Amnesia designer: removing combat opens up 'new horizons'

GDC Europe 2011: Frictional Games co-founder Thomas Grip on why Amnesia: The Dark Descent is scary and how trial-and-error play undermines emotional experiences.

Who was there: Thomas Grip, one of the founders of Frictional Games, the Swedish independent studio that produced the Penumbra games and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

What they said: According to Grip, the horror game genre is exciting because it is "perhaps the only genre" to focus on "evoking an emotion." He said the studio had been "overwhelmed" by the positive response to Amnesia: The Dark Descent and discussed why it is considered such a scary game. He argued that game makers should challenge the inclusion of familiar gameplay staples such as combat, death, and trial-and-error systems in order to create emotionally involving, immersive games.

Frictional's Thomas Grip. [Credit: GDC Europe]

One of the first design principles in Amnesia, said Grip, was to have no weapons. When Frictional responded to strong player demand for weapons in Penumbra: Overture, the studio created an "intentionally quite clumsy [combat] system" and "made great efforts to make sure the weapons weren't very practical." The intention was that a player would hit an enemy with the (for example) broom weapon and then flee in order to survive. But "it turns out, when the player has an opportunity to kill something, they will." Given weapons, players treated the game as "a first-person hack-and-slash" and tended to conclude that "the combat sucked." In Penumbra: Black Plague, in which Frictional removed combat, players approached the game in a new way: "not only were enemy encounters changed, but it changed how they looked at the game," Grip said.

Grip speculated that the approach would work for other genres, not only survival horror. He said the "lure of [including] combat is so strong" because "it's so hard to come up with other interesting ways to interact with [gameworlds]." He said combat detracts from other game experiences because of "the myth of multitasking." "If you have two things you want to do at the same time, you have to switch between them. If the player chooses to focus on [non-combat elements], they will be less good at it," said Grip. "There don't even need to be enemies on the screen for this effect to set in."

It's also hard to create new and different experiences in the presence of weapons: "if you give the player a gun, he will expect to go to a shooting range," said Grip. He elaborated: "Once you have a specific tool for interaction, it tells the player what kind of role they're meant to play. If we want to have different experiences, we need to have different forms of interaction… Once we remove the combat, new horizons open up, players start to approach the game quite differently."

The absence of "proper death" (that is, death accompanied by traditional in-game penalties) was another design principle in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. "It wasn't until the last half-year [of development] we implemented this," said Grip. Similarly, the absence of conventional "competitive mechanics" was key, though added late. These game conventions lead to conventional trial-and-error systems in gameplay, which undermine horror and other emotional game experiences through repetition. "Chase sequences are very important in horror," Grip said, by way of example. "We had to emulate this for our game [Overture] somehow. Turns out, about 50 percent of people who played Overture like [the chase sequences]. The other half hated it." The people who loved it were those who succeeded in one or two attempts--those who hated it had endured the trial-and-error approach.

As another example of removing competitive mechanics, Grip explained that the computer-controlled enemies in Amnesia: The Dark Descent wouldn't aggressively seek out hiding players but deliberately move close to their hiding place and then move away to heighten their sense of fear. "If we would have had a more competitive system, having this [emotional] response would have been a lot harder."

Quotes: "We must allow [games] to be expressive. This is where I think the future of games lies."

Takeaway: Game developers should think twice before including ingrained game conventions such as combat, death, and trial-and-error gameplay. Trial and error in games undermines emotional experiences and "keeps the machinery opaque." It is un-immersive because it "chips away at the make-believe," forcing the player to examine the game machinery to figure out how to beat the system.

Written By

Want the latest news about Penumbra: Overture?

Penumbra: Overture

Penumbra: Overture

Discussion

36 comments
widdowson91
widdowson91

Anmesia was a fantastic game, and it's lack of combat is one of the key factors of its success.

