In March 2020, Swedish studio Frictional Games unexpectedly returned to the gaming industry’s radars with the announcement of the first-person horror game Amnesia: Rebirth, which will be the sequel to their hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Rebirth will be the first release by Frictional Games since the release of SOMA in 2015, and according to the developers, there are two more titles in development along with it at various stages.
Penumbra: Overture (2007)
Frictional Games was born in 2006 in the Swedish city of Helsingborg after a tech demo of Penumbra was downloaded by over a million people over the summer. By that time, game designers Thomas Grip and Jens Nilsson had already managed to get their hands on several student projects and decided to link their lives with video games. In August, they announced on their website that they had begun work on a commercial version of Penumbra.
Lexicon Entertainment became the publisher of Penumbra: Overture, and the game itself was originally supposed to be released in episodes. Only four people were involved in the development of the title, with the exception of help from freelancers, many of whom later joined the main staff of the studio.
According to the story, the protagonist, physicist Philippe Lafresque, receives a letter from his father shortly after the death of his mother, who disappeared many years ago. The message leads Philip to an abandoned mine in Greenland, where he will have to solve more than one riddle in order to survive without losing his mind.
The authors made many changes to the tech demo, including improved lighting, physics, enemy AI, and adding a combat system. Despite the presence of the latter, in Overture the player must rely primarily on stealth rather than dueling with monsters.
The developers gave Philip a semblance of a weapon, hoping that it would only be used for defense. However, some players decided that since Overture has a combat system, it should not be so primitive. Actually, this moment became the main reason for complaints from critics, but in general, the title was received much warmer than the developers expected.
Despite some success, Frictional Games soon had problems with the publisher, who, according to the developers, did not pay the studio the necessary amount of money, and could have paid even less if the developers had not given an ultimatum. In mid-2007, it became known that further parts of the Penumbra series would be presented by the publisher Paradox Interactive.
Penumbra: Black Plague (2008)
In Black Plague, the developers did not want to be content with small improvements, and set themselves the goal of completely ridding the sequel of the weaknesses of the debut part. Of course, first of all, it was about the combat system, because Frictional Games from the very beginning tried to motivate the player to use ingenuity, rather than attack the enemy.
In Overture, the developers deliberately made Philip feel uncomfortable in battle, because he is not a fighter, but a scientist. However, the reviews were so negative that Black Plague’s combat system was cut to the bone. Now Philip could only try to stun the enemy by throwing an object at him. The decision made made development easier and the game itself scarier.
In addition, Frictional Games has significantly increased the interactivity of the setting. The developers wanted the player to use inventory as little as possible while solving puzzles, and to interact with the environment as much as possible.
Much more attention was paid to the voice acting. In the first part, only one character spoke with the protagonist, but in Black Plague about five people speak with Philip, who were voiced not only by professional actors, but by ordinary freelancers from the Internet.
Black Plague is still considered the best game in the Penumbra series, and it is considered that it was in it that Frictional Games found its own formula for horror from the point of view of the victim. The leap forward in Black Plague is also due to the fact that the developers didn’t reinvent everything, but continued to build on the foundation of Overture.
Penumbra: Requiem (2008)
In April 2008, an expansion for Black Plague called Penumbra: Requiem was announced. Thus, the developers wanted to give the players the final details of the story along with a new set of puzzles.
While in Overture the developers focused on the fear of isolation, and in Black Plague on paranoia, in Requiem they focused on solving puzzles and tried to get the most out of their HPL Engine 1.
Requiem was received much worse than its predecessors, but by that time Frictional Games was already closely preparing to introduce a new series.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
In March 2009, Frictional Games released a teaser trailer for Amnesia: The Dark Descent, previously referred to simply as “Unknown”. In it, the developers revealed the style of the future title, and also demonstrated the capabilities of the new HPL Engine 2, which took the first year of development to create.
In Amnesia, the developers wanted to continue the theme of horror (https://www.overclockers.ua/games/horror-video-games-scary-movies) without violence, and Brennenburg Castle, which combines architectural styles from different eras, was chosen as the setting. The game begins with the fact that the main character Daniel wakes up in one of the corridors of the castle and remembers absolutely nothing. Soon he will find an explanation note written by himself, which will send him deep underground to meet with the main antagonist, Baron Alexander.
Although the company was not yet financially independent at the time, Overture’s digital sales, a grant from the Nordic Game Program, and collaboration with Reachin Technologies allowed the developers to fund the development on their own. In turn, this meant that they would receive a larger percentage of the publisher’s profits from every copy of the game sold.
