Ten years is a long time in the games industry. It seems to move at a lighting speed, with new games that push their respective genres, and tech advancements to games and development being revealed every few months (new consoles are just around the corner!). But this change such a relatively short period of time felt all the more apparent, when reflecting on the fact that it has been ten years since the release of the original Amnesia (The Dark Descent) this month.
The impact it had not only the horror game genre, but the streaming culture that took off in the years after and the industry as a whole, is hugely significant. It's a game and now series, which has inspired not only a huge swath of fans to become modders and create their own maps and stories, but to develop their own games too, inspired by the dark, atmosphere rich world of Amnesia.
No one is more aware of this impact than Thomas Grip, one of the co-founders and the creative director of Frictional Games. As part of our 10th anniversary celebrations of Amnesia: The Dark Descent (ADD) this month, we chatted to Grip about the lasting impact of ADD on the industry, the many mods which followed and the future of the studio with Amnesia: Rebirth.
(The interview has been edited for clarity).
Can you give us a run down of what Frictional Games are doing for the Amnesia Dark Descent 10th anniversary celebrations?
Thomas Grip: The main idea is to release Amnesia: The Dark Descent as open source, as we did with Penumbra a few years back. We should have done it earlier, but now it feels like a good time, with a brand new Amnesia coming out (coming October 20th, to PC and PS4).
It’ll be interesting to see what fans do with the source code and what not. So it felt like a cool thing to do, to make it open source under the GPL license. I’m really excited to see what will happen, the modding community has been extremely creative and plentiful over the years.
ModDB has really been the headquarters for Amnesia modding, as Steam didn’t have Workshop setup at that point. It was really interesting seeing how it all kicked off, I’ve found it very, very interesting over the years. And I’m sort of wondering why we did mods at all from the get go, but it was an extremely good choice for us at least to do it!
There were mod tools and tutorials released for Penumbra near it’s original release on the Frictional Games’ website. Did that come about from players back then wanting to create mods of Penumbra, or was that something your team was just interested in doing at the time?
It was so long ago! Now I’m trying to think back to then... I grew up with a lot of mod content, from Quake, to Counter Strike and Half-Life, so it just felt like a cool thing to do. I’ve also learnt a lot from mods, but overall Half-Life has been a big inspiration on making games, including their mod support. So it partly came from that, but also when we made Penumbra, the modding capabilities were poor to say the least!
I think there were only a few user made maps (for Penumbra), because it was so obscure to make anything. That was part of the early days of game development, we didn’t think to make user-friendly editors and so on.
We were pretty pleased with the tools ourselves (for ADD), especially coming from Penumbra, in which it was hellish to do anything! And we were like “shit, we can build environments pretty fast”. I remember Jens (cofounder of Frictional Games) made a timelapse video (which is still viewable on YouTube), making a room with a fireplace and a monster opening a door, and he made it in like half an hour, to an hour. And it felt really fast. So to think modding came from us having pretty nice tools, I think it hooked onto somewhere there as to why we did it (made mod tools for ADD).
It didn’t sound like it was a big priority to make tools for Amnesia: The Dark Descent then, it just happened naturally from the tools you built for your engine?
It wasn’t designed for modding, it was very much an afterthought. I think in the final weeks, “oh you can actually put mods here!”, I think it’s interesting how old sensibilities about making games sort of made that decision. So we were like oh we might want to have something like ‘old school add-on content’, and so we added support for mods.
But it wasn’t like we wanted a game that could be heavily moddable, we just saw the opportunity and took it. And I think we had mod tools available for ADD fairly soon after its release. We put the editor out a few weeks or month or so after the release actually.
Were you and your team fairly surprised then, considering you hadn’t planned for mod support, when modding for Amnesia really took off in the years after its release and went nuts with fan creations and maps?
We were extremely surprised how much content was made and I think there were a couple of reasons for this.
