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Amnesia: The Dark Descent retrospective

To commemorate the Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s one year anniversary, I spoke to Friction Games' Jens Nilsson for a retrospective.


In the midst of a blockbuster fall season, one indie title managed to stand out. Swedish developer Frictional Games' Amnesia: The Dark Descent is recognized as one of the few genuinely scary games ever made. While many survival horror games try to scare audiences with zombies and gore, Amnesia goes in a less-traveled direction, preying on a player’s sense of imagination. The game was a hit, racking up high scores from various critics, bringing home a number of awards at the 2011 Independent Games Festival – the "Excellence in Audio," "Technical Excellence," and the "Direct2Drive Vision Award" chief among them.

To commemorate the game’s anniversary, I spoke to Jens Nilsson for a one-year retrospective. Jens shared thoughts on Amnesia, the numerous mods that the game has inspired, and whether games (both indie and mainstream) are headed in more emotion-based direction.

Shacknews: You recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. So let’s start off with this question: How much different is Frictional now than it was one year ago? How much has changed?

Jens Nilsson: A lot and nothing at the same time. We are eight working full-time compared to five a year ago, but at the same time everyone is still working from home and no plans to get an office. We don’t have to worry about our financial situation, a year ago we worried about it monthly, at the same time everyone is better paid, but in a sound manner to ensure the company can maintain its current stability for a long time. The “virtual atmosphere” feels to be in a surprisingly nice mood for a horror game company and we are currently working away on our next project. It feels weird that we don’t have to rush, can afford to do mistakes, but also nice to know the motivation is at top as only last Friday I had to remind people that if they feel stressed, we can re-plan rather than they feel the need to work weekends.

Shacknews: Did you ever expect Amnesia to receive the acclaim that it did?

Jens Nilsson: We had hope for it to live up to expectations from those that played the Penumbra games, and hopefully surpass them. We felt that we managed to take all the lessons learned from Penumbra and put it to good use and that the end result was a good game. But we definitely did not expect the reception that it got, in particular not all the community created videos, art, comics, costumes and so on.

Shacknews: What inspired the creation of Amnesia? What aspects of culture, whether it be books, movies, or games, helped inspire the game’s immersive narrative and frightening atmosphere?

Jens Nilsson: If you are allowed to say your own games, then Penumbra was a big inspiration for making Amnesia. Initially we wanted to create a very different game, because there were so much about how Penumbra was created that we felt were cumbersome and took a lot of time to develop. But as the development of Amnesia continued we learned more and more that there are no easy ways to create an interesting game and we changed more and more of Amnesia to be more like Penumbra. For the last year the motto for us when working and talking about the game was simply “like Penumbra but better".

Inspiration is more from books and movies, with the idea to create a game that is more to be experienced and not to be something you play for the challenge and to beat. Game inspiration is more specific, for example it could be looking at how well designed Mario Galaxy is when it comes to controls, introducing the player to the world and so forth.

Shacknews: Amnesia has inspired younger developers and fans to create a large number of mods. Among them have been Amnesia: Through The Portal, The Curse of Brewer Manor, and To Give Is To Force. Did you ever imagine that Amnesia would inspire this many mods? Are there any favorite mods you want to mention?

Jens Nilsson: Imagine we could, but thinking they would, no. There was an interest in modding Penumbra, but it was difficult and too much to learn before being able to create anything interesting. So with the tools for Amnesia, we always had the potential “community usage” in mind even if the tools are primarily made to make sure we can create our game with them. We had hope there would be interest, but was uncertain how much, so we took the “bare minimum” approach, making sure there were support for “Custom Stories” and to release the tools with basic documentation. With the incredible interest there has been we definitely have cause to improve this further for our next game.

White Night is a favorite, it’s been in the making for quite some time and it is very nice to see a mod that has a new setting that is not Amnesia’ish.

Shacknews: Looking back on the Amnesia development cycle, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced? In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?

Jens Nilsson: Getting it nailed down just exactly what the player was to be occupied with was very problematic. We originally had some “gameplay” in the game, like collecting coins that could then be used to get items, even some early design had simple characters that could be paid to help you out (paying a prison guard to get out of a cell for example). We also had more type of items and we felt the need to add more stuff to keep the player occupied. We were never happy with the result, it just did not feel right, and then we started to cut away on things, removing stuff and eventually said that this game is only going to be about the emotions we want to create. As we began concentrating on making this emotional experience and not worry about making a game, everything started to come together much better.

