jens.
Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.

Amnesia and Penumbra are massively discounted during the Halloween weekend. Why not put a game* or two in the trick-or-treater’s little bucket?

In the spirit of the holiday, here are some of the fine creations done by the community:

*Not any of our games, they are very scary and only intended for a mature audience.

Amnesia – One year later

Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.

A year has passed since we first released Amnesia and a lot has changed for us at Frictional Games since. We have gone from being pretty much out of money, to being financially stable in a way we never thought we would be. Everybody in the company has gotten raised salaries and we have more than enough money to complete our next game.

Our financial situation is far from the only change though. The success of Amnesia has led to us getting a lot more known among players and the press. Reactions to the game are still pouring in, and it feels extremely good and humbling to be able to have that kind of impact on people.

With that little summary, now let’s get down and dirty with some more detailed information. (And oh, see end of post for a wee surprise.)

Sales

Let’s start with what most people probably are the most interested in: how many units have we actually sold? During the GDC EU lecture I noted that we were now above 400k units total, but as we scrutinized all of the figures it turns out this was not quite correct. Jens did a recount of all income we have gotten so far and the figure ended on 391 102 units (which is of course not correct when you read this as the game sells at about 2 mHz).

This sounds like a huge amount for sure, but there is something to consider with this figure. About 75% of all the sold copies, that is 300k, were on discounted sale. This is quite substantial really, especially when you note that a good deal (almost half) of the remaining 100k were sold at launch. In the end this amounts to around 50% of all our earnings coming purely from discounted sales (most at a 66% or higher discount).

While discounted sales indeed dwarfs our normal sales, the day-to-day sales are quite expectational as well. Right now we are selling around 6000 units per month at full price. This is actually more than enough to cover all salaries and operational costs for each month, which is a situation we still have not really gotten used to. Another interesting fact is that monthly sales have actually increased, they are almost double now from what they were half a year ago. What all this means is that we can work with a healthy buffer that makes it possible to take more risks and down the road spend more money on outsourcing for sound, voices, art and more. Both of which should allows to make our next game as good as possible.

The distribution between platforms depends a bit on how you count it. In our own store it is as follows:

Windows: 70%
Linux: 15%
Mac: 15%

However, our store is the only one that sell a Linux version of the game, so in total sales the percentage of Linux is a lot less. When looking at other stores the distribution is around 11% Mac and 89% Windows. The Mac percentage goes down a bit during sales, where Windows sales increase 3 times or so more compared to the Mac ones. An interesting note here is that Mac sales in our own store did not go down as a other online outlets like Steam started to provide mac versions; meaning it did not steal our customers but opened up to a new market. We think it is a good incentive for other stores to support Linux as well!

The final data regarding sales is the difference between physical and digital sales. As of now, a total of 35, 000 boxed copies of the game has been sold, or around 9% of total sales. This is not too shabby considering we had no release in Europe and that the American box came out half a year after launch. The money earned from a physical unit is much less than from a digital one, but a physical release can still be helpful (however, other problem arise that might make it not worth it, something we will cover later on).

Impact on Penumbra

As Amnesia gained popularity, we already had our Penumbra games up for sale. We were quite curious in seeing how these sales would be affected by Amnesia’s success. As Penumbra is quite similar to Amnesia i terms of gameplay and mood, and that both were made by the same company, we thought that we would see a boost in sales and attention for Penumbra. Turns out that Penumbra was almost not affected at all.

The number of monthly visitors for Penumbra are still the same as they were before Amnesia. Same with sales; the monthly total is still a little above 500, which it has been for over two years now. The only influence Amnesia could have had is to keep the average up.

So why did Amnesia have no (or very little impact) on the sales of Penumbra? We think one reason is that main bulk of Amnesia buyers simply does not connect the two. While they are similar, the first look is quite different. Penumbra takes place in present day and Amnesia in the 19th century. Another reason is that whenever there is some exposure for Amnesia, Penumbra is almost never mentioned, so most people that enjoyed Amnesia never learn there is a similar game available.

User response

I noted earlier that the daily sales have gone up over the last year, and large part of that has been due this – responses from the players. Still now, a year later, once a week or more some new post about Amnesia goes up on reddit, youtube or a similar user generated site. This kind of constant bombardment of Amnesia related material has continued to raise awareness of the game.

The major example of this would be the the Amnesia WTF video that reached 4 million views before YouTube, because of mysterious reasons, removed it (here is a copy). Others include this pug picture that managed to spread quite virally, images like this one, and much more.

