Frictional (So Far)

by Arthur B

An overview of the work of Swedish survival horror adventure specialists Frictional Games.
After a series of frustrating encounters with horror-based first person adventure games such as Barrow Hill, Scratches and Dark Fall, various folk started recommending Amnesia: the Dark Descent to me. Amnesia is the latest release by Frictional Games, a group of Swedish independent developers who so far have been fairly dedicated to carving out a niche in 3D first person survival horror - to the extent that their in-house 3D engine is named the HPL engine after Lovecraft. Adventure games of the sort that have been marketed directly to adventure gamers have often shied away from implementing proper 3D engines - aside from the expenses and time involved, such things often lend themselves to action games and require hand-eye co-ordination on the part of players, both of which are anathema to hardcore adventure gamers. However, Frictional's Penumbra series, which they debuted with, seems to have mainly had a warm reception amongst the adventure game community, and Amnesia managed to generate a buzz well beyond that subculture and won a more widespread audience.

With Frictional working on an as-yet untitled new horror game, it's high time I started paying attention to them. Although they debuted with the Penumbra series, I'm going to review their back catalogue in the order I played it in - Amnesia first, followed by the Penumbra games.

Amnesia: the Dark Descent

Amnesia: the Dark Descent sprinkles along some grimdark complicity nonsense late in the game, but for the most part it's a very old school horror story; the scares come less from discovering that horrible evils the protagonist has committed and which he's forgotten about, and more from spooky alien artifacts, grotesque warping of reality by Lovecraftian horrors, and foreboding environments.

Plus a hide-and-seek-based style of gameplay.

You play Daniel, a man who wakes up one day in 1839 in a crumbling German castle with a bad case of - as the title implies - amnesia. Early on you discover a note you wrote to yourself before you did something which made you forget. The note tells you that there is a Shadow chasing you, a Shadow which warps and transforms reality itself, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. All you can do is head downwards and seek out the castle's Inner Sanctum, where the letter tells you a certain Baron Alexander of Brennenburg is lurking - and there, you have to kill him. As you progress through the castle you find more and more documents outlining what sort of person the Baron is, how the Shadow latched onto you, what the Baron hopes to gain from helping you, and what depths you personally sank to in order to clutch onto a few more days of life. (Why yes, The Dark Descent does have a double meaning, how'd you guess?)

If you take out the hide-and-seek, you'd quickly discover that Amnesia is actually a Myst-style first-person point-and-click adventure game which takes full advantage of the fact that it has a proper 3D engine (complete with simulated physics). Instead of locking you into moving between predetermined points by clicking about the screen, the game lets you move around and orient your viewpoint as you wish; this is not revolutionary in most genres, but it's a novelty for independently produced adventure games. As well as picking up important items (including means of fuelling your lantern or lighting the candles or torches you find around the place), you can also pick up and toss around junk you find around the place, which ends up playing a role in some of the puzzles. Most importantly, rather than presenting a mostly-static universe in which for the most part things only move when you interact with them, Frictional can present the player with a far more immersive experience, with monsters wandering around and breezes blowing open doors and fog swirling around and grotesque masses of flesh pulsating at you.

It's the monsters people talk about in relation to Amnesia, and with good reason. The noises they make are absolutely grotesque, the way they move is deeply disturbing (still shots of them tend to look rather goofy but trust me, there's nothing funny about them in the game), but the most terrifying thing about them is that you can't fight them. You don't have any weapons in the game at all or any capacity to use them, and if the things see you and catch up with you they'll kill you very, very quickly. Consequently, your only hope is to hide - if you see that one's nearby, or if (even worse) one of them starts chasing you, you need to find somewhere nice and obscure (and, preferably, dark) in order to hide until they stomp away. The great success of the developers is how effectively they've been able to exploit all the different moods of horror - you've got jump scares making you panic, you've got the anxiety as you hide and wait for one of the creatures to either find you or go away, and you've got the slow dread of exploring the castle and discovering increasingly disturbing things about your predicament and your past.