If you wanted to make your own first person game, especially a horror game, there weren't many options at that point. Unity in 2010 wasn’t really a thing, there were no free engines, which was one of the reasons we made our own engine.
Engines were pretty complicated, they took a lot of time to learn before you could start making anything. But with our engine, the map editor was pretty easy to mess around with, we had a bunch of assets which we easy to use. While we had a scripting language, which not out of design but more from laziness, was fairly easy to work with too.
Modders really liked the simplicity of our engine and map editor, and it was very easy to make tutorials for. It wasn’t the most advanced thing, very limiting with what you could do really. Similar to the simple but now quite popular narrative game tool Twine, it was just easy to jump in and use for the time.
Another important aspect was Amnesia becoming hugely popular with streamers. There weren’t many similar horror games out at the time, as the focus was more on action games. Amnesia gave players a lot of space to joke, scream, express themselves, and there was a craving for more of this content. Even if you made a mod that was not the best in the world, some streamer would likely pick up on it and play it. So there was a huge incentive to make mods, because there was this instant gratification of seeing streamers playing it, such as Markiplier and PewDiePie. I think it was that type of thinking that boosted the whole modding community around the game.
We also had a boost from established modding sites such as ModDB, which have catered to modding communities for games like Half-Life. So there was a forum for modders to easily put their mods of Amnesia online, which definitely helped as well. That ecosystem being there was a huge boost. We were very lucky!
Were you blown away by the quality of the mods and the creativity by modders using your engine and tools in the ways they did?
Oh yeah I was really blown away! One of my favourite examples still, is someone making Tetris in Dark Descent (which you can find here!). Which was a fairly early mod in which they trapped the player inside a room with the controls. I’m not even sure how they did some of the camera stuff, it was really crazy. Just the sheer ingenuity of it, it was just amazing how modders were able to do things we never planned to do as a team.
Another thing I wanted to bring up, that I loved the creativity of, was the ADD modding community coming up with its own vocabulary and slang. I was completely unaware of it until someone mentioned on the forums ‘oh it's another mod full of 'poofers’. And I was like what the fuck is a ‘poofer’?
So one of the first early effects we had in the game, that the first time you see an enemy it runs at you and then goes up in smoke. And that was an effect that was constantly overused in mods apparently and then became known as ‘poofers’. I thought this is totally out of control, it has a life of its own. I’m supposedly one of the creators of this game and I have no idea of what's going on. So the creativity of the community when you unleash them is just crazy to see and I really loved it.
Did the idea to make ADD open source come partly from team members who had been modders themselves before joining your team, pushing for it? Or was it something you felt you just had to do?
It was both. So there are members of our team who were part of the Amnesia community, who thought “they’re (modders) going to love this”. It was something that might have been interesting doing possibly earlier, but there is so much else always going on. But now with the 10th anniversary of ADD, if we’re ever going to do it now is the time! It was a bit of a kick in the arse for us to get around to doing it.
But I’m hoping people are still interested. I know we're not going to be in the modding heydays again all of a sudden, but I hope that it’s going to spark interest. Like for long standing annoyances and bugs, and feature requests we never got around to adding and I hope that with ADD being open source, people will do that.
I hope it’ll be a learning tool too for learning programming too. As I learnt a lot from looking at other people’s source code. That said, a lot of the source code we’ve written, specifically by me, is shitty in Amnesia, so people should be taking away from the good parts, not the bad parts!
I also hope that it’s a reminder, that despite all the great free engines that are out there now, it’s not impossible to build an engine of your own to create a commercial game in. To think that it might be interesting to people to look it over and realize that it's a possibility, even if you’re never going to be able to compete with the big guys. You’re still able to make something that is your own, and make it work for you and the specific type of game you want to make.
Talking engines, the one you’ve used for all your (Frictional) games, is an engine you originally built. How does it feel to be still using that engine to build new games after so many years and with a larger team now?