Another pleasant surprise was the amount of custom stories that have been made. In Penumbra we only knew of a single attempt to make a user-created level and that one was never released in public. For Amnesia at least 300 custom story projects have been started, and 20 or so have actually become completed, high quality, experiences. There has even been a Tetris clone made with the tools!

This surge in interest has made our community a lot more active too. A year after we released Penumbra: Black Plague, our forum was quite dead, having a post every other day or so. Right now we average about 200 posts / day, and all of it is pretty much thanks to the custom story creation. This has also spread to other parts of the forum, and there is a lot more general chatter, technical help between users, etc . It really shows that supplying users with creation tools is well worth the time.

The making of Amnesia

As a year has gone by a few resources on how Amnesia was made has popped up, so it seems like a good time to sum them up now:

The Terrifying Tale of Amnesia

A post-mortem of Amnesia at the Escapist, that describes what we went through when creating the game. It mostly deals with the financial side, but also on how corporate decisions lead to changes in design, screwed everything up, and other juicy stuff like that.

The Post-mortem is now also up on our site.

Birth of a Monster

The design and production process of the grunt monster, written by several of the people involved. Don’t forget the other parts.

Evoking Emotions and Achieving Success By Breaking all the Rules

A talk I gave at GDC Europe about a month ago. It goes over a lot of the design decisions that went into Amnesia.

Next for Frictional

So what is next for us at Frictional Games?

First of all, we want to get up to speed on our next game. Since we spent all resources we had on getting Amnesia done, we had to start the new project without any sort of momentum. Added to this was the potato thingie that also took a lot of time (but was really worthwhile). This has lead to a discrepancy between design, technology and art that we just about caught up to now. We have done a lot of work on the next game, but it is not until now we are close to having a nice work flow.

Because of this, a major issue for us to fix is to be able to manage multiple projects. We want to have a nice reallocation of resources at the end of each project and make sure to keep the flow going. However we do not want to grow the company too much, and thus we are looking into other avenues. If everything goes as it should we will announce our first stab at a solution to this quite soon!

Another big change for the future will be consoles. The main reason for choosing consoles is purely financial. Right now our main income comes from very few channels, and we need to spread out the risk somehow. The other reason is that we feel we are missing out on exposure by not being on a console and not reaching as many players as we should be able to. Unfortunately consoles are really old compared to the PC right now, so it will be far from straightforward to develop for two platforms. Our current thinking is to make the console get a lower end version and make sure console specs influence the PC version as little as possible.

Finally, in regards to what our next project is about, the basic idea is to use lessons learned from Amnesia and then take it to the next level. We have mentioned before that the next game will not be as horror focused as our past ones, but still have a scary atmosphere. Our intention this time is to dig into deeper and more intellectually demanding subjects. Another goal for us is to get past having classical puzzles that break the flow, but without making the game into a spoon-fed type of experience.

We are all really excited about the future, with tons of ideas we want to try out and now with the resources to do so properly. This is the first time for us developing a project that we know we can fund all the way and not worry about tight resources. It will be very interesting so see what will be possible to create this time!

More questions?

Anything else you want to know? Well, you are in luck because the entire team will be available for an Ask-Us-Anything at Reddit! Just go here:

It is really simple to register at reddit, so just do so and fire away in case you are curious! And do make sure to up-vote it so it gets some exposure!

And finally, thanks to all who have supported us, pre-ordered our games, put up crazy stuff on the internet, provided help in the forums and in other ways helped to spread the word!

Amnesia: Post-Mortem

Originally posted on the Escapist.

The story of Amnesia: The Dark Descent starts just as we were hard at work with Penumbra: Black Plague, a project that had been close to doom only a few months before. After various financial problems, Paradox Interactive had stepped in to provide the funds needed to complete the game.

We knew that in order to keep the company stable we had to make sure our entire work force (four of us at the time) would be be able to start working on a new project as soon as Black Plague was completed. Because of this, we started doing the basic tech work for what was to become Amnesia several months before Black Plague was done. We did not have any solid ideas on what to do next, but we were sure of one thing: The process of making our previous games had just been too hard for a small company like us and we were set on doing things a lot more simply in the future.

The release of Black Plague came and we were not nearly ready enough to start on something completely new. We had some basic technology working, but it was still far too much in its infancy to let the non-tech part of the team work. At this point Paradox approached us and wondered if we were keen on doing some sort of expansion for Black Plague. This was a great opportunity and a way to keep the entire team occupied until the basic tech got more mature. We were pretty fed up with creating Penumbra games though, and decided to make the expansion, subtitled Requiem, into a more puzzle-oriented experience instead.