An extra twist of the knife is offered by the sanity system, whereby various things - witnessing supernatural events or looking at the monsters in particular - will end up wearing down Daniel's state of mind. This includes lurking about in the dark, which is precisely what you need to do in order to avoid the monsters, so the very thing which gets you a brief amount of physical safety also slowly eats away your mental well-being. As your sanity decreases the graphics get more and more distorted, you start seeing hallucinatory things (there's at least one corpse in the game which only appears if your sanity is low) and control of Daniel becomes more difficult as he lurches about the place. To regain sanity you need to either make progress in the game or light some of the light sources available - thus decreasing your zones of physical safety - which means that there were points in the game where, as a result of my sanity bottoming out, I ended up reeling around the room obsessively lighting candles.

(Actually, the light mechanic is something which highlights a disadvantage of the 3D engine used - you can pick up all sorts of junk, but you can't pick up, say, a candle or a torch, no matter how useful this might be when you're low on lamp-oil....)

One of the nice things about the sanity system, actually, is the restraint shown with it. Unlike Eternal Darkness, you don't get any hallucinations which are so clearly beyond the bounds of possibility that they become laughable; nor are there any of the effects which clearly don't originate in the game's reality, like the fake Blue Screen of Death in Eternal Darkness. In the absence of these crimes against immersion, the sanity system does a good job of conveying the effects of bowel-liquifying panic on Daniel.

In fact, for most of its running time the game does an excellent job of immersing the player in its world; the puzzles, in particular, are usually pitched at just the right level to keep the player worried without becoming obnoxious roadblocks. For my part I found that this changed in the last period of the game, where the puzzles ramp up in difficulty slightly. I spent a good long time wandering around aimlessly looking for a way to open a couple of doors when the means required were actually found through a trapdoor in the ceiling tucked away in an obscure corner of the room, for instance, and not only did spending so long without triggering any monster attacks rob the game of its tension but my dwindling supplies of lamp oil prompted to go look up a walkthrough, because I realised if I didn't solve the puzzle quickly I'd run out of lamp oil and the game had trained me to equate that with being screwed. Other times I consulted the walkthrough it turned out that the problem was I'd missed the fact that you could interact with something - some of the hotspots for interactable objects are sufficiently small that it can be fiddly to use them and easy to miss the fact that you can do stuff with them at all. Both of these factors ended up sapping the momentum of the game in its last phases, and maintaining a tense atmosphere requires that you keep up momentum. In addition, I found the very final room - Alexander's Inner Sanctum itself - to be massively anticlimactic, looking more like a location from a fantasy game than a horror game that supposedly takes place in the real world.

These quibbles aside, though, Frictional have done a masterful job with Amnesia - or at any rate, a good enough job that inspired me to check out the Penumbra trilogy. The bad news about the upcoming sequel is that it was made by the developers of Dear Esther; the good news is that the sequel is entitled Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, a name which suggests Ed-Gein-partying-with-Pyramid-Head levels of nastiness.

Penumbra: Overture

Overture is, as the title implies, a taster before the main course which encapsulates some of the major themes and ideas of the series. Offering a more modern-day setting, the game casts you as the recently bereaved Philip, who receive a mysterious letter from his father Howard shortly after his mother's funeral. This letter is notable for two things: firstly, Philip's father disappeared thirty years ago, and was legally declared dead some time back. Secondly, it urges Philip to go and retrieve some documents from a safety deposit box held in Howard's name - which, as his named executor, Philip is able to access - and burn them. Naturally, Philip's curiosity about the father he never knew and the contents of the documents means he does no such thing. Although the content of many of them stumps the linguists at the university where Philip works, Philip is able to work out that they seem to relate to a mysterious location somewhere in the snowbound wastes reaches of northern Greenland.

