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Amnesia: Rebirth Interview: The Power of Letting Players Frighten Themselves

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    Frictional Games arguably caused a massive movement in horror with the groundbreaking Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A decade later, how do they intend to follow that up in Amnesia: RebirthAnd how do they create more chilling horrors to terrify their players.

    Siliconera caught up with Thomas Grip, Creative Director and Fredrik Olsson, Executive Producer and Creative Lead at Frictional Games, to talk about what drew them back to the series, what they feel is vital in making the player afraid, and their careful approach in making the player’s imagination create fear for them.

    Joel Couture, Siliconera: It’s been a decade since Amnesia: The Dark Descent. What brought you back to work in the Amnesia universe?

    Thomas Grip: As Soma was nearing its end, one of the main things we wanted to do with the company was not just continue to release games every five years because it’s just mentally exhausting to do that. It felt like we needed to go ahead and have two projects at the same time. Then, we felt like we needed to have a safer project – something we knew we could start working on fairly quickly – and then have another project where we could explore deeper on the foundational base.

    So, then it felt like Amnesia had a lot of interesting things we could go back and add onto. For instance, the whole original game takes place in a castle, which is fairly boring. But in Amnesia: Rebirth, when we add the dimensions of the desert in Algeria, for instance, it felt like the player would be able to explore these places a bit more.  The idea was if we know what to do with an Amnesia game, then we can experiment with other details. The team knows what the core mechanics are, what’s the basic goals, what’s the overarching atmosphere, and so on.

    So, we had that as a basis, and then, obviously, it turns out that even though you have that, development is still really, really hard. We went back and forth with a lot of different concepts, but at least the initial thought was that there’s a lot of interesting things to explore and some foundation to rely on so we’re not going in completely blind.

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    So, the thought was that you’d pull from something familiar to make things a bit easier if you were going to work on two projects at once?

    Grip: But I’m not sure if it has been easier. You can’t do the exact same game, because that would be boring for various reasons. For one, it’s 10 years old and there has been a lot of similar games since then, so if we do exactly the same thing, people are going to feel like “I’ve already seen this.” At same time, there’s certain things that makes it an Amnesia game, and you still have to have those, but in an upgraded version, for Amnesia: Rebirth.

    So, you have a lot of very hard design discussions around that sort of middle ground, there. This places certain constraints on you as a developer, and while constraints can obviously be good for thinking creatively, I think here it’s been quite hard because there’s certain systems that are vital parts of Amnesia that we wanted to tweak and remove. We can’t just say we’ll skip it, because then we will be skipping some of those foundational bits. So, as much as the foundations have helped us, they have also made things harder because we needed to have a certain game in the end.

    Do you find it’s hard kind of having that pressure from the past game forcing you to take things in certain directions? You created a huge movement in horror with Amnesia, and I feel like that would create a lot of pressure on you with this next one.

    Grip: How have you been feeling about that, pressure-wise, Fredrik?

    Fredrik Olsson: I think we, very early on, understood that we wouldn’t be able to do that again. However, we could take it in a different route, and I think that involves what we learned from working on Soma. That involves working with a strong narrative and bringing some interesting thoughts into people’s heads. Integrating that into an Amnesia sequel is an interesting approach. So, maybe trying to be a bit innovative instead of trying to remodel the horror genre again would be best. So, I think from my perspective, pressure has not been terrible. There’s always pressure when you release a game, but not from that point of thought that we should be as mind-blowing as we we were with the first Amnesia.

    I think that’s a good attitude to have. It’s hard to chase something like that, as it’s the sort of thing that will  happen naturally when you do something ground-breaking. 

    Grip: I felt a lot more pressure with Soma, to be honest. So, for me, I’ve had five years of pressure there and I’m done with that. That felt more like people had much much higher expectations, as that was our next game coming after Amnesia. Now, we have Soma and Amnesia in the bag. It’s been interesting for this Amnesia sequel, as we’re hearing a lot of comments and seeing videos saying things like “Oh, another Amnesia game? That’s gonna be interesting because I liked Soma so much.”