Initially, the developers intended to bring back weapons for protection, but faced the same problems as in Overture. Someone considered the resulting combat system too easy, and someone could not use it at all. Instead, they decided to make the player especially vulnerable and remove the weapons. The developers wanted to build the gameplay on the play of light and darkness, but they only managed to do this after they added the ability to lose their minds. Encounters with enemies and a long stay in the dark slowly drive Daniel crazy, worsening his vision and hearing.
Four months after the release, almost two hundred thousand copies were sold, despite the fact that the developers expected to sell half as much. The developers noted that if they took money from the publisher, then for the same period they would only have time to pay off their debts, and the percentage of their profits would be several times less.
With the release of Amnesia, Frictional Games finally achieved what it took four years to achieve – complete financial stability. There was enough money to finance the development of the next game without again asking for help from investors. Frictional Games has gone from an unreliable startup to a real career for a few people. Now the developers were ready to take risks without fear of going bankrupt.
It is worth noting that a large portion of the game’s success was brought by its modifications. At the last moment, the developers decided to add the ability to create their own stories to the title and did not fail. Amnesia has become the second most popular game on Mod DB with over 600 mods created to date. Fan creations brought extra attention to the original, as did the countless Youtube letsplays.
In 2018, Frictional Games released the Amnesia Collection, which featured a particularly difficult The Dark Descent mode. In it, monsters act faster and notice the player more easily, and autosave is disabled.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (2013)
Frictional Games’ first experiment was a collaboration with The Chinese Room, which developed Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
A Machine for Pigs was originally going to be a short title released on Halloween in 2012, but the ideas behind The Chinese Room convinced Frictional Games, which produced and published the project, that more development time should be allocated. The resulting title is significantly different from The Dark Descent and does not continue the storyline of the original.
This time the protagonist is the wealthy industrialist Oswald Mandus. Having fallen ill with a fever while traveling to Mexico in 1899, Mandus at some point loses his memory, and now he has to remember everything about himself and his family.
“A Machine for Pigs has almost nothing to do with The Dark Descent in terms of story or mechanics. She just continued to explore the themes and atmosphere of the first part, ”said Grip.
As a result, the players were satisfied with the atmosphere and plot, but complained about the short duration and linearity.
One of the only disappointments with Amnesia was that the developers weren’t able to talk to the player about more serious and in-depth topics. This point was to be corrected by their next project.
SOMA Frictional Games decided to tell a story and reflect on what it means to be human. The title slowly immerses the player in the concepts conceived by the authors, creating the necessary atmosphere and inducing a certain state of mind.
According to the story, the player finds himself “buried” at the bottom of the ocean at the underwater station PATHOS-II, which is the last refuge of mankind after the destruction of the Earth by a comet. In an attempt to find the truth behind all the chaos, the player will have to explore mysterious locations, studying various documents and avoiding unexplained creatures.
After nearly five years of development, SOMA is finally in beta. In 2015, Frictional Games went to E3 for the first time, where they showed the public a demo and a trailer for the game.
Almost 100 thousand copies were sold in the first 10 days, which is five times more than The Dark Descent. Interestingly, SOMA lost out to A Machine For Pigs, as the latter sold 120,000 copies in its first week.
Grip was worried that the game’s theme would not be received well by the public, but the problems were mainly due to the fact that many players found the title not scary enough. According to the developers, this was due to high expectations and the studio’s past in the form of Penumbra and Amnesia titles.
“SOMA takes a risky approach to gameplay that requires the player to figure out how the monsters behave. Otherwise, the whole experience suffers. The main source of tension in SOMA is existential fear, which we slowly immerse the player in, ”explained Grip.
According to the authors, the main problem with SOMA is that the game balances between two genres. Nevertheless, Frictional Games has shown the industry that it is ready to work with different genres.
In 2017, SOMA made its way to Xbox One, on the occasion of which the developers added a new mode “Safe Mode”, which later appeared on other platforms. In this mode, the developers have reworked the behavior of creatures so that they do not attack the player, allowing him to safely explore all locations. This was done to please the part of the audience that wanted to focus on the psychological sci-fi story and not waste time playing hide-and-seek with the enemies.
The history of SOMA has led to the fact that for the first time the studio, which has grown to 25 people, is engaged in the development of two projects at the same time. One of them was supposed to be horror, which, apparently, will be Rebirth. The developers hope that this approach will allow them to release games every two to three years starting in 2020.
“After we release Rebirth this year, most of the team will focus on the next project, which is currently in pre-production,” Grip promised.
As for Rebirth itself, the developers warn that while the game is a step up from The Dark Descent, fans shouldn’t expect a gameplay revolution.
“It was really cool to finally release the trailer and feel like a game developer again,” concluded Grip.