When he reaches the area, Philip stumbles across a mysterious hatch which leads into an underground mining complex. The mine seems to have been used for various purposes over the decades - for instance, it was a secret airfield during World War II, during which archaeological finds were uncovered which seem to have been the impetus for further and deeper delving. The abandoned mine is a dangerous place, however: between regular cave-ins, strange voices, grotesque monsters and aggressive mutant dogs, Philip has his work cut out if he's going to reach the inner sanctum that conceals the answers to his questions - and as the opening crawl (in the form of an e-mail written by Philip to an unknown recipient) implies, he isn't going to like the answers when he finds them.

Overture's main achievement is the way it pioneers the avoidance-based gameplay that would be the hallmark of Amnesia. The prowling dogs who are the enemy you tangle with most regularly are actually vulnerable to your weapons, and I understand that they can even (under some circumstances) be killed, but the combat system presented here is so awkward and cumbersome that if you get into a fight you have already lost. Hiding, sneaking, and occasionally just plain running for it are more the order of the day as you explore the territory here. This will all, of course, be familiar to anyone who played Amnesia (there's even the same game mechanic where the protagonist starts to panic if they look directly at the doggies), and to be fair the protagonist does think to themselves that they don't actually want a stand-up fight, though this could have been communicated more clearly.

"Could have been communicated more clearly" is a theme which also relates to the save point mechanic in this, actually. Although the game periodically automatically saves when you make significant progress, you can also save the game by touching artifacts found throughout the complex. The problem is that the game never actually tells you this, presumably out of some desire to avoid breaking immersion (which would be a little hypocritical given that it's otherwise happy to discuss its control system with you early on). Of course, it's possible that this is all explained in the manual, but Overture came out in 2007, well into the era when manuals are basically non-essential accessories and we really expect all the manual information to be communicated through the game. (There also seems to be some plot significance to the artifacts, which contributed to my confusion: usually save points don't have any extra significance beyond that.)

The gameplay here is also less polished than that of Amnesia. In Amnesia, the puzzles were clearly the focus; here, the game divides its attention between inventory-based puzzles, physics puzzles where you have to engage with the physics engine to accomplish stuff, hybrids of the two, and occasionally profoundly irritating action sequences. Two of these - a chase where you are fleeing a giant worm and a bit where you have to carry a beaker full of a very, very volatile explosive over a gulf before gently sliding it into place - are especially irritating because they require precision platforming of a sort first-person games aren't really good at implementing (especially when controlled with keyboard and mouse rather than a gamepad).

The flask-carrying bit is especially irritating because the flask isn't abstracted away as an inventory item - you have to hold it in front of you and avoid touching anything with it, which in practice means your angle of view with it is severely limited because you can't look down to check your footing without clonking it on the floor and blowing yourself up. (Indeed, several times I blew myself up simply lifting the thing off its bunsen burner.) In a particularly sadistic move the place you are meant to put the flask isn't even clearly indicated, so you have to gingerly wave it in the vicinity of some rocks until the game takes over and smoothly puts it in place.

As far as scares go, the mine is for the most part not an especially atmospheric location and eventually gets quite generic - lots of corridors and crates, big whoop - though the various documents you find do a good job of implying that there's something truly awful down there without directly spelling it out or giving away all the mysteries. And the hide-and-seek based gameplay with the dog never stops being terrifying.

On the whole, Overture is a patchy affair, but it's a very impressive accomplishment for a team of just four people and was more than good enough to get me hooked on the series, so I pressed on hoping that Black Plague wouldn't drop the ball.

Penumbra: Black Plague

Because I live in an insufferably imperfect world which conspires to disappoint and betray me and where nothing and nobody ever lives up to my expectations, Black Plague dropped the ball.

Specifically, Black Plague is the point where Frictional decided to drop their original episodic release plan for the Penumbra series and just blast through the rest of their intended plot in one spurt. Having penetrated the Shelter, a high security research base hidden in the mine, Philip finally gets a few answers about his mysterious father; it turns out our man Howard was a linguistics expert and a member of a secret society known as the Archaic, founded by one of Leonardo da Vinci's apprentices in order to study, control, suppress and defend humanity against alien technology. As with all such institutions in horror stories, their grasp of safety procedures would shame a layperson, let alone a trained professional, so the base has been decimated by an alien virus.