    So, there’s a lot of people that are interested in an upcoming Amnesia game because of Soma, which is really good for us because then we feel that, like Fredrik (Olsson) said, we’re going to take a lot of these Soma lessons and put them into the new Amnesia: Rebirth. We can do that when we have an audience that we know enjoyed those aspects of Soma. If we can mesh that nicely with the foundational aspects of Amnesia, it feels like it’ll create an interesting thing for people to play. I think it will feel fresh if you compare it to other core games of the same genre.

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    Soma was interesting in that there was a Safe Mode that got added in later on which removed the monster for those who didn’t enjoy being pursued. It’s interesting to see the game create fear purely from environmental design and sound without monsters at all. Has this affected your design of Amnesia: Rebirth at all? 

    Grip: So, Safe Mode is interesting. I think that Safe Mode came very naturally for Soma because of this pressure we’ve been talking about. There was a lot of thinking and planning during the development of Soma, with all of us wondering how we were going to top Amnesia. Even if it was not explicitly said, I, at least felt a pressure, and I think that a lot of the other team members did as well. So, we added horror, not as something that felt it was the best idea for the game, but more as something we felt we had to do.

    So, when Safe Mode came along, it sort of made sense in the world of Soma. It made a lot of sense. So, you can just have this robot roaming around making scary noises and not attacking you. Maybe it sometimes just knocks you down and then goes away, and all of that made sense in the story in the world. I’m not sure I would have wanted Soma released without the ability for the player to die, but at least haven’t felt that pressure to include it for its own sake.

    I think that’s a big lesson learned now that we’re making Amnesia: Rebirth. We’re not overly concerned with feeling that we need to have exact same skills, that we need to have another water lurker monster encounter, and so on. We feel like we can just ask ourselves what’s the intention of this game, and how do we make that intention as good as possible. Obviously, it’s going to be a scary game with scary encounters, but I think it’s very good to think about it in the Soma way where we’re honing in on narrative.

    Because of that, something that Fredrik has been pushing for a lot is a merger between gameplay mechanics, with them feeding into one another. That’s something that I don’t think we’ve done as well in any other game as in this one. It’s going to be more coherent, in terms of, like, what you actually do on a lower level has a very strong narrative and thematic connection with what happens over time in the game.

    That’s a big lesson that we learned from Soma; and it was really scary to do, initially. I remember the team worrying for ages, even into the last year or so of development, saying that they weren’t really sure what was engaging about a game like Soma. How are we going to sell this to people? What are they interested in with this explorable narrative?Now that everyone like has this understanding that people can be very excited about things that go at a slower pace, explore unsettling themes, and striving for insight into certain darker themes, and so on. That you can actually use that as a big driving force. That’s also made us a feel a lot calmer as we do it in Amnesia: Rebirth.

    Yes, you definitely hit on some really uncomfortable themes with Soma that have given me lots of really strange nightmares.

    Olsson: Sorry about that.

    With your monsters, what do you feel is important to get right about a horror antagonist? With your own creature designs?

    Grip: In regards to horror, if you do something that’s too outlandish, players are not going to be frightened by it. If it looks like a flying blob, it’s not terrifying. It has to look familiar. And yet you want to twist it in some way that makes it uncomfortable. That’s really hard because there is a very narrow window in terms of what you can do. There’s a lot of things that have already been done, and just coming up with basic ideas on how these sort of creatures move and react and look in a way that feels fresh but still remains within this sort of uncanny valley. You also need to make sure that they are part of the narrative as well.

    Olsson: If you make a monster that just slaps you in the face, then it won’t feel as as horrible or as as threatening as it could as opposed to something that has a strong connection to the narrative aspects of the game. I think that’s also something we put a lot of effort in with Amnesia: Rebirth.

    Grip: That’s a really good point. Another aspect of that is that once it’s connected to the narrative, you can have a longer build-up. So, if you just have Mr Monster Guy running around because he is the monster guy, it’s very hard for the player have any idea of what they’re up against until they see this monster guy. You want to make sure that you can talk about your monsters, and make the player frightened about your monsters, long before they actually appear.