It’s very cool! It started out, if any of the code still remains, as a 2D engine. For a platformer we made in 2004 as part of my masters thesis. We often go back and forth on whether to use another engine such as Unity or Unreal and so on, but I think there are some advantages of not using these huge, monolithic engines. And regardless of whatever you’re into, it can be a lot of fun and interesting to disassemble it (engines) yourself.
But it’s also a bit of a blessing and a curse, in some ways it would be nice to have some features that we see other engines have. And it can be a huge undertaking adding a feature or fixing something at all.
But personally, and I guess I’m biased, but it’s nice to have your own thing that you’ve been working on for so long, and it’d feel bad to throw it all away. You have to be open to change, but the idea is still to use our engine for our two upcoming games after Amnesia Rebirth. We’re making the largest update to the engine to date, and making it more modern in certain ways and making it more streamlined. So it feels like it's still very usable. It’s not like I’m constantly battling with 2005 legacy code, that twenty something old me made and we have to deal with it. Most of those things are now gone.
I’ve loved seeing other people add to it (the engine) from our team, love the fact that there are pieces of the code base that are totally unknown to me. Sometimes you discover some weird comments in the code, “who wrote this?! Is this me?”, ominous comments which say “we need to fix this, or else it might…” and then it ends there! And having no idea if it's important, so we just leave it since it’s still working! Having a beast lying around that you’re constantly working with, it’s very cool.
When you first started Frictional Games, the team worked entirely remotely up until opening an office in recent years (with a majority of the team still working remotely). Has your team reverted back to being completely remote, due to the recent ongoing global pandemic in COVID-19? And if so do you feel you were prepared for that already?
Yes! Is my short answer, to everything you’ve asked. In the beginning, we were living at different places when we started out. Lots of startups in Sweden in the mid 2000s got offices straight away, and partly because of that they could only survive a year or so due to finances and went bankrupt.
For us, both me and Jens were hobbyist developers who were very comfortable working from home. During our masters course, where our initial team got together and made the Penumbra tech demo, it was all done remotely. So we didn’t have that dream of an office, we were fine working remotely, so it came very naturally for us as we expanded the company and just kept doing that.
But eventually when hiring people, we wanted them to come to Sweden and have a social element to the team, so eventually it made sense to have an office. But even when we got an office, a majority of people were still working from home. We worked online largely already, so when the Coronavirus crisis hit and everyone had to move out of the office, it came very naturally to our team. There was no interruption for our team and our work on Amnesia: Rebirth.
From an operations point of view, not much changed for us. Again our laziness to a degree, wanting to work from home rather than from an office, worked in our favor! Now when there is a global crisis we are prepared, and that’s not something we had in mind of course when we started the company.
On the topic of Rebirth, how does it feel to be returning to the (Amnesia) series?
It feels great. It’s really fun working on a pure horror game again. Although in saying that, Rebirth has much more of a thematic narrative focus than the original Amnesia had. It’s still more of a horror game, it feels like it’ll be more tighter in focus and atmosphere, which we weren’t as tight with Soma. So it’s fun and it’s also great to have these gothic elements to a game.
I love just being able to have a ridiculous amount of fog and smoke in every scene, and cobwebs and whatnot and corpses lying around. I think it's extremely fitting and it’s interesting, because although Rebirth takes place in a desert setting, which is quite different from ADD, a lot of the places we mention in ADD are places you actually get to visit in Rebirth. Algerian desserts and tombs and other places.
When we made SOMA, originally I thought it’d be so easy making assets now, because we can just make shit up! It’s sci-fi, who cares. But it was way way harder! Because not only did you have to make shit up, you had to have a level of authenticity and projection of what you think things would look like in the future. I wouldn’t have been able to do the (art) concepts for SOMA.
I actually did a lot of the concepts for ADD. But a lot of that was Victorian furniture, which was easy to get references for. But for SOMA, underwater labs which are futuristic, you can’t just find pictures of that, you have to make it up. So design demands were higher (for SOMA), so it’s interesting now to have a bit more leeway again with the designs and environments to base things on for Rebirth. And I think you can get away with a bit more with the Gothic setting.