But is it just a virus? As well as transforming the base's inhabitants into alien forms more pleasing to it (spoiler: they're basically Greys), the virus seems to be conscious, with its victims becoming part of a telepathic hive mind. Philip himself has become infected, though something seems to have gone wrong with his infection - the voice in his head shows too much personality and individuality to be part of the hive mind, even though it yearns to be rejoined with the collective and does not have Philip's best interests at heart. Somehow, Philip has to find a way to cure himself and face down the collective - but when the virus can control his very perception of reality, is that even possible?

In some respects I don't envy Frictional their task in writing Black Plague. They have clearly had to contract the storyline radically, and whilst they just about manage to keep the story coherent the contraction is notable in some places; for instance, there's some hyping up of the Tomb the virus was released from, but you never actually visit it, and when you correlate that with the way you abruptly transition from curing your dose of the virus to confronting the collective in its own mindscape I have to wonder whether the planned third chapter was going to cover tracking down and breaking into the tomb to confront the collective, with this chapter concluding after you cure your infection.

However, the largest problem with the writing this time around isn't the contraction of the plot, it's the way that Frictional lose all control of the tone of the game. That impressively scary atmosphere from Overture makes occasional returns, but other times the writing is so silly and comedic that it sabotages the game's attempts at horror. Between the Dan Brown backstory of the Archaic, the heavy-handed and unsubtle gags in the Archaic's internal documents and computer systems (which come across as a clumsy attempt to mimic Valve's writing in Half-Life - not a smart move when your premise and setting already feel a little unoriginal) and the way your dose of the virus calls itself Clarence and makes snide and sarcastic comments throughout the game, the writing rapidly moves well out of the zone where horror-comedy mashups works and into "too stupid to be scary" territory.

The tweaks to the monsters don't help either. Responding to feedback, the developers removed the combat system entirely this time, which for the most part is welcome though does result in some awkward kludges in instances where you actually need to bash something inanimate to progress - whereas before you could quite simply bash the item in question with a hammer, now you need to wrangle random bits of trash and try to get the angle on it right and generally fuss about, all the while wondering whether you're actually hitting the right thing. This proved to be a speed bump to me on more than one occasion.

However, the main reason for removing combat was sound: fighting the monsters in Overture was a mess and a hassle and usually didn't work, whereas sneaking, hiding, and running like crazy was an adrenaline-pumping experience every time. That's cool, and it'd be especially cool if we were still running away from those awful, awful doggies. That isn't the case any more; instead, we're being chased by Greys, and if that sounds disappointing it is. Moreover, we're being chased by Greys who can't really keep up with us and who are often found waving around a flashlight and yelling stuff like "Hey! Get back here!", so suddenly it feels less like I am being stalked by an inhuman horror and more like I'm running away from an incompetent security guard from Roswell. Whereas I found both the dogs in Overture and the creatures in Amnesia unsettling enough to be scared of them, the creatures here I don't even respect.

Penumbra: Requiem

Requiem is where all semblance of plot or atmosphere go out of the window, though to be fair to Frictional they had actually run out of story at this point; indeed, it's presented as an expansion pack to Black Plague rather than a standalone game and tends to be bundled with recent editions of Black Plague, which is fair enough - certainly, I'd be very angry if I bought it expecting a full-fledged entry in the series.

So, the end of Black Plague has Philip sending an Apocalypse Now-esque "DROP THE BOMB - EXTERMINATE THEM ALL" message to the outside world, and as Requiem starts we see him knocked unconscious by one of the aliens he's just horribly betrayed. When he wakes up, he finds himself deep inside some hidden ancient structure deep within the Shelter.

