You can’t talk about the modern horror game without talking about Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The 2010 cultural milestone stripped players of their favorite tool—weapons—and asked them to instead run and hide. The whole time, they were slowly being driven to stark, unreasoning terror.
Frictional Games passed on the opportunity to immediately make a sequel to Amnesia, tasking Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room with a spin-off, 2013’s now seemingly underrated A Machine for Pigs. Their next game, SOMA, came five years after Amnesia. SOMA was a bold and frightening slice of sci-fi horror with an ending that’s stuck in my brain for too long.
Now, a decade after The Dark Descent, Frictional is returning to the world of Amnesia with a proper sequel, Amnesia: Rebirth. We don’t know much about Rebirth, except that it takes place in the same universe, while focusing on a new character, Tasi Trianon. Set in Algeria, it appears players will be retracing Tasi’s footsteps and figuring out what they were up to.
I had a chance to spend a few minutes chatting with Frictional co-founder and creative director Thomas Grip earlier this week, and I teased a few details about Rebirth out of him. Most of our conversation, however, was about the big changes Frictional has undertaken since Amnesia blew up, what it’s like to give up micromanagement, how he’s handling Amnesia fans becoming Amnesia developers, and what lessons have been learned about some SOMA players being turned off by the game’s scary enemies.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
VICE Games: Congratulations on the announcement. Sounds like it's been a long time coming.
Thomas Grip: Yeah, it feels like I've been out of the loop. It was really nice doing it now because it felt like “Wow, I’m a game developer. Not just an armchair game developer who releases ports.” It felt good answering questions from fans about an actual upcoming game. It’s great. So it's great to be back! We hopefully will do this more often now.
It's really bad if you go by the announcement for SOMA, which was almost seven years back? Wow, bad! So hopefully now that we have two projects going at the same time we will be releasing like every two or three years, which feels more normal. You can keep your sanity better that way, I think.
VICE Games: I know after SOMA, you announced “Hey, we're gonna do multiple projects, see if we want to stretch our wings and do something that's not just horror.” Was some of the last couple of years, what's taken longer, just figuring out what the identity of Frictional is?
Yeah. Totally. The whole two project setup has been hard. Just having team members who've got a new role and having to fill out any holes in their experience and so on. These things are [complicated]. You think “you’re only going to handle this and this is going to be hard,” and it turns out things that were hard were easy and [there’s] a gap that you didn't anticipate and “oh, shit, we have to give them more experience in this.”
And also in the beginning, I've had really a hard time being having the right amount of hands on, hands off. Because if I were too hands on, people who are taking over certain positions I [previously] had would be like, “oh, I’m not going to do anything unless Thomas says so.” I've been trying to control that. So it’s just been lots of stuff.
But there's also the typical game development. When we sit here in a room talking about how we're gonna make the game, [an idea] sounds awesome. And then three months down the line: “What are we thinking?!” That's a lot of the things that you have to go through in order to get a good game. Really, just understanding what you have and what you want to achieve. Both of those questions take a long time to answer.
VICE Games: When I was reading the PlayStation Blog entry that you had written for the new Amnesia, there seemed to be a tone of “we don't need to like revolutionize horror to make a new game.” Given how big of a deal Amnesia was and all the expectations that went into SOMA , there seemed to be a bit of...maybe not identity crisis, but a pressure of “oh, if we make a new game, it has to change horror.”
Yeah. One thing that we sort of did for SOMA—I remember this specifically during development—was that I knew that people were expecting a really good horror game. A lot of on my mind—and I think from the entire team— was “Is it scary enough? Is this going to be the new water lurker moment? And so on. That's extremely restrictive because what you want to be doing is that you want to make a game and then you want to say, “okay, what sort of game are we making?” And then roll along with that, instead of working against what you're doing. It's a weird creative process.
So that's one of them. But then there's also, as you said, when Amnesia came out, there were very few games that had weaponless combat. I don’t know—Clock Tower and so on.
VICE Games: It was a pretty obscure list of games.
Yeah, and then games that didn't have room [for combat] were like adventure games, and a lot of mystery games. There were lots of horror games, but not like we had, that sort of mix.
We went into this now slightly worried that people are going [to go] “Oh, what we going to see gameplay-wise now with Rebirth is going to be completely revolutionary!” And that's not going to be the case. Whereas what we've done with Rebirth instead is that we looked at “Okay, what's the foundational elements that we know, in terms of enemy encounters and so on?” And then try to make those as good as we can. And then a lot of the “revolutionary” stuff is going to be on a higher level, similarly to SOMA.