    Doing that, in an interesting manner, I think is really important. This way, when the monster comes, even if it’s just  a silhouette of a far away monster, it’s not just spooky silhouette, but it has all of these background things loaded into it. Picture it like a drama moment. For the couple to fall in love at the end of a drama, you don’t just have that scene where they fall in love because people are gonna say “I don’t care.” You need to have all of that built up by the narrative. So, the narrative component is extremely important for horror games so the player has that image they’ve built up. Everything that’s visible in-game should always be the tip of the iceberg, and then you build a foundation of all the other things below that which the player comes along with in their encounters.

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    That’s a neat comparison in likening horror to a love story in that like there needs to be this connection and build up within the player at first to really make the monster effective. I feel like that’s what a lot of games similar to yours have missed. When a lot of these similar titles came out, I felt like they had the player being dogged  by some goofy thing. There was little narrative presence to it – no lead up – or anything like that.

    Grip: I think that was why the Slender Man game was so successful. In the game there was nothing, narrative-wise, but it had this rich background from internet creepypasta things. It had a YouTube series about it, and people were talking about it. So, coming into that game, even though we’ve had zero setup, you’re already frightened about him.

    Speaking of that build-up, what do you feel is really important to get right about that first scare in a horror game? That first encounter with the monster?

    Grip: The big thing is I think it should be interactive. So many games have botched it by just having it as a cutscene. I would say that’s the biggest flaw I see in so many amateur horror games. Whoever’s developing it so scared that the player will miss it, and then becomes a big cutscene. It’s one of the biggest moments of your entire game, and games are supposed to be interactive, you decide to just make it into a movie at this critical point.

    Olsson: I think it’s also important not to show too much in the first scare because  it’s it’s usually more frightening not to be able to see all of the details. I think that’s scarier. and it also allows for even more build up afterwards. So, don’t put all your fuel into that first moment.

    Grip: I love the movie Ringu for this reason. The American version doesn’t really have this focus, but in the Japanese one, it’s all one big build up to one scare at the end of the movie. The entire movie doesn’t really care about anything except building up for that one scare – their first monster scare. After that happens, it’s like two minutes and credits roll, which is really cool. That’s the optimal way, really – milking this fear all the way through and then just having this punch in your face at the end. I really love that.

    Yeah, that was an unreal scary movie because it was just tension for an hour and a half. I was honestly relieved when the monster showed up, feeling like “Oh thank god, it’ll kill me now.” Although I was less thrilled when I rolled over on my TV remote that night and woke up to my screen playing static [laughs].

    Grip: That actually fucked me up a bit as well in regards to TV screens. And again, that’s the familiarity aspect. You have a TV screen, and it’s such an everyday thing. Then, suddenly, they twisted that around and made it into a scary thing. It’s very nice nightmare fuel.

    I never thought of it that way until you just mentioned that. It’s just that natural object that, all of a sudden, I have a deep distrust for now. Like how I don’t like the TV on at night anymore.

    Olsson: Our next game will be about the toaster.

    I burned myself on the toaster many a time, so I’m already a little bit scared of it. I have to reach too deep into it to get the bread out.

    Olsson: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. It’s already a monster.

    Getting back on track. How hard is it to handle the beats when the monster isn’t there? It’s also very important to know when to stay quiet and let the player think about what’s going to come.

    Grip: So, I think that if you’re if your approaching it like “Oh fuck, now we have to like stay away from using a monster for 20 minutes. What are we gonna do?” you’re already in trouble. I think a lot of horror games are really lacking in the this sense of a bigger story. It’s so common, and I’m sort of annoyed by it. Horror is such a narrative-based genre, and yet so many games start with you wondering “What am I?” “You’re a person.” “What am I going to do? “Well, you’re going to explore this house.” “Why?” “I don’t know.”