In the Beginning

While Requiem was in full production we started brainstorming ideas for the next big project. An early decision was to do another horror game, as it was a genre we felt confident in. Similarities to our earlier games stopped there, though, and focus was instead turned on making a simpler and more casual experience. There was also a major emphasis on coming up with a design that would be easy to pitch – we had already had enough financial problems and were set on doing something we could get stable funding for.

Mechanically, we started focusing on making the horror game equivalent of Super Mario: short levels, simple gameplay, repeated mechanics, easy to understand goals and an experience well suited for bite-sized chunks of entertainment. “Torture-porn” movies like Saw and Hostel were very much “the hot thing” at the time and lent themselves nicely for a thematic hook. Paradox Interactive liked the idea but despite initial interest, both sides agreed to wait on formal agreements until Requiem was done and released in August.

Around Spring 2008 we settled on a game set in the 18th century, which would provide an uncommon time period setting and open the possibility of using a lot of levers, large cogwheels and the like, allowing us to more easily create interesting physics puzzles.

We sent in an application to the Nordic Game Program, a government program that grants money twice a year to game developers. The game was titled Lux Tenebras, very kludgy Latin for “light and shadow,” a name we chose to make the game sound more simplistic and less violent (making an NGP nomination more likely). Also set at this time was an “afraid of darkness” mechanic: The idea was basically that the darkness itself should be an enemy, and the title of the game was a reference to this. We were immediately dissatisfied with the name though, especially since it was nearly the same as Penumbra (which essentially means the area between light and dark).

When summer came along we found out that we had been approved by the NGP! We got about 40,000 Euro in development support, which helped enormously, and with this money we knew that we would easily be set for a while. Despite our current satisfaction with Paradox, our goal was to build a prototype and shop it around. We did not want to settle for a publisher before checking what other opportunities might be available.

During the summer of 2008, we went into crunch mode with Requiem in order to make it ready for release. By the end of August the expansion was done and we were free to focus our full development time on the new title. At this point we had the core engine features, very basic gameplay mechanics, and a simple version of the level editor done. The game’s design had low-level mechanics similar to Penumbra (the physics interaction, basically), but a very different high level design. For example, the game was divided into several hub areas that connected all of the game’s levels. By solving certain quests, new levels would become accessible and eventually lead the player into a new hub. Each level even saved stats such as quests completed, items found, and best completion time. The whole setup was very similar to Mario 64.

While we had the lowest and highest levels of the design done, we were quite unsure of the middle ground. Exactly what kind of easily repeatable gameplay should the player engage in? This proved to be a harder nut to crack, and the things we tried ended up not working. We backed up a bit and revisited a more Penumbra-like approach (where levels are like mini-games), and also added weapons and other tools to the features.

Work on the story also picked up pace and we outlined a story about a secret society doing strange things in a castle. Our intention was to tell the story not only through notes and voiced monologues (like we did in Penumbra) but also using direct dialog with characters.

During the fall we had started discussions with various publishers. We were mostly involved with Paradox, but we made sure to keep our options open. The biggest decision we had to make was whether we wanted a full-financing deal (which meant no IP and lesser royalties) or if we could finance it partly ourselves. This would mean some kind of bank loan, which would obviously be very risky. In order to figure out more exact details on these two kinds of deals, we slowly started some negotiating.

As 2008 was drawing to a close, we changed the game’s name to Unknown, moving away from the awkward Lux Tenebras. It still wasn’t great, but we thought it would suffice.

Entering the Unknown

In December of 2008 we were done with the prototype originally pitched for the Nordic Game Program, marking a major milestone. We had worked out the basic pipeline for making content and had implemented most of the basic gameplay needed. However, the game just didn’t feel engaging. While this raised some worries, we convinced ourselves that adding more features would fix the problem.

We also started running into issues with the publisher hunt. While we did find some interested parties, the terms were very hard to pin down. We felt we had to go with something, so at the start of the year we decided to explore the option of securing a loan in addition to getting funding from Paradox. Paradox was pleased with this, as it meant lower risk for them. Nothing was officially determined, but we informally agreed this was the route to take. However, pressed for funds and finding it impossible to secure a loan, we eventually had to renegotiate with Paradox. This made them quite upset and we were close to getting no deal at all. Eventually we did agree to some terms with a now increasingly annoyed Paradox.

In the spring of 2009, we added weapons to the game and spent a few weeks testing and tweaking the system. It didn’t go well. We intended for combat to be a used as a last resort only, but this kind of gameplay proved extremely hard to accomplish. Remembering Penumbra Overture (our only game with combat), we recalled that very few players used the combat as intended. We also felt many would see the combat as sub-par compared to other games, which finally convinced us to scrap it. Removing the combat also simplified the design of the game substantially.

