The Rebirth of Frictional Games’ Amnesia

Amnesia: Rebirth just released, it might be good to remember that the franchise is comprised of two games and a stand alone DLC.

The broken interior of a an antique cockpit. Light rays are coming through a darkened broken windshield…
Still taken from the Amesia: Rebirth Trailer

The 20th of October has passed and gone, leaving a third Amnesia instalment inits putrid mist. What horrors lurk in the desert of Algeria? are already wondering eager fans, but you may not be one of those. Maybe you don’t even know what Amnesia is, or maybe you are a horror fan, you just came here wondering how the previous instalments were made.

Let me tell you, you came to the right place.

A hallway, moonlight shines through the window. Candle lights red curtains and a delicate ornate carpet sits on the floor.
Still taken from Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released on September 8th 2010. It is a survival horror game developed by Frictional Games, a small Swedish studio, which, at the time, had only three games under its belt and still revolutionized the survival horror genre and aslo the gaming landscape at the same time. With its simple story, Daniel, a male character wakes up in a dark hallway of a German Castle in the 18th century. Rendered totally amnesiacn he now tries to piece together his life in this dark place. Truth is, it would be pretty easy to assume the game was anything but special.

Thomas Grip and Jens Nillson founded Frictional Games in 2007. Soon the studio began working on its first series: Penumbra. This franchise would get three instalments and it is in the run of its development that pieces of what would become Amnesia begin to shine. In the first game, Frictional tried to implement a combat system which did not work to their liking. Listening to Thomas Grip, you’ll discover that if given the means players will blindly try to kill whatever gets in their way. It’s a problem, the Swedish studio solved by not implementing any combat mechanics in the following sequels, an idea they would get back to in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

This was one of the first step towards Amnesia, you see, following legal problems with their first publisher, Lexicon Entertainment, Frictional Games, four people at the time, knew they had to be working directly after the release of their second instalment on a new game. This leap of faith, in their eyes, would ensure their survival. Or so they thought.

Frictional Games wanted to make another horror game; it was a genre the four of them felt they could handle. Pretty soon in the development came the idea of Mario-like game with a Hub leading to sublevels which could be played as small pieces of a greater experience. They also wanted to make something which would reminiscent to players of torture porn, a type of movies pretty popular at the time. Soon, the team agreed on a 18th century setting and asked for a grant it did get.

At first, the game was called Lux Tenebrae, before its title was turned into Unknown. Listening to the commentary the studio offered to make if they ever got 2000 preorders, you can hear Grip saying that in the really early drafts, Daniel wasn’t even amnesiac. Knowing this, it becomes safe to assume that once the story got set is where the final title appeared. Still, the company had no publisher for this game, and lived on the 40,000€ grant they once got. With this, the team implemented combat and various form of gameplays, hoping complexity would make their creation less boring. It did not, it just burned thorugh their funds.

To solve this, Frictional entered a deal with Paradigm Interactive, which had published the last two instalments of the Penumbra franchise. Alas, this fell through. Having not much money left, the company got saved by a Steam Sale of their previous series, which then lead them to enter a Humble Bundle deal..

Thanks to this albeit small glimmer of hope, the team then decided to change the scope of their game. Gone was the open-world formula, the Hubs, the combat system. In a recent interview, Thomas Grip stated that the infamous rape scene from Silent Hill 2 was sort of the inspiration behind it all. In the aforementioned scene, James, the main protagonist stumbles upon Pyramid-Head abusing some enemies, the hero then decides to hide in a closet while the creature passes him; the player regain control once the coast is clear. According to the game designer, while watching this scene, he wished to have been playing all along, hence why Amnesia: The Dark Descent is mostly about stumbling onto creatures and having to hide in closets or dark rooms. Truth is, Frictionnal even went on to recreate this precise scene in a now classic moment of Amnesia: the Dark Descent.

The trimming of already implemented features seems to have been hard for the skeleton crew, something which can perfectly be understood. But tyring to male the game easier to make also led to great creation, such as the Gatherers becoming human-like, see Penumbra’s first enemies had been dogs and it led to a lot of collision problems. Another one of those unintended consequences was that the team realized that stripping gameplay tended to let players try and fill the void the team had left with their mind. Which led to changes in the sanity meter , for instance. See, Frictional had created this particular mechanic in order to show players that they should be afraid of the dark. In its first iteration it was a visual clue of something happening when players stayed in the dark for too long. But as they were stripping features, the team decided to keep the meter but to not explain it, giving it no conesquence whatsoever. Players would now look at the meter and never get why it got up or down, it put gamers on edge. For nothing. Thos could explain why Grip said to Pinchbeck that Amnesia was a game that never existed outside of gamers’ mind.

Frictionnal Games had created agame built upon player manipulation, through hint that meant nothing in the loading screen: “If your insanity is too low, monsters will find you quicker”, to bits of story changing depending on how you play to plain non-working mechanics.

And soon, partly because of the playthrough trend of the time, Amnesia: the Dark Descent, despite all its financial struggling, became a cult classic and sold somewhere over a million units. Still Grip thought the team could have done a better job.

Trailer for the Amnesia Collection, comprising of the first three instlaments
A purple crystal in a cart sprays the shadow of a statue on a stone wall.
Still taken from Amnesia: Justine

In 2011, Valve Entertainment contacted Frictional Games, for a rendezvous. Thomas Grip and Jens Nillson went in and soon learned the Half-Life developer wanted indie game studios to help promote the release of the upcoming Portal 2. It would be a two-way street, granting both free promotion and, yeah, monetary compensation. The aim was to build both an ARG and a videogame which would promote Valve’s new videogame.