    I think it’s so important to have a narrative that’s floating around and that’s dragging the player along. This is so that, whenever you have a pause, you just continue on the narrative that’s set out. I’m not sure how well we did this with Amnesia: The Dark Descent (although I think we did fairly well, but we could probably do much better these days), but we want to create this story where, even if you feel like you can handle the monsters and not be scared by them, that’s not where the worst fear is gonna be coming from. There shouldn’t be a worry that “Oh no, we don’t have our monster present. What are we going t o scare the player with?” Those should almost be the moments when the player is going to be the most frightened because then they start thinking about these other things that are on a higher narrative level, and those are things that are gonna be really freaking them out.

    Olsson: I think, first of all, you need to make sure you plant the idea of a monster somehow. It could be through a note or whatever. Once you’ve done that, you can kind of go wild. Have a bird noise in a room or an area and the player will wonder “Was that the thing they mentioned in the note?” As long as you’re subtle, and as long as you’re not heavily detailed in the way you’re describing anything or showing anything, I think you can play with people’s heads. You just need to plant the idea of something first, if you’re looking at monsters specifically. Otherwise, I 100% agree with Thomas (Grip) that it’s the narrative aspect, and not the monsters themselves, that should bring you feelings of horror. At least in the games we’re making now.

    Grip: One of the good things about doing Amnesia was that you could do very little and have a big of reaction from the player. I remember still studying early maps and worrying that they could be so boring, nothing happens, and we just played a few footstep sounds and so on. So, we started adding a lot of events, but then it felt wrong, so we got rid of all that.

    Then, we tried it out, and players have gone into this map thinking there’s got to be monsters. It seems like they’re heard them and then they read about them a bit, and then they hear footstep sounds. From these footsteps, which are just a sound file playing, people can have 10 minutes of gameplay where they’re thinking “Oh fuck, what was that? I’m going to sneak around the corner. No, no, better run and hide in a closet.” So, you get a lot from nothing. As Fredrik said, we’re only planting this idea, and then you inject the player with a little bit at a time, giving them something remind them about this again, and they play out all the motions all in their imagination. It’s really interesting, although it’s  really hard to sustain it well over a long time. You have to be very careful when the player has seen the monsters 20 times before, as they’re not going to react in this way. But overall, you can do a lot of things there.

    Olsson: The players fill in their own blanks. I think the best example, when it comes to not showing too much details of the monster, is the water lurker, which, for many players, was the worst monster in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And you barely see it – just flashes. And it made it so that, the next time a player walked in and saw water, they were like “Oh shit, not water again!”

    There’s such a strength in not showing things, and I kind of worry about other horror games. What I’ve seen in a lot of trailers for horror games now is that, in the very first trailer, show off too much of the monster. To me, that is a bit of a mistake, because you want to build on the mystery surrounding this monster and the experience you’re gonna have with it. Maybe don’t show off the the monsters in the trailer. I mean, We kind of leave it as late as we can before we show anything too detailed. If you’ve seen our announcement trailer for Amnesia: Rebirth, for example we don’t show any of that. You can hear some of it, maybe, but nothing more. So

    All you want is that hint of what it could be.

    Olsson: Yeah. That wondering about how does it move? What does it look like? What will it do to me if it grabs me?

    That playing around with the mind can make for interesting horror. Here’s a ridiculous story. After beating it, I played Soma on Safe Mode. I knew the monsters couldn’t kill me, but the whole time, I wondered “What if they put in one instance where it does it kill you?” There’s always that feeling of distrust and dread. You get wound so tight in your head that you cannot quite let go of your fear.

    Grip: That’s awesome. That moment is very crucial in horror: what happens when the player comes to the very end and stares their fears in the face? Often that’s it. There’s this great quote from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but you open the door and you see a 10 meter cockroach, then you say to yourself “Well, at least it’s not a 20 meter cockroach.” It’s a player’s imagination that can provide the greatest terrors. It’s hard to top that. But we’re finding many interesting ways to do that in Amnesia: Rebirth.

    Joel Couture
    Joel has been covering indie games for various sites including IndieGamesPlus, IndieGames.com, Siliconera, Gamasutra, Warp Door, CG Magazine, GameDaily, and more over the years, and has written book-length studies on Undertale, P.T., Friday the 13th, and Kirby's Dream Land.