But I certainly think that's what you want to be doing in horror. If you look at interesting horror movies over the years—it wasn't one of my favorite movies but Hereditary, for instance, there were a lot of things [going on in the story]. Or Babadook, which I did like. It's a very plain horror movie, but then it has a higher level thing that elevates it beyond. “Oh, this feels fresh!” Even though if you just state “okay, what happens in this sort of ghostly moment…”
VICE Games: A monster in a closet that haunts some people in a house is what Babadook “is,” but it's clearly a movie about motherhood.
Yeah, exactly. Similarly in Rebirth, obviously I want these things, like the monster encounters. Players who played Amnesia shouldn't go in and it’s all the same again—that needs to feel fresh—but it's not gonna feel revolutionary. Where I think we're doing really interesting things on a higher level beyond that with the themes and what the longer play times is going to reveal, similarly to how we did in SOMA, really. It's very hard to say “Okay, tell me moment to moment, what's special about SOMA?” Not that much! The special things come over two or three hours, that's when the game really starts working.
VICE Games: Did this project always start as “we want to revisit Amnesia, that it's been so long that we're ready to go back to that world?” Because you handed off the follow up to Amnesia, A Machine for Pigs, to a different developer. Or did you discover over time “actually, this is an Amnesia project. Instead of running away we should lean into it.”
No, we started wanting to make a sequel to Amnesia. But I think there was a lot of initial discussions on what that meant? We didn't know how big is this project going to be. I knew we wanted to start with Amnesia because that felt like we [had] at least enough foundation [to work with], but we didn't want to go totally crazy with one of our new projects. The other project is more crazy, but more on that down the line.
But then then there's always like, “okay, what do we want to embrace from the old games? What do we want to remake?” and so on. A lot of the tinkering and back and forth and prototypes and so on went into that before we determined that “okay, yeah, with this enemy encounters and so on” or a foundational element [from Amnesia] can stay sort of the same— and then we're going to build on the higher levels. That took a while to to actually nail down.
We went in knowing it would be an Amnesia game from day one.
"We went into this now slightly worried that people are going [to go] “Oh, what we going to see gameplay-wise now with Rebirth is going to be completely revolutionary!” And that's not going to be the case."
VICE Games: When you decided that, did you go back and play the original game? How often do you revisit The Dark Descent?
I know that a lot of team members revisited it. I'm not sure. I think I did? This is so long ago. Did I revisit it? It's hard revisiting in those games a bit, Amnesia especially, because one thing is that we were a small team developing it, so you're sort of hating it at the end of it. There’s no QA team or anything like that, so you’re just playing it and playing it.
And then Let’s Plays took off after, which was fun to look at. So I've just seen this game so much. [laughs] Even though it's a long time ago now, I’m like “Should I play it again?” But no, I played it. I played it through a bit. We did a Switch port not too long ago.
VICE Games: Are you able to appreciate what went right with that project? Separate the feeling of “Oh, I’m done with this. We were a small team. We didn't have resources. I want to move on to the next thing.”
Yeah, I can totally. When I said “I hated it,” I don't hate the game. It sometimes can be annoying. Amnesia [is] not as bad as Penumbra; for a lot of reasons that that game is worse, But for Amnesia, it's okay, even though I don’t do it on a regular basis.
But I think that as a game developer, it's fairly important because the projects are so long. You really have to like what you do in the end. If you're making a multiplayer game, you can have fun developing it. I think it was from the Double Fine adventure game documentary, where they said “there's no one staying in the office playing the game late” like you would have in a multiplayer shooter [because] it’s just so fun. The process of playing your game during development is just not that pleasant as it would be for other genres.
So when you actually finish it, you have to sit back and really just like what you've done. I have a very strong sense of that. I can see [that] “it's gonna be so great when I reach this,” and I can get a lot of satisfaction from that long after.
VICE Games: I have to imagine, given the distance between then and now, that some members of the team on Rebirth were fans of Amnesia, and then came to work on the sequel.
It’s been good. Many have been coming in as fans, and have even made games themselves that were inspired by Amnesia. The thing that's the hardest is that they put so high demands on themselves that you have to like, “oh, it's okay if things are not perfect.” Because they come in like I would if I was making, I don’t know, a Mario game.
VICE Games: It’s holy ground to them. This is something that means a lot to them, and then suddenly, they're the one making the canonical sequel, not a fan mod.
It's been a lot of just making sure [I’m saying] that “you're doing great work here, relax, now you are the ones that are in control of this” and so on. And I think there's been a lot of people coming in feeling that pressure and you have to sort of handle that in various ways. Which is also one of the things that I didn't expect coming in—handing off certain positions to other people and so on. I’ve learned a lot from that process and [it’s been] been very interesting coming into it like that.
VICE Games: It sounds like you've adapted more managerial roles just because the studio's gotten bigger and you're managing multiple projects. Does that mean you have had to make peace with letting other people make big creative decisions?