Looking back at the state the game was in at the time, it makes me wonder how we could have believed that we were on the right track. I guess that is partly because things look so much simpler in hindsight. When you are in the middle of something in which you have invested so much time and effort, it is extremely easy to fool yourself.

To Hell and Back

In April 2009, rapidly running out of funds, we signed a contract with Paradox to create Unknown. Finally, we could relax and not worry about funding anymore. Or at least so we thought.

Less than a month after we had signed the contract, we were forced to break it. Hard choices needed to be made as our money had been nearly depleted, the worst of which was probably that we had to dismiss our employees as we had only money for another month’s salary. This meant they would still be working for a month, but unless we could get more funds somehow, that would be it.

Things were looking very dark indeed, and we saw only two choices: either we quickly make some kind of game with what we had or try to get money to complete what we had started. We first started looking at making the game simpler. The idea was to change the control scheme so that it was entirely controlled by mouse and create some kind of “escape the room” game, hopefully allowing us to reach a more casual market. Unfortunately, it did not work as we hoped and the idea was scrapped.

Finding some kind of financial backing did not go much better. Banks were still skeptical about the project, angel investors did not understand the project, and publisher interest was low. I actually started to prepare my CV to look for job opportunities.

At the start of June, things changed for the better. Steam had a sale of the Penumbra Collection at 75% off. While Paradox owned the digital rights of the Penumbra games Black Plague and Requiem, we had retained the complete rights to Overture. This meant that we would be getting more than a third of the profit from the sale. Our hopes were pretty low, but amazingly the weekend-long deal sold more units than the combined lifetime of all Penumbra games. We were overwhelmed to say the least.

We knew this was our lucky break, and with salaries cut in half across the board we were able to maintain staff and keep things going. Still, we knew it was not enough money to complete the game, and we had to take matters into our own hands. Boosted by the popularity of the Steam sale, we made our own sale of Penumbra with Linux and Mac versions of the game included, and the income from that matched our profits from the Steam sale.

Encouraged by these sales and a renewed popularity of our previous games, we shifted our focus to making a game that was much closer to Penumbra. The entire Mario 64-like hub design was scrapped and we focused on a more linear experience. We could not redesign everything, of course, and reused as much of what was done already as possible.

With the focus shift, the story also needed to change in scope. Where previous inspiration had been on fringe scientists, the story now took a little nastier turn, focusing more on torture and human evil. The time period was also changed to 19th century. Unfortunately, the new direction was not something that our current writer was interested in, and we parted ways.

At this point, we also did a huge turnabout with regards to the kind of gameplay we were aiming for. The game shifted from “fun Mario-like bite-sized torture porn horror” to “slow-burning-psychological terror.” We decided that our motto would be, both internally and for marketing, “like Penumbra, but better.”

As we first ventured in this new direction we decided to keep most of the new, more “Mario-like” features we had already implemented, but as the project progressed we cut out almost all of these simply because they did not fit. It took a lot longer than expected to shed these negative features, in part because of the bias one gets when putting a lot of time into parts of the game. It is quite easy to overlook blatant flaws simply because you invested time in them.

The End Is Near

The release of the game was slowly closing in at the start of 2010, and we had come far enough to set a preliminary release date for early fall. The only problem was we did not have enough money to pay our expenses for that long. We needed to find a publisher that could give us a big enough advance to cover costs.

In January 2010 we also felt the game needed a new title, as the name Unknown was proving unpopular. To determine a name, the whole team simply voted for a number of different suggestions, finally settling on Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We’re still not entirely pleased with the name, but we’ve never felt naming things was a strong suit of Frictional Games.

A few weeks before release of the teaser trailer, we had reached one of our most important milestones during the entire project – alpha. This meant that we had a pretty much all of the required features implemented and that we could try out the first third of the game as it was intended. With a proper demo, we could now resume shopping around for publishers. We also set the final release date to September 8.

By February, cash flow became a problem yet again. We knew we had to come up with something in order to survive, and after tossing around many ideas, we ended up doing a discounted pre-order. We promised extra content in the form of an in-game developer commentary feature if we got 2000 or more orders. Armed with a teaser trailer and what we felt was a tantalizing offer, we took it to the public. The reaction was positive, but pre-orders were sluggish.

We signed a deal with the Russian publisher Snowball/1C in the middle of March. We were getting all of the funds we needed to complete the game, but we would be almost completely broke when we handed in the finished version.