LaurieLillian
LaurieLillian

Haven't played Amnesia (yet), but from what I've seen in Let's Play videos I must say the missing combat really adds to the atmosphere. Comparing Amnesia to SH Shattered Memories in terms of missing combat I must say Amnesia did it right, Shattered Memories had a good idea, but failed to execute it properly.

grbolivar
grbolivar

Before Amnesia and Penumbra I thought the best horror game was RE, but those games from Frictional changed everything, now RE seems like kiddy games to me.

istuffedsunny
istuffedsunny

These guys have the idea. It's a shame seeing what's happened to the genre. RE is now a shooter and SH is just a wannabe shooter

brain20035
brain20035

very enlightening! I'm gonna buy this game now!

Fenix_7
Fenix_7

Well said. I LOVED Amnesia even though I don't usually play Horror games. It changed my opinion on how deep horror games can be, I really wish Frictional Games luck for the future.

bokela
bokela

Real example where creativity can make high quality game without much money, and also make a true masterpiece!

19Gam3NErD91
19Gam3NErD91

amnesia was truly the scariest game I'd played in my life and i've played a lot of them! keep up the good work frictional, i want to see what your next scary game is !(a sequel to amnesia maybe ...please:D)

DanielL5583
DanielL5583

The loss of combat actually turned in favour of Amnesia. I respect him for that; Amnesia was a proper horror game, unlike games like F.E.A.R. and Dead Space.

sofro94
sofro94

I really agree with him. I played many of what were considered the most scarring shooters , but none of them were as scary as Amnesia. While in other games you at least have a gun and are able to keep enemies away, in Amnesia you cannot fight back, just run or hide. And when the monsters are on your tail, you're really terrified. My hands kept shaking after a few hours of Amnesia.

Raxyman
Raxyman

Amnesia's awesome! Having said that, i'll agree with Thomas Grip, look at Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit) or Heavy Rain. Those are games really different from the rest because they don't have combat, besides there are good games where the combat isn't needed, like Mirrors Edge, those games truly were good because of that approach. And i'm waiting for the next Amnesia game. After playing all Penumbra games and Amnesia i can say that no one else can hope to get near Frictional when it's about horror games.

willhelliwell
willhelliwell

I'm another one who only managed to play the game for around half an hour before turning it off for a long time to calm down! Very clever game. There are a lot of mods for it too which is cool. I worked on the music on a mod called The Sins We Hide. Trying to instill all that fear with music is challenging. Makes it easier that the game is scary as hell already though =p

starduke
starduke

I know I wouldn't like Amnesia, because I'm just not the type to run from monsters, no matter how scary and lethal they are, I'm the type who is scary and lethal right back.

XeonForce
XeonForce

Very clever analysis. I would expect nothing less from the guys at Frictional Games. Just when I thought Dead Space was the scariest game out there, they took my guns away. About 4-5 hours into the Amnesia and you'll know what simple, psychotic, terror is all about. I had a blast though! =P

nyran125
nyran125

awesome game.....seriously resident evil, todays rubbish Silent Hill games, LISTEN to these amazing game developers. You might actually learn how to put your games back to what made them awesome, once upon a time. STALKER is the only fps game that i thought was pretty scary in places. I reckon its a testement to its incredible weapon aiming realism. It was so easy to miss and at night time with all the noises everywhere, really created a bit of awesome fear too. You should check out STALKER if you like scary survival horror games with fps involved. Once you hit the zone, things become pretty freaky and very unnatural. I cant think of many FPS's that are really scary. DOOM 3, STALKER , but thats about it.

ogara0c9
ogara0c9

Loved Amnesia, especially the non-combative gameplay. I really enjoy games that could focus on shooting, but make a conscious decision not to. We have enough of them already.

