2010 was a long time ago. It doesn’t seem like it at first glance but consider the world that currently surrounds us. Six years ago, Amy Winehouse and Steve Jobs were still alive and we were all crying our eyes out at the end of Toy Story 3. It might not seem like much but compared to today’s relentless tsunami of horrific events, those bygone days almost have the glint of a fairytale.
The same can be said of video games. Back then, we were first introduced to John Marston, Thane Krios, Juri & Hakan and a doomed writer by the name of Alan Wake. So many genres were drowned in games. Music, role-playing, multiplayer shooters, party games. Everything was available in abundance. Even the fighting genre had made a comeback.
But what of horror? By 2010, the Resident Evil series had reached its action peak with the boulder-punching, superhuman exploits of the fifth instalment and while Silent Hill Shattered Memories was an innovative experience, it was criminally overlooked. The Fatal Frame series had been quiet for a few years. Dead Space had breathed new life into the science fiction brand of terror albeit with huge guns and lumbering monsters.
Horror games had never really broken through the video game world in a permanent way. Much more of an afterthought littered with cult classics rather than a consistent string of games worthy of Game Of The Year consideration. Six years ago, the field was practically empty. Fans waiting on known franchises to hopefully deliver the goods in due time. Patience would reward those who were dedicated enough.
Then something happened. An answer was given to a question nobody even thought to ask.
In the past, horror games would only occasionally dip their toe in the waters of true terror. The kind of razor-sharp fear that would prevent some players from progressing further in the game. Late at night, lights out, headphones on. Unable to completely discern if that strange noise was part of the game or a thing lurking in your actual real-life kitchen. The player can barely peek around a corner in the game without sweating. A subconscious mantra of “It’s only a game, it’s only a game” begins to manifest. The game becomes a nerve-shredding endurance test, stomping your will and determination in the ground under a grimy, blood-soaked boot. Chills echo along your bones, palms begin to sweat and your eyes start to close involuntarily. But despite all of these emotions, which could be classified as the very antithesis of ‘fun’, something inside pushes you forward. Curiosity becomes stronger than fear.
Swedish studio Frictional Games had already slipped many a knife into player’s ribs via fear of the unknown with their Penumbra series. Three terrifying adventures set in uninhabited parts of Greenland were cult PC favourites but in 2010, a man named Daniel woke up in a castle and changed the landscape of horror games forever.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released on PC and Mac in September 2010 and slowly but surely, mainly through word of mouth, became a new shining light of the horror genre. It did away with weapons and focused on avoidance of enemies. But not with already saturated stealth mechanics to deceive and outwit. What Amnesia did was tap into our primal fears of running and hiding at all costs. To shake with sheer terror and pray to whatever gods we believed in that the monsters would not find us. If that wasn’t enough, the game itself had a sanity/insanity mechanic, where Daniel himself could lose his mind out of fear of the dark. If a player could somehow conquer their own inner turmoil and actually finish Amnesia, it was unlike any video game achievement in recent years.
Thomas Grip is a creative director at Frictional and was lead designer and programmer on Amnesia. In our interview, it’s not long before I find out about Amnesia’s most infamous section, the Flooded Archives. A monster called the Kaernk awaits Daniel. A seemingly lightning fast creature that inhabits the water and attacks anyone who is silly enough to wade into its midst. The Kaernk is made extra terrifying by being completely invisible. Its presence only indicated by splashes on the water’s surface. If you see the splashes heading in your direction, terror takes over and you run like hell.
Grip explains that constraint birthed the Kaernk. “A lot came from iteration and not having a lot of time nor money. The first design was that it should have tentacles and be like the garbage monster in the first Star Wars. But we didn’t have resources for that, so we had to make due with splashes. Another fun thing was that I wanted to allow the player to lure the monster away by throwing something, so I made it react to sounds. This had the unexpected consequence of it starting to follow the player around, which made the encounter much, much better. In fact when I first tried it I wasn’t sure what was happening and it spooked me quite a bit that it seemed to follow me around.”
‘The water level’, as it came to be known, helped Amnesia skyrocket into the public consciousness. Youtubers and livestreamers latched onto Amnesia with the rampant appetite of a hungry beast. All scaring themselves to death for the sake of their audience. In 2012, Amnesia surpassed a million copies sold.
Amnesia and its sequel, A Machine For Pigs, changed the face of horror and laid the groundwork for others to not only experiment but succeed beyond any boundaries the genre had set in place. Red Barrels’ Outlast, Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation and Capcom’s upcoming reinvention of Resident Evil are continuing to take horror games to new blood-curdling heights.
2015 also saw a new game from Frictional. SOMA, a grime-drenched underwater horror tale that delved deep into mystery and guilt. Fourteen months later, Grip recalls mostly positive feelings as director of the game. “It is been a really good year. All of our games have sold much better than expected. We even went and hired two new people pretty recently so we are up to 16 members in the team now. As for looking back on SOMA, I’m really proud of what we achieved but also annoyed with a lot of stuff. For instance, I think we could have had better gameplay and greater sense of player agency. The monsters also didn’t turn out as well as I hoped. Overall though, especially narrative-wise, we’ve been blown away by the response. So in a sense, it’s really good to have a list of stuff you want to improve. That way, we have a nice list of things to fix for the next game.”
Their latest game was also Frictional’s first foray on consoles. The Penumbra and Amnesia series were at home exclusively on PC but SOMA was also released on Playstation 4. This experience opened the door to finally bring the terror of the Amnesia series to consoles.
This week, The Amnesia Collection is released on Playstation 4. Consisting of Dark Descent, A Machine For Pigs and Amnesia: Justine, an expansion to the original game. It is a fantastic package of fear. With the process of bringing SOMA to consoles, Grip couldn’t be more pleased with introducing these games to a console audience. “We wanted to release it for a console for a long time. But there has always been some sort of obstacle in the way. Now that SOMA was released, we finally felt we had a handle on it and went through with it. It is has been really great. Sony have been really easy to deal with – much more than I expected. They helped out with PR and any tech issue that has arisen. The major lesson has been how to plan our certification process. The situation is very different with Amnesia though. We have hired another company, Blitworks, to do the actual work on the port, so our part of the process is a bit different. Also, since Amnesia is a port, the issues are quite different from SOMA. The hardest part has been to fix some issue that arose because we don’t have matching libraries for the PC and PS4 versions.”
Following the success of SOMA and Amnesia’s release on consoles, the future of Frictional Games could go in many exciting directions. But Grip’s dedication to breaking ground in horror is always paramount while also keeping an eye on other people’s work. “I’m not sure we will release anything in 2017, but future goals are to try out new stuff and stay at the forefront in terms of design. One thing I wanna try tackle is to have more interesting things happening on failure. For instance, I loved how the ‘anyone can die at anytime’ approach in Until Dawn (Supermassive Games’ 2015 horror adventure game). It was great for adding a sense of dread and anxiety and yet without the frustration that comes with ‘die and repeat’. I would like to try something like that. Another thing I want to do is to see if we can get away from ‘hide and sneak from monsters’ gameplay but without adding weapons.”
The consistent dedication to the surprising innovation in horror games is what Frictional has put their stamp on and whatever comes next, it will be sure to scare the hell out of a whole new audience. Cult success and influential design put the work of this small Swedish team on the very top of the industry shelf. If they can keep terrifying themselves while developing their own games, we’re in for some memorable experiences for years to come.