The previous year we had gotten involved with the “Humble Indie Bundle,” a pay-what-you-want game package where part of the earnings went to charity. I personally was pretty skeptical about the business model, but since we would only contribute our old title Penumbra: Overture, it felt like a good experiment to try out. The package eventually launched at the start of May 2010 and it turned out more successful than anyone would have dared to imagine. We took advantage of the boost in PR and offered Penumbra: Black Plague and Requiem at a lowered price to anyone who had bought the bundle. We also lowered the pre-order price for Amnesia by 50%, helping us to finally reach our pre-order goals. When the bundle offer was over, we had more than enough to sustain development until release and a few months beyond.

Crunch

At the start of 2010, we revisited some of our design goals, and made changes to the game elements accordingly. We felt that if we wanted to make a game that was all about delivering certain feelings to the player, we should focus solely on that. With this frame of mind we started to slowly change the way we viewed the game and skipped features that did not directly contribute to the type of experience we were aiming for.

Many features got cut at this stage. A progress bar showing things done in a level vanished, the heavily used coins disappeared, and the number of items per map was decreased. Our new line of thinking also had an effect on the sanity design. Instead of seeing it as a standard game mechanic, we focused on making it atmospheric. We even automatically regenerated sanity if the player had been insane for too long. We felt it would cut down on player frustration and improved the overall experience.

One of our first priorities during the months before release was to get a preview ready. Without any marketing budget, we had put all our bets on the press liking the game. The preview was released in June with mostly very positive results, but we learned that the sanity potions were apparently “ruining the atmosphere.” Thinking it over we agreed and decided to remove them completely, despite the late date.

As we got even closer to the final deadline, another fun task popped up – mailing reviewers. The responsibility for this fell on me, and I started naively by just copy-pasting and mailing. As we had never done this ourselves, I greatly underestimated the amount work that went into it. Eventually, I ended up filling a huge spread sheet in order to keep track of all the review-related information.

As we started sending out the actual review copies, we were quite paranoid that someone would leak them. We gave each reviewer a special serial number and kept track of who got what, and for the most part this kept things under control. However, a day before release, a pirated version of our game started to appear – it was of course, one of the review copies. While the leak was disappointing, most of the things happening around us were extremely joyful. Personally, one of my own favorite moments occurred five days before release, when the IGN review went out. The game had scored 85% and was also given an Editor’s Choice award. For the first time I felt that these three years of hard labor might actually amount to something.

Aftermath

Early on, we had decided that if we did not sell 24,000 units during the first two months we would close down Frictional Games. Anything less and we would not have enough funds to properly sustain the company. A month after release we had reached 34,000 units, which was a quite nice, but not a spectacular, result. We had hoped for a bit more given the initial positive response by the media. Fortunately, we were part of some excellent holiday promotions that greatly boosted our sold unit count. By July 2011, we had sold almost 350,000 units, which was really surprising for us all. We can now, for the first time in our lives, get proper salaries – the future looks very bright indeed!

See you all next year!

Originally posted by Jens.
Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.

From all of us, to all of you,

As the year is coming to an end, we here at Frictional Games would like to take a minute to reflect. Four years have past since we first started – four years filled with monsters and terrifying revelations, and we even managed to make a few games. Our latest abomination, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was released only four months ago and we have been fortunate to receive kind words from both the press as well as our fans.

Earlier this month we were awarded by the popular multimedia news site, IGN, first place in the categorizes: Best of PC 2010 – Coolest Atmosphere and Best of PC 2010 – Best Horror Game. Simply being able to compete with games besting our budget at a hundredfold, is a tremendous feat. Having won, we are humbled and honored.

As the winter solstice is approaching, we feel it is time to take a few days of vacation. This is, after all, when the trolls come out to feed and we will need our strengths to fight them off. Meanwhile, feel free to abuse our hospitality by grabbing a copy, or two, of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Penumbra Collection at a 50% discount. We will be back on the 3rd of January to clean up the mess.

Also, have a look at the neat improvements we’ve done to our shop.

  • Taxes(vat) are now included in the displayed price, no matter what country you are in.
  • Your Penumbra Collection-purchase, is no longer limited to one platform. Buy one and play Penumbra on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.
  • If you buy both Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra Collection we will give you a 40% discount on the second game.
  • All purchases comes with a lifetime backup of all games and serial numbers, available from Frictional Games’ shelf. Well, at least as long as we are around and able to provide the service.
  • We are now able to accept payments via credit cards, PayPal, and mobile phones.

Warm yuletide greetings to you all and a happy new year,
Frictional Games

Where is your self in a game?