At this point, aside from a few voices in Philip's head (Clarence, thankfully, isn't among them) and some documents you find lying around, most pretence at any sort of plot is dropped. (The endings suggest that this might all be a dying hallucination of Philip's, in fact, so the lack of plot at least makes sense - the story's over and has been over for a good long while.) Likewise, the concept that you are exploring a real location is more or less dispensed with; instead, you're presented with an unabashedly videogame-like series of disconnected levels (the Archaic automated PA system even declares "level complete!" sometimes when you unlock the teleporter to the next level). Your task is to complete a series of physics engine-based puzzles and collect tokens in order to collect tokens (glowy spheres) to open the way to the next level, regularly cajoled along by the whimsical commentary offered by the disembodied female AI voice of the PA system and if that sounds a lot like Portal that's no coincidence. The game seems to have been consciously designed as though it is a version of Portal without the portal gun, right down to faltering, unconvincing attempts to mimic Portal's writing. (There's even some teleportation-based puzzles, plus a distinctive sphere which accompanies you on a couple of levels, Companion Cube style.)

If you approach the game like it's nothing more than a puzzle game, and provided that you really like occasionally frustrating physics puzzles, Requiem isn't a complete waste of time and the game does at least show some imagination when it comes to the aesthetics of the different areas and coming up with puzzles suitable to each area. On the other hand, if you were hoping for a continuation of the plot or something which tonally fits in with the rest of the series, Requiem will probably just annoy you with how silly it gets. (How silly is that? Let's just say that one level includes a 3D implementation of Donkey Kong, sans ape.) In particular, the shift to 100% puzzle-based play - there isn't a single enemy to play hide-and-seek with this time - means that not only is Requiem not very scary, it also doesn't feel much like a Penumbra game. Apparently, Frictional decided to make the expansion partly to provide some closure and development on some of the characters from the earlier games, and partly to make a puzzle-based game which would show off the technical capabilities of the HPL Engine; whilst it's a mild success as a puzzle game, that puzzle game didn't really need to be joined at the hip with Penumbra, and showing off the capabilities of your physics engine is what tech demos are for. As far as providing closure for characters goes, it's a miserable failure - particularly since character development hadn't been the games' strong point so far, so it's not as though as a player I felt any need for closure in the first place.

Ultimately, I have to take the Penumbra series as a whole as a bit of a failure; it had an excellent setup in the form of Overture, but a truly lousy ending in Black Plague and there's no really compelling reason for Requiem to exist. The nicest thing I can say about the series is that it provided a testing ground for ideas which reached their fullest potential in Amnesia, but now we have Amnesia I see little compelling reason to revisit it.

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Comments (go to latest) at 23:41 on 2013-07-14
I'm something of a distant admirer of Frictional in that I think their games are fine and worthy accomplishments but I'm entirely too much of a wimp to play them. Anything that involves running away from something in a game elevates my heart rate to dangerous levels. That bit in Half Life 2 Episode 2 with the giant antlion took about ten years off my life.

Still, I'm interested to see what A Machine For Pigs will be like. The art style and design looks quite pretty.
Cheriola at 00:48 on 2013-07-15
I'm not much of a fan of horror games (I don't scare easily, so they're mostly rather boring), but I've watched a couple of Amnesia Let's Plays. Interestingly, most players seem to deal with the fear (and possibly the forced complicity) by refusing to fully immerse and play as Daniel and playing as his snarky, morally disappointed guardian angel instead. Or as a symptom of his insanity, like a voice in his head.

I'm curious, since you don't mention the (to me) obvious parallels in terms of game play and the little tricks of immersive atmosphere (for example the monsters that just move wrong, or the whole sound design): Have you ever entered the Shalebridge Cradle?

That level may not have been quite as bad as Amnesia, as the darkness stays your friend, but on the other hand, you don't really expect to suddenly be left helpless and scared in a Thief game, so it has more impact. (Getting into hands-on combat is always suicidal in Thief games and your only chance of surviving being caught by anyone is to run away and hide, but there's a certain sense of power inherent in being able to shoot someone from the shadows, even if you don't actually plan to do so.) I didn't find the Cradle quite as terrifying as other players apparently did, but even I got so unnerved that I eventually just said "Fuck it! Just kill them! Kill them with fire!" (I usually try very hard to ghost Thief games without spilling any blood or even being noticed.) And then even that wasn't an option any more... at 01:14 on 2013-07-15
I kind of wish I could experience Amnesia properly. Unfortunately, I suspect I know too much. I've seen quite a lot of admiration for Amnesia, and I've also seen a fair amount of embarrassingly exaggerated reaction videos where people fall over themselves to show how terrified they are. And I've seen still photos of the main enemies, so I know what they actually look like.