Being the horror fiend that they are, Nillson and Grip first thought of filming a torture scene in a found footage style for the ARG (Torture porn, uh?) but soon just settled on the idea of a Portal type-game set in the Amnesia universe. The reasoning behind it probably had to do with the preexisting aura the game already had whcih ensured people would play.

Both Frictional founders then came back to Sweden and began to work on what would become Amnesia: Justine. Grip plotted a small DLC in which a young woman, inspired by Erzebeth Bathory, would have imprisoned her suitors in torture chambers and players had to resolve puzzle to save them. A Saw 3 videogame of some sort. Some say this was a defining moment for the whole franchise, others have psychoanalyzed its antagonist.

What we do know is that the ARG, Frictional Games made didn’t work as intended, what with player discovering clues through the coding of the game and working around what the studio had planned. Still, this small DLC, offered free to all the owners of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, left its mark upon the franchise. Thanks to its subtly crafted narration and its humane monsters, it also led to the creator of Portal thanking the Frictional Games team personnaly for their creation.

A dark broody gate, with a sign above it “Askim & Steen” and “Import & Export”.
Still taken from Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

The Chinese Room is an English videogame studio which started as a university study group and found fame thanks to a Half-Life 2 mod named Dear Esther. Said hardware was then turned into a videogame onto every platforms that exists under the sun. Strangely enough, it is not this highly conceptual piece of hardware which led to Frictional Games contacting them. Dan Pinchbeck, the studio creator and lecturer at the university of Portsmouth, had proven with Dear Esther that you could strip almost all gameplay from a videogame and still keep players engaged on the sole merits of a well crafted story. His next question was: Would it be possible to scare player using abstract object as enemies? This led to the creation of Korsovakia, on which I already wrote, which released two weeks prior to Amnesia: The Dark Descent and led to Thomas Grip contacting Pinchbeck. The headof Frictional Games wanted an Amnesia games to occupy the shelves while his studio would be revamping the HPL engine (the homemade engine they’d created and used throughout all of their games). A proposition to which Pinchbeck happily agreed for he was a fan of Frictional, having even preordered The Dark Descent.

At first, the idea seemed simple, The Chinese Room would developed a DLC, much like Amnesia: Justine, which would be two to three hours long and be titled: We are the Pigs. Pinchbeck wanted to tell a tale ofdehumanization through industrialism set in the Victorian era. The concept of the franchise led to a story of an amnesiac character waking up on the floor of his dark mansion and finding a way to the dark bowels of a machine built solely in order to construct monstrous pigs. This tortuous plot had all of the chore elements of an Amnesia game. Amnesiac protagonist? Check! Dark hallways? Check! Monstrosities lurking? Check!

Alas, since the Chinese room was expanding at the time, for they were turning into a two-team studio, one of which would concentrate on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs while the other would be building Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture; the story and the scope of the project grew with it. It’s funny, while looking back at The Dark Descent, to get how Grip and Frictional Games writers were really trying to convey a feeling of a big world outside the castle and notice that is partly what The Chinese Room tried to ensure in their own instalment of the franchise. In A Machine for Pigs, players would venture far into the world.

Dan Pinchbeck wanted to get rid of the Sanity Meter, for it thought it manipulated players into knowing what should be scary. Trying to turn the problem around, the Chinese Room implemented an infection meter which simply didn’t work because it rendered enemy unthreatening, in a sanity meter fashion, it appears beta tester simply did not feel that this infection was threatening enough. This may have led The Chinese Roomto make a tougher game than what was finally released. This is in part due to Frictional Games acting for the very first time as a publisher and having had, at first, a hands-off approach before trying to correct what they thought needed correcting in latter stages. This led to both level constriction, disappearing puzzles and enemies.

Despite all of this, it appears what Pinchbeck wanted was somehow achived, creating a story which would stick to gamers long after the game had been turned off. According to interviews and blog post, while at first Amensia fans seemed really angry, it became quite common to receive mail a week or so after the release saying some plays still dreamt ofthe game. Pinchbeck when he started his draft on a Machine for Pigs wanted to disturb players, much like he’d done in Korsovakia, with the designer going as far as creating a necrophiliac scene in which a pig was raping a human corpse before taking it out of the game for it made part of the team uneasy. Interestingly enough, A Machine for Pigs released around the same time as Red Barrels’ Outlast which included a scene of necrophilia.

Another interesting tidbit is noticing that Pinchbeck’s instalment tried to tell a complex story, as Grip regreted not having been able to do with the first game. Sadly, this didn’t prevent Frictional from tempering with the game before irelease, what with it not having been colour-graded on a correct monitor or trying to ease the way of players through certain part — which was a lesson Frictional took from Penumbra: players’ frustration tend to get them out of the game. In truth, A Machine for Pigs ended-up being the sequel neither developer really talk about. A game which exists solely in some players mind, rejected by most the fanbase, probably thanks to the release of Outlast, while still acclaimed by critics. A creation like any creation, worth trying, worth tasting.

Those are the steps Frictionnal Games took before bringing us Amnesia: Rebirth.

Trailer for Amnesia: Rebirth

Next week, we’ll be talking Infanticide Through Games (in art)! Hope to see you there!

This was the fifth Friday of the month meaning videogame Friday, the previous one was about the Chinese Room studio.

Releasing a paper every Friday.

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