When you are playing a videogame, an external observer will probably say that you are sitting in a sofa or at the computer desk. But is this really where you are? When immersed in the virtual world of a videogame, do you still feel that you are sitting on a chair or in a sofa, staring at the screen?

An experiment

Before moving on, I would like you to consider a simple experiment. You can easily do it with the help of a friend if you got the right prop: a rubber hand. Put your own hand next to the rubber one on a table, and place a screen between them, shielding your own hand from view. Now ask your friend to stroke the fake and real hand at the same time, at the same place. Something strange will now happen. Your body image will change, and the rubber hand will become part of you. As your friend touch both hands, you will feel as if the feeling arise in the rubber one. All of a sudden, you will have made an external object, become part of your self!

With this experiment in mind. The question of where you are becomes more interesting. When playing a game, where do you transport your self to? Does it depend on what the game is about and from what perspective it is played from?

I think this is not only an interesting curiosity, but a very important part of the experience. Identifying where the player is when playing, can be very useful. And even more crucial, being able to “place” the player correctly is a very useful skill.

Spectator or something else?

Let’s start simple and explore movies first. In movies there is no interaction, so surely you must be a spectator to every scene in a movie. A clear example of this, is when you see a horror movie and have one of those “don’t go in there!”-moments. This clearly puts you in a spectator seat, treating the actor as a separate entity.

However, things does not get so polarized in other situations. Consider a gruesome torture scene or similar. These can get almost unbearable to watch and blurs the line between yourself and the actor. The reason why this is so is because of something called mirror neurons (here is a good video on the subject). What these do is to make you copy emotions from other people, replicating some of their sensations. One could even argue that they expand yourself, no longer limiting it to your own body.

Interaction added

Let’s go back to games now. As we can see there are two forces at work: we can trick our brain into extending the body image and we have specialized neurons that copy other people’s emotions. How these will affect us will depend on what type of videogame we are playing.

One of the major differences between games today is the viewpoint, ie first or third person. Does this matter? First person places you inside a character, putting your viewpoint where it usually is. This increases the feeling of being the character. In third person, you are removed from reality, and look upon yourself as if in some kind of OBE. This might make one think first person is superior, however, this only applies to the sense of sight. Another important sense is the proprioceptic one, which keeps track of your different body parts. When in first person, you see at most a hand or two, while in third-person gives you a full body image to copy. Third person can also give your mirror-neurons more to work with, like facial expressions. So depending on the kind of actions you perform, first or third will have a different feeling of being.

Also worth noting is how easily we shift between different states. For example, in Silent Hill 2, I feel very much connected to James when I run around town. Then when entering a cut-scene, I sort of float out of him and become distanced. I am no longer in control of the character and no longer part of him. Then when controls comes back I once more float inside him and the virtual characters becomes an extension of my own body again. This kind of movement happen in just about all games.

The roles we play

Now that we have explored how the self can shift position as we play a videogame, an interesting question arise: What is the player’s role in these different positions? As videogames contain interaction; not only do you fee,l to various degrees, part of the on-screen character, you also control her/him/it. What does this make the player? Some kind of puppet master? An devil/angel on the shoulder? And more importantly, can the role assumed, change how the game is played?

In most games, you do not control all actions in a game, but mostly give general commands. You tell your character to jump, but not how much force to use and so on. You command a character to pick up an item, but have no control over any finer movements. This is not that far off from real life though, as most of your day-to-day movements are made without any conscious thought besides the thought of initiating them. This means that making a character jump by pressing a button gives you a very close connection. In these instances, you might feel like you are the character.

However, not all games have this close connection. Consider an adventure game where you just pick a destination for the character or choose between prefabricated lines of dialog. What role does this give the player? Some kind of guardian angle – a guiding voice inside the protagonist’s head? Does this change the way that the player think of the character and how to interact with the game? Perhaps this role-assignment distances the player emotionally from the game’s protagonist?

It is interesting that some games actually explicitly give the player a role. This is quite common in adventure games, where the protagonist might look at the player and directly address her. Do developers really consider how this can affect the placement of the player’s self? I must confess I have not thought about this until very recently and have not heard of many discussing it.

I think it is very important to decide where the player is and what her role is. If this is not coherent than it might have a negative effect on how the player choose to interact with the game’s world. If you know your role in the game, it gets easier to be immersed in it and know how to behave. This does not mean that the assigned role and placement of self needs to be the same throughout, but that it must be consistent with what needs to be done. A simple example of when this goes wrong is quick-time-events during cut-scenes. This can be very confusing at first, as you have just gone from being the character (in normal play mode) and gone to spectator mode (when cut-scene is playing). All of sudden you are required to control the character, something that is not coherent with your current role.