Which means that when I tried the Amnesia demo, it was with an attitude of "Okay, what have you really got? Can you prove yourself?" which, unfairly enough for the game, is not particularly conducive to being scared.

In particular, the floor-is-lava segment they included the demo was just :|
Arthur B at 10:06 on 2013-07-15
Interestingly, most players seem to deal with the fear (and possibly the forced complicity) by refusing to fully immerse and play as Daniel and playing as his snarky, morally disappointed guardian angel instead. Or as a symptom of his insanity, like a voice in his head.

Heh, this is kind of another reason why I found Clarence irritating in Penumbra: Black Plague: players are going to make snarky comments as they play anyway, you don't need a character who comes along to do that for them.
Jamie Johnston at 21:06 on 2013-07-17
Goodness, a review of one of the embarrassingly small number of games I've actually played! I wouldn't normally have gone for a horror game but Amnesia came in a recent Humble Bundle and I enjoyed it. The scares are pretty effective and the atmosphere is well sustained, as you say. A satisfying variety of different and interesting locations.

I found the emerging backstory a bit incoherent and unengaging, though I can't explain why because I've now almost completely forgotten it — which itself says something. Definitely agree about the anticlimactic end bit.

I wouldn't play it again because, fundamentally, I don't greatly enjoy being scared, and for the same reason I'm quite glad to learn that it's a good example of the genre, because I now don't feel very much need to try any others. :)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 03:44 on 2013-09-16
So, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, or Hamnesia, as it is called in the common vernacular, has been out for about a week now, and the reaction in the tiny corner of the internet I still read game news in has been...well, rather mixed. The consensus seems to be that the game's overall design seems to be an amalgam of A:TDD and Dear Esther, with a slant more towards the latter. The main complaint I've heard is that the game feels more like a tour than TDD did, and a fair chunk of the mechanics from the first game (sanity level, inventory, finite personal light source) have been left out.

Honestly, these changes actually make me want to try it out. Never was a fan of most survival horror mechanics, really.
Jules V.O. at 17:07 on 2013-09-16
It's very streamlined. For example, the light source is strictly an increased visibility vs better hiding state toggle, and I totally get the mixed reaction, because that simplicity is better gameplay, but the unlimited resource *does* reduce the level of anxiety involved. I suspect the response has to do with individual tolerances for anxiety. I'm a bit of a lightweight personally, and the atmosphere of the Dark Descent had me at saturation well before conserving lamp oil became a factor, so I appreciate the change, but a more hardened individual could certainly miss it.

The lack of health/sanity meters is a similar sort of trade, where the extra anxiety from having to manage slow depletion of resources is exchanged for a more immersive experience, since the player doesn't have to periodically flick to an obviously computer-gamey inventory screen to measure their brain integrity and can just get on with exploring the environment.

Of course, I think some of the negative response is simple rejection of difference. Machine for Pigs actually is a very different kind of horror from Dark Descent, at least as far as I've gotten in it. There's a lot less being stalked by monsters, and a lot more subtle messing with your head, in a way that makes you second-guess yourself *all the time.* 'Wait, I don't think I closed that door behind me...'
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:36 on 2013-09-17
The subtler mind games are much more the forte of thechineseroom's previous work. Korsakovia was an unplayable mess, but it did have some interesting ideas in what I like to call "attrition horror," things that aren't terribly scary initially but slowly grind you down. The narration was particularly good at this; the game initially starts with the player in a delusional world with narration from the "outside world", but as the game progresses the narration is hijacked and incorporated into the delusional world.

It also liked to scream static at you every so often, which was less cool.
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