We should not have tried to come up with core mechanics that could easily be repeated and modified to get gameplay time, it might be a common approach to game design, but for some type of games it will definitely not work.

Shacknews: Your games have been all about creating a strong emotional experience. The Penumbra games and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are largely known for evoking strong emotions within players, particularly fear. How do you go about capturing these emotions so effectively? What is it about these games the creates these emotions within players?

Jens Nilsson: At the very beginning (going back to 2005) we just tried to create something that would be like our favorite moments from other games or movies and doing so by examining what it was that were working to make these sections “favorites”. For example, perhaps we wanted the rusty stuff from Silent Hill or perhaps the entering the unknown from Alien as they enter the alien ship at the very beginning.

Quickly as we were working we released we had lots of limitations, in particular in the area of graphical content. We would not be able to create scary and realistic monsters, so we started to concentrate on just hinting at the danger, using creepy sounds and so on. Essentially just concentrating on making the player’s mind create all the visual details instead. We also had the problem on how to deal with all the interaction for an adventure type of games. Should we animate all the stuff for when you open doors or drawers and if we want to have different items in them, do we need to make different versions of the whole thing then etc. From that came the idea of using the physics for actual interaction, and not only as a “throw boxes around” feature, which in turn led to what we believe makes the player feel more in the world as you interact in a much more delicate manner than what you usually do in first person games.

For each game I think we have come to understand more and more of these design choices, learned a lot, improved and re-designed. Eventually for Amnesia we started to realize we need to move even further away from the typical game design choices (like challenge and trial and error) to go further with the concept of emotional experiences. As we did this halfway through the project, we hope that we will be able to explore this much further in our next game.

Shacknews: Along that same line of questioning, games in the last several years have aimed to touch players on a more personal, emotional level. It’s noticeable in indie titles like Amnesia, TRAUMA, and Dinner Date. This can also be seen in several recent mainstream games like Heavy Rain, Alan Wake, and Dead Space. Do you feel that these types of games, games that aim more for emotion and strong narrative and focus less on more traditional gameplay mechanics, are becoming the new standard in video games?

Jens Nilsson: The great thing about games is how wide the concept of games are. Puzzles, strategy, sports, stories, social and in any combination or variation you can think of. The concept of emotion and a strong narrative is not by any means new, but I think that it is an area that always have and is struggling with how to combine that with what games are meant to be. That is the concept of games being challenging, have to be fun, and so forth.

Often when you talk about creating emotion or a strong narrative you get the negative comments that "hmpfh, I want a game, not some crappy interactive movie". Something that always brings up the memory of all the really bad early CD-ROM games. But I am quite certain a large reason for their poor quality lay in their focus on trying to forcefully add in typical gameplay mechanics. The difference in the games you mention is that there is an idea to create these type of games, but with an increasing realization that there is no need to have typical gameplay mechanics and that the more we stop to worry about those game traditions, the better the game will become.

Shacknews: In the past, you’ve been hesitant to bring your games to consoles, largely due to finances. Following the success of Amnesia, have you thought about bringing some of your games to consoles?

Jens Nilsson: We are planning for it for future games but not for any of the old games. We did explore the possibility of Amnesia on consoles, but after a while we realized that it would be much more work than anticipated, the structure of making it happen much more complicated and that we simply lacked the interest or motivation to spend the time required to follow through on the idea. We are much more interested in concentrating on the next game instead. It feels like a good idea to create the new game and engine with consoles in mind, to make a game that is designed to work well on both consoles and computer from the very beginning.

Shacknews: What’s next for Frictional Games? Are there any plans to continue the Amnesia story or will you be going in a new direction?

Jens Nilsson: We’ll be heading in a different direction. Amnesia might show up some more, but currently it is full concentration on a completely new project. It’s going to be the same type of game, but it will not be as horror-specialized as Amnesia. This is much-needed for our own sanity, going back and making a game that is meant to be even more horror and better than Amnesia is not an inspiring task. But not to fear, the new project will very likely turn out quite scary regardless, as the direction we take is mainly to clear our minds and get fresh ideas, which should nicely inspire to have sections that are much more creative in the scary department than what would otherwise have been possible.

For more on all things indie, make sure to check out the Shacknews sister-site, Indie Games Channel.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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