This shift in placement also explains why emotional moments can be hard to get right in cut-scenes. As you enter a cut scene you move over to “spectator mode” and all of a sudden you are no longer as connected to the character as before and do not care as much. JPRG:s like Final Fantasy 7 have it easier here, as the normal gameplay is more close to a “spectator mode” and thus the difference is smaller when entering a cut-scene. Same goes for a game like Heavy Rain. An important thing to note here is that contrast in position seem to play a huge role. When there is a violent shift in the location of self, it is very noticeable and the emotional connections are lost.

Finally, I also want to add that the same game, can have players assume very different roles to themselves. A good, although a bit extreme, example of this, is a recent Gamasutra article, where the writer let his mother-in-law play the new Sam and Max. The interesting part is that she did not release she could or should control the characters. She just assumed (probably from lessons learned from experiencing other media) that she should be in spectator mode. One should have this in mind when designing a game and tutorials for it, and not just assume that a player knows what role they play.

Our take on this

Location of self and the role of the player is something that I have not really thought about until we where developing Amnesia. I would therefore like to discuss how Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent differ in this aspect. As a lot of thought have gone into making the player become the protagonist in Amnesia, it has had a different focus compared to Penumbra.

In Penumbra, Philip narrated all the scenes, yet in normal gameplay the player very much was part of the character. As these narrations are very subtle, it gives a bit of schizophrenic impression. For example, at one point Philip comments that he does not like spiders upon seeing one scuttle by. What happens here is that we are forcing very specific emotions on the player who will either accept or reject them. If rejecting them, it means a large shift in the position of the self and Philip stops becoming a part of you. From being part of the world yourself, you are reduced to being a passenger inside Philip’s head. As mentioned before, this contrast can be very bad for the immersion and the emotional connection.

In Amnesia, our goal is for the player to become the protagonist. This is vital for the story and experience as a whole. Because of this, there are never any words spoken, and there are no Daniel-subjective comments. We hope that this will place the player’s self inside the body of the protagonist, and to think about what “I am doing” and not what “Daniel is doing”. Our hope is that when you encounter facts about Daniel’s past, it feels like your own forgotten memories. I know this is not an easy thing, and I am not sure many players feel this way. There is also the issues of adding smaller cues like breathing and heartbeats. Since these are actions that are not totally under our control, it is not incoherent to force them onto the player, but only if the player accepts it. Judging from player comments so far, there are people on both sides and having it in is a bit risky (we are actually thinking of having them optional in the future because of this).

End notes

There is a lot more to explore, but did not want to make an already long post longer. So consider this as just a discussion starter and a brief introduction on the subject.

Now I am really interested in hearing how you feel about this! What role do you feel that you play in different games? Please share your experiences!

Penumbra: Overture goes Open Source!

Some links in this article have expired and have been removed.

It has been in our minds for quite some time and now finally it has become reality: Penumbra:Overture and the HPL1 Engine are now open source! In case that is all you need to know, then head straight to: http://GitHhub.com/FrictionalGames to get your hands on it!

For more information just keep on reading.

Penumbra: Overture

First of all I would like to stress the fact that this open source release does not make Penumbra: Overture free in anyway. All assets (except a few that are part of the engine) are still under the same copyright as before. The thing that is free is the source code for the executable which is now released under the GPL version 3 licence.

The code for Penumbra: Overture is a continuation of the one used for the tech demo + some addition for the not so long lived Robo Hatch project. It also contains some code from Unbirth, giving it quite some history. This history means that the code is far from clean and as expected quite hackish in places. That said, it should have a few interesting bits, the major probably being the physical interaction system. This system is not the latest version in the Penumbra series and misses something like rotation. These features should be fairly easily to add though.

It is also important to note that Penumbra: Oveture source will not run Black Plague or Requiem. AI for the infected, GUI elements, etc are all missing, but all needed to implement them is present in the engine code (in case anybody is up for the challenge).

HPL1 Engine

For my part, the biggest part of this release is the engine itself. This is engine that has powered all of the Penumbra games and it even includes the stuff used to create the 2D platformer Energetic. The engine code was started in December 2004 and was actively developed until early 2008. After that only smaller fixes where made to it.

The transition from 2D to 3D and the fact that it was my first stab at a full 3D engine, makes the code quite patchy (and downright horrible) in places. This is especially true for some old and low level parts like the sound and input handlers which have evolved anything but gracefully. Later parts are often cleaner and nicer, but the code is not without its share of quick-and-dirty-hacks.