Hellspawn_1581
Hellspawn_1581

I really enjoyed Amnesia, scared me well enough :), the chasing scenes were simply amazing, and i also really enjoyed the lack of weapons. As for Penumbra, i did use the weapons like.....once for protection, only to turn around and realize the enemy woke up after a while and bite me to death hehe, so i learned my lesson from there :D; i hope to see more from these guys

VilandasUK
VilandasUK

Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I played it for 30 minutes and after that I pressed the escape button, you know why because that game scared the living out of me, I was sitting in the dark playing this and my reaction was O_o. So good luck with new ideas guys and bring more horror games to the fans.

Ovirew
Ovirew

@KoolzKatz I kinda agree and disagree with you on the boss battle thing. On the one hand, maybe they have gotten predictable and repetitive in recent years. But that process you described is basically not much different than playing any game and becoming familiar with its controls. And personally, I wish there were more boss battles in games. Maybe companies could adopt a different approach to them - instead of requiring you to use a specific weapon or to aim for the 'glowing spots', they could just bolster up the AI and health of the bosses and make them like super baddies.

zidan4000
zidan4000

@HollowNinja I played only like thirty mintues of amnesia and that's it ,i couldn't continue , i got the game more than a year ago and i still can't play it.

HollowNinja
HollowNinja

What made Amnesia so incredibly scary was the lack of weapons. As much as I love the game, I am having trouble finishing it since I'm scared to continue playing.

Spahettificator
Spahettificator

I get so scared playing amnesia I have to put my computer in the fridge.

SY_shoot
SY_shoot

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Morphine_OD
Morphine_OD

I wasn't impressed by Amnesia, it felt too Lovecraftian for it's own good. Penumbra, however was the true masterpiece. At least it had characters.

NoodleFighter
NoodleFighter

Having no weapons makes you more afraid of things, I agree. If you had nothing to defend yourself with in a castle filled with freaks from the unknown ready to kill anyone. You'd pee your pants if you didn't have a weapon to make you feel safe.

KoolzKatz
KoolzKatz

Theres some very good points there and personally another game convetion I cant stand is boss battles. All they are now is figuring out a pattern and shooting things that glow. Hope the best of luck for Frictional Games in the future as we need more innovative ideas in games

johny300
johny300

I hope they bring their next game to consles. amenesia scared the s*** out of me but i'd like to experince their next game on the consles.

M-S-M-S
M-S-M-S

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an amazing, scary game. I'm so happy for them that the game was so successful.

VercettiTommyy
VercettiTommyy

So true, this. I've been enjoying this game for a LONG time, but still haven't finished it, on account of being VERY scary. And I'm a big horror fan. Frictional games, we want more games!

dark_rage864
dark_rage864

Amnesia proves to be realistic, you would not find a random shotgun laying on the ground so you can shoot zombies, you would run for your life!

p5y0n
p5y0n

I don't play horror games but I totally agree: trial and error is way too common in games... The one example that immediately comes to mind is the Ace Attorney series. I love those games for their story, humor and riddles. But the riddles are hampered by the game mechanic used to implement them. Often I was in court and I knew exactly what I wanted Phoenix Wright to say, except I had to select the correct piece of evidence so that he would say it, even if that piece of evidence was pretty arbitrary and many others would have done the job equally well in real life. That just frustrates the player and ruins the immersive experience.

Rocker6
Rocker6

He's right about that,Amnesia was that effective because you were feeling helpless all the time due to the lack of weapons of any kind,you never knew what was after you.And darkness was also very well executed,you could hide,but staying for too long would make you go insane,so the game was forcing you to face the horrors that await.And as he said,my scariest moments were when enemy started approaching my hideout,and I wasnt sure if he spotted me or not.One of my favourite games I played in a long time.Keep them coming,Frictional Games!

vadicta
vadicta

It always seems that games like shooters and RPGs are constantly stripping away features in order to flesh out combat. Running in the opposite direction is bound to breed great innovation.

FireboltDS
FireboltDS

Make more games like this! Please!

Cantido
Cantido

Amnesia is five hours long. It's taking me a month because it's the scariest game in the forever. :D

hyksiu
hyksiu

Less repetitive combat, more adventure!