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GDC Europe:  Amnesia 's Grip Delivers Terrifying Tales Of Immersion
GDC Europe: Amnesia's Grip Delivers Terrifying Tales Of Immersion
August 15, 2011 | By Simon Carless




In his Independent Games Summit talk at GDC Europe, Frictional Games' Thomas Grip discussed his terrifying game Amnesia: The Dark Descent and its "focus on evoking emotion," going behind the reasons for its major success.

The multi IGF-nominated PC game has now sold 400,000 units "without any real PR," said Swedish developer Grip, and the company is overwhelmed by the success. But how did this happen? Grip outlined some of the major steps that have made the firm's latest title its biggest by far.

In particular, the Frictional co-founder highlighted the following keys - in his opinion - that were key to the success of the title:

1. No Weapons

In the company's earlier game Penumbra: Overture, there was a clumsy, impractical inventory of 'tools,' including a hammer and a broom, that could be used as ineffective weapons. It was trying to replicate the scary, clumsy defenses that power many horror game interactions.

But the developers found that, if the player is armed with something, they will try to kill enemies. Either they'll find a way to abuse the system and kill the enemy easily, making it less scary. Or they will use it as a normal FPS weapon system and die a lot, believing the system to be flawed. That wasn't the original idea.

But for the second Penumbra game, they decided to cut out weapons altogether, and it made the game extremely scary - a concept they brought forward for Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Grip noted that combat in games may be surprisingly over-rated, and you should be careful about having "fun fillers" in your game. For example, combat might be considered one of those fillers, because it's easy to drop enemies in to areas to make the game take a bit longer.

In addition, combat may make people focus less on other things like story, since they are always waiting for the next bad guy to pop up. Making the shift away from weapons even being available changes the role of the player from soldier to detective - Grip strongly suggested "we need to have different sorts of interaction" in games.

2. No Death

Secondly, having no 'death' in the game is another relatively new and innovative things for many first-person games. Grip said he wanted to evoke the "feeling you have in nightmares, when you are running and not going anywhere" in the title's chase sequences.

Throwing out trial and error, the firm made a shift late in Amnesia's development and removed death, changing the death mechanic to a 'waking up' mechanic with some different game events and mechanics taking hold after the player failed.

Sure, players can take advantage of the knowledge that the game 'takes care' of them, Grip said. But overall, the death shift just made people more immersed, especially if they knew things changed around after they failed, and it also exposed some fascinating game design questions.

Why ditch trial and error in gameplay? If you have game situations that are easily repeated, you can't make them truly deep or significantly sensory, because they will lose their impact when repeated many times. Indeed, it also threatens to expose the machinery behind the game if you can play it over and over to find a flaw.

3. 'No Competitive' Mechanics

The Frictional Games team also made the choice of having no strong difficulty/competition mechanics in the game. This is rooted in the concept that the player in Amnesia should fear the dark, a concept the developers tried to support with a darkness-based sanity system that also includes monsters.

But this system was very difficult to balance, and it doesn't reset, Grip noted, so if you didn't find a tinderbox to light your way early on, you might be in trouble later on because you hadn't stockpiled enough.

Thus, Frictional decided to switch things out to make the sanity system more of a 'mood' system which doesn't always affect gameplay - and there were surprising advantages to this approach.

Overall, this shift away from difficulty helped immersion. The game deliberately doesn't push challenge - it focuses on experience. If you're playing to win, then you're playing to avoid dying and that "forces players into a certain behavior" controlled by the game mechanics, Grip said.

The player's status-seeking leads to "screw the feelings" decisions, where they betray any roleplaying in order to preserve their life or get ahead in the game. And it's incredibly difficult for the game designer to balance that, he said.

Concluding, Grip said that by stripping down what was expected in the game, they found something very unexpected, and it all came about because they asked a simple question: "What is the real intent of our game?"

Other genres have even more to explore by going past "what games are supposed to be" and looking at some of the stripped-down ideas that Frictional used for Amnesia, he said.


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