Can you confirm whether there will be ‘poofers’ in Amnesia Rebirth?
They may or not be poofers in it. That’s a good question, mmmm. *Thomas thinks for a moment* Actually, now that I think about it, yes! We do have, in ways you might not expect, a new kind of poofer in the game. That is more ingrained into the game and made more advanced.
In your PlayStation blog announcement about Rebirth, you mentioned originally on the development of ADD. You were running out of time, and decided to just make it as scary as possible, rather than ‘innovative’.
Although I think most people who have played your games would say you’ve innovated the horror genre in a lot of ways, including with Amnesia. Would you agree at that, or do you think your team is just really good at horror?
I think that there is a pattern here, in terms of us making things simpler, and making important creative decisions out of that. The whole physics interactive system for example, was me just being lazy again!
Back in the early days of making the Penumbra tech demo, I really wanted to be able to open drawers, and then I thought “it’ll need animations, aaww animations are so annoying to make”. If we had an animator on the team, we would probably have animated it, but I was like I don’t want to do this. But I had recently created a physics engine and was like, “wow physics I know how to do that! That’s easier, I already have that. I’ll just put physics in there”. So then the whole innovative physics system came from me being lazy and not wanting to animate a drawer and just running with it.
It might have been just as easy to make those animations, but I just didn’t have those tools to do it at the time. It’s similar, with making it as scary as possible. The problem that you make sometimes, is that when trying to innovate you’re trying too hard. You think your innovations have to be a huge amount of work. It really might just be making it in a way you know that is fairly easy, but in a way that no one else has. So I think we’re really good at being lazy! And something creative just coming from that.
There are a lot of these things like, what’s going to happen when you die? Well you’ll have to reload a save, well that takes time that’s hard, let’s just teleport the player somewhere, then you don’t die and that’s innovative! But again, it was a very simple solution, that we just ran with it.
So you’d say being lazy, and more so playing to your strengths is important?
That’d be a better way of saying it! And trying to keep from making things overly complicated. So another example, which a lot of people’s favourite monster is the water lurker. Which was supposed to have tentacles and shit coming out of it. But we didn’t end up having that, the easiest way was to have water splashes and sort of just went with that.
But when we went and did SOMA, and had more money, time and people, we actually had more issues going forward. Even though we had all that. It’s very easy to just throw money at a problem, but sometimes that isn’t the right way to go about it. Your answer is actually cutting edges instead to figure out a better solution.
Is there anything else you’d like to add in regards to the Amnesia 10th anniversary and say to fans and modders of your games?
There’s always more to talk about in regards to ADD, other horror games, mods etc. It’s sort of crazy to look back on it and to have done it at all. We’ve always had some push back that we shouldn’t be able to make games with the ambitions that we had at the scale of our team, with just 5-6 people, making a full first person narrative game. Which is really cool that we were able to do something that has affected so many people.
I hope now with Amnesia Rebirth, we appeal to people who played the original and grew up with it, which is mind blowing to think about. And hope that people feel that it is an evolution of the Amnesia they remember and have a great time with. And also hopefully get some mods too! It’s not as simple as before, but we’ll have to see. It’s basically the same engine we used with SOMA. It’d be great to see.
Will you be releasing any mod tools and tutorials around the release of rebirth?
Yeah the idea is to keep the wiki updated, which already has all the SOMA stuff. Both the community and us have built up the wiki after SOMA, and those things are still viable with learning how to mod Amnesia Rebirth. So we should have an editor up fairly soon after release if not at the release of Rebirth, so people can straight away start digging into it and doing cool stuff.
So I’m really looking forward to that. And I really hope someone can do an ‘Amnesia Rebirth Tetris’ mod, that’d bring light to my day!