When it comes to interesting features, I think the following are the most prominent:

  • Physics sound system. This is all the code that is used to play and tweak the sounds heard during physics interactions (bumping, sliding, etc). A lot of work has gone into the system and is the result of a combined effort between me and Jens (who does all sounds) for several years.
  • Stencil shadow volumes. The shadow system in the engine is quite robust and can work on pretty much any mesh, something that shadow volumes usually don’t. It is far from state of the art these days (when shadow maps rules), but should provide nice info for the curious.
  • Serialize Class system. This is code used to easily save and load classes to disk. It is very useful when creating a save system for games.

The engine contains tons of more stuff (almost 100k lines of code), but these are the most interesting stuff I could think of right now. I am sure there is more for awaiting to those brave enough to explore its dark depths!

Finally, it is also worth noting that this is the latest and final version of the HPL1 engine. It is the beast that powers all games of the Penumbra series.

OALWrapper

This library is made almost entirely by our tool programmer Luis, who actually started out doing work for us on the OpenAL sound implementation. This library is simple and easy way of accessing the OpenAL functionality and was made since there is a strange lack of free sound libraries. This is also the only part of the open source release that we will continue to update and we hope that others will find it useful and contribute themselves!

Questions and Support

As we are a small company and already swamped with work, do not expect us to do full time support on this. We will try and help as much as possible, but we also hope that a community will form helping each other out.

For more discussion on the source code please go here:

This is the place to go for more technical information and please ask any lengthy / technical question there instead this blog.

Credits

I must also stress that I am not very experience managing an Open Source project and most work in making it happen is due to Edward Rudd, who is also responsible for the Linux and Mac ports of Penumbra. So big thanks to him!

End notes

We are extremely interested in seeing what people will be able to do with this! Open source releases of other games have spawned very exciting stuff and we hope this release will do that too. This means we are very interested in what people are doing with it. So whether you plan to do a full blown mod, or just check the code for learning purposes be sure to tell us about it!

Penumbra: Overture, HPL1 Engine and OALWrapper released as open source

Originally posted by Jens.

Helsingborg – Sweden – 14th of May 2010

Frictional Games is proud to announce the release of the source code for our first game Penumbra: Overture, together with the source code for the engine and tools used in its creation. This comes as a reply to the great success of the Humble Indie Bundle, in which over 1 million dollars has been donated to the participating developers and charities. Apart from Penumbra, the source codes for the indie games Aquaria, Gish and Lugaru (all available in the Humble Indie Bundle) are also released. We hope that these source code releases will be of use to the community, help aspiring game programmers and perhaps act as a base for other projects.

Penumbra: Overture contains a unique physics interaction system for first person games, a system that has been exclusive to the series and not found in any other game. With the release of the source code, we hope this will change as the interaction system can be used for much more than our genre specific horror games. The source code is currently running on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux – with the public release of the source code, perhaps even more platforms can be supported!

“We have been talking about releasing the engine and game code as open source for quite some time. With the success of the Humble Indie Bundle came the perfect opportunity and we decided to join the other games in releasing our code. Although the code for the game and engine encompass several years of work, it is not actively used today. It was basically just rotting away in the dark corners of our hard drives. It feels much better to have it published in the open, where it has a chance to grow and do some good. I hope that it will be found useful and I am excited to see what people can do with it!”
– Thomas Grip, Programmer and Co-Founder.

The source code has been uploaded to GitHub where it is easy for people to download the latest version, suggest patches, make new versions of the code and much more. To kick start the development we have also put up a dedicated section in our forum, where people can discuss the code and where we will try to provide as much help as we can. We have also written a more detailed overview of what the code contains in our blog, so interested parties should go there for more information.

Links of interest

http://github.com/FrictionalGames
Go here to get hold of the source code.

http://frictionalgames.com/forum/
Our official forums where more information and discussion about the source code release can be found. We hope that this will act as a fertile ground for people to get help, get into the source code and where we will try and provide help.

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/
The official blog that contains a post with a lengthier discussion of what the source code release contains.

http://www.penumbragame.com/
Information about Penumbra: Overture and the other games of the Penumbra series. Penumbra is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

http://www.wolfire.com/humble
The Humble Indie Bundle, where Penumbra: Overture and 5 other indie games can be purchased at a price of your own choosing. Also check here for more information on the open source releases of the other games.

About Frictional Games

We are a small independent game developer located in the south of Sweden or, to be more precise, located on the Internet – the company is office-free. We develop unique technologies in form of a game engine and tools that are tailored specifically after the games that we create. Currently with a crew of five in-house and a network of contractors to utilize during production we can be dynamic and efficient, increasing production at key moments. Visit http://www.frictionalgames.com/ for more information.