I’ve had to drop certain micromanagement bits. In the beginning, that was really, really hard, but I've managed it and I think that we've done a lot better from it. One thing that's been an issue with the previous games [is that] I can be extremely like “I want a part in every single bit.” And I remember from working on some SOMA levels that many artists then later on said that “well, I'm not sure why I'm doing this but Thomas told me, therefore I am.”
Now we've given people more freedom and more ownership out of the levels, and then they're not placing this thing because someone tells them to, they’re placing them because they know why they should be placing it. I think this has done a tremendous boost to the quality of our levels. Because previously, there's been [a situation where] I said something and then [the team goes] “Okay, Thomas has some master plan for this.” Especially when it comes to early designs and so on. And people went along with it.
But now that there has been a lot of people involved in the design process, there has been much more afterthought and people have thought through it. It's like “should we really do it like this? Couldn't it be better if we could do it like that?” In early versions, people can play through a very rough box of the level and have opinions on that, even though it's not playable. “Shouldn't this corridor be longer? Could we make these rooms bigger? Could we change how the enemy interacts in this room?” So I think that's been a huge boost, and I think that's going to show in the final game. We have way better gameplay flow and so on than we have had before.
Me letting up some of that dictatorship, which I've been unable to in the past, has, in the end, just made sure that the ideas I come with are properly vetted and made better. So it's really a big team effort putting everything together, and I really enjoy that. And I think that's a huge boost for the game when it's released.
VICE Games: I know something learned in the post-release period of SOMA was people's reaction to the enemy encounters. Eventually, there was a fan mod that either removed the enemies or made them so they couldn't kill you. And then you later added a different game mode, a kind of story mode, so that people could just progress through. What did you take from some of people's reaction to SOMA and then coming to Rebirth , in terms of the player's relationships with enemies in a horror environment?
A lot of the enemy encounters from SOMA are there partially because we knew we had to make a horror game. As I said at the start, we had [feeling of] “how is this going to be the next water lurker moment?” and so on. It felt like if we didn't have that, we somehow failed the fan base because some people were expecting that. We added it without thinking if [it was] properly what the game needed. as well. I think that's the biggest takeaway from that.
We should think about and be careful of what sort of game we’re making. Rebirth is going to be way more—the enemies make sense there. You can’t just remove enemies that are deadly in a way because that wouldn't make story-wise sense. So it's much more connected to the narrative. I think that the best version of SOMA is one with the enemies because that gives a certain amount of dread. But I still understand that some people didn't like that, from the frustration or whatnot. They were too scared and just wanted to enjoy the story. [It] was this less clear cut; they [the monsters] were there because they were more like an ambient thing.
But now they're much more integrated into gameplay, so that's totally something that we've been thinking about going through. I'm not sure if we're going to add another mode. With SOMA, it was almost obvious after the fact that a safe mode would be good, but I'm less sure [with] Rebirth if that's gonna fit. I'm almost thinking we want hard mode again like we did with the previous one. [laughs] Or something completely different that goes in some other angle.
I'm not sure, but it's always hard to judge how people are going to react and play it. You think that oh yeah, everyone wants to play it like this,” and then there's a big bunch of people that are playing some way you didn't imagine. We just want to wait and until after release and see. But there's nothing planned at all, just ideas thrown about.
But I really don't feel like safe mode [makes sense]. It's not a game where I can just just remove all enemies and it's gonna work, similar to how SOMA worked. That idea fits. Here, it’s more like it's more like “shit, I can’t really see that.”
VICE Games: Is there any specific sort of influence on the original idea for Rebirth? Or was it purely just “let's revisit that world and see where it takes us?”
There have been a multitude of inspirations for it, but I can’t really go into them all because that would be a bit spoiler-y.
VICE Games: There used to be this interviewer trick with Shigeru Miyamoto. You would ask him what his latest hobbies are, what he does when he’s not playing video games, and it would almost always be some sort of predictor. One of the most famous examples was when he loved gardening—and years later there’s Pikmin.
The game is a mixture of, as I said, taking a foundation from Amnesia, see what we can use and what we don't want to use and building upon with other stuff. But I think honestly, to a certain degree, that SOMA is a slight inspiration. I'm saying this with a big fat disclaimer: I don’t want people to [believe] this is a SOMA sequel in a way, because it’s not. The philosophical subjects and so on are very different and the game is gonna play out very differently.
But something we thought about—you mentioned it earlier—was figuring out what the studio stands for. What’s the studio, now that we're branching into two projects, we're becoming bigger? We need to [think about] “what are we?” And the thing that popped [into our] head is that we want to make games that make people afterwards consider life. I know that's a grand thing to say. But with SOMA, people think about different things in ways they didn't think they would, and we want to do something similar with Rebirth as well. Coming through it, you should see life in a different way.
That’s our grand, shoot-for-the-stars goal, but we’ll see if it happens. That, at least, is a big inspiration for it.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).