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The wonderful depravity of Frictional Games' Soma Exclusive

October 21, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

October 21, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Design, Exclusive, Video

The trailer for Frictional Games' upcoming Soma seems to bear a signature: The coupling of the mechanical with the biological, and a distinct sense of forboding. The company's focused on horror games since its Penumbra titles, but following two well-liked Amnesia titles, Soma feels like it rounds out an aesthetic.

Notably Frictional has long tried to make games that get their appeal from story and environment, not combat mechanics. The first Amnesia game, The Dark Descent, eschewed combat in favor of a "sanity" system -- that the player would suffer from being too close to monsters or even looking at them for too long forced them to hide, lighting candles all the while to keep the fearful darkness at bay.

The recently released Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, developed by Dear Esther house Thechineseroom, also had no combat, signaling the player to be cautious with flickering electric lights. Frictional creative director Thomas Grip tells Gamasutra that while creating intense gameplay is exponentionally more difficult when you can't rely on combat as a "crutch," removing combat from its games was necessary -- the team just wasn't good at designing it.

Frightening without fighting

At the time Frictional was preparing its first games, the Condemned series hit the scene, excelling in frightening melee. With its small team and limited resources, the team knew it couldn't come close, and decided to think about what else they could do instead. Since then, frightening without fighting has been something of a company ethos.

Though the team's often been tempted to use combat sequences to solve design problems ("it's so alluring!"), Frictional has since stuck to its guns -- rather, stuck to no guns, nor overuse of any other objects that can be weaponized. Working in the horror space, this is an even broader challenge than one might expect. Even though there are no "weapons" in The Exorcist, there's still holy water to throw.

"A poisonous attitude for some games is you always want to take the easy route," Grip says. "You feel you need to have a 'core,' -- 'oh, this is the game!'... like, [you feel you need to] know everything there is to know about a game, and then just multiply it by a hundred. What we do instead is make every area almost like a game in itself. We script a lot, and there's tons of logic that goes into it. There's enough interactive stuff happening that it creates dynamic gameplay.

"Just because it's scripted doesn't mean we're making the player follow an exact route," he continues. Rather than design a "perfect" experience a player is expected to have, there should be flexibility -- a number of environmental possibilities. It's tough to get right, but for Grip, worthwhile.

Avoiding "designing by committee"

Despite such a tight internal philosophy, Frictional gave the follow-up to its standout Amnesia property to an external studio. It was the company's first time working in that capacity. As Dear Esther was also an atmospheric, environment-led game with a conscientiously-unconventional attitude to "gameplay," developer Thechineseroom was a good fit.

Frictional had also already begun work on Soma, and worried it would take a long time, creating a significant gap between the cult success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the company's next game. Wanting to keep momentum up, they thought a spiritual successor to Amnesia would be a good idea.

soma 1.jpg"The biggest challenge for both sides was to avoid 'design by committee,' and let a single vision be responsible for most of the design. We had to let go of giving too much direction," Grip says. For one thing, he hated the name A Machine for Pigs, but thought it was important to let Thechineseroom name their project (the title's grown on Grip over time).

"I liked the final product even though it was pretty dissimilar from the first game," he adds. "If we're going to have them doing it, we have to be aware that it's going to be a very different project in the end, and embrace that. And there are also a lot of very strong similarities in how you play the game, and the thematics, stuff like that."

"I guess we're depraved people"

With Soma, Frictional continues its horror focus almost in spite of itself. "The theme we wanted was 'probing the depths of the mind,'" says Grip. Presently, the trailer shows a brain being stabbed with actual probes. "It felt better having it in a horror environment than in a mystery environment.

"It's not like we consciously try to do the same thing, I guess we're depraved people," he laughs. "There are a lot of slugs and strange naked things coming up from my subconscious."

Although the absence of combat in favor of environmental interaction makes horror scarier by taking the player's sense of physical power away, it seems horror design also seems to serve games without fighting in them: There's still a tension and anxiety about the environment, the sense that an "enemy" exists, and that the stakes are high.

Soma aims to explore players' minds and subvert expectations by manipulating player behavior, Grip says. "Interesting things spring up when you put people in situations that you have to evaluate according to an imaginary mind model," he explains. For a simple example, if players hear frightening noises from one direction and not another, they're liable to explore the apparently-safer route first, and that's information designers can use to create more complex experiences.

"In Amnesia: The Dark Descent we were using this for cheap scares, and the deeper thematics came on at a very late stage," says Grip. "This time, I want to explore how far we can take this kind of thinking. I know it's going to be a bit risky. We couldn't have done it in the past, though, because we hadn't had enough experience with how players react."

The team is hoping for an early 2015 launch for Soma, which will also be the company's first console release, in addition to PC, Mac and Linux. "It's not an immense difference, just a new opportunity," Grip says, of developing for PlayStation 4. "It's like a console PC. There's not some weird Cell processor we have to spend a year learning. I'm not sure how much we can expand our audience, but it's going to be interesting to find out."

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