Q&A: Penumbra programmer Thomas Grip

Thanks to the success of its in-house 3D engine, Frictional Games' Penumbra: Overture is being released as a full game. We speak to programmer Thomas Grip to track its progress.


Penumbra: Overture

Thomas Grip of Frictional Games.
Thomas Grip of Frictional Games.

Swedish developer Frictional Games is set to release its first full commercial title at the beginning of next year with Penumbra: Overture. The game was born out of a successful tech demo that featured advanced physics and graphics technologies. Now, the 3D engine is being applied to a new horror trilogy, of which Overture will be the first chapter. We caught up with Thomas Grip, programmer on the game, to see how the game is progressing.

GameSpot UK: The penumbra is the part of the shadow where the light source is only partially blocked. Tell us a bit about your game.

Thomas Grip: Penumbra: Overture is a first-person horror adventure with an advanced physical interaction system. Unlike other games where you simply click on doors, drawers, and levers to move them, in Penumbra: Overture you must use mouse movements to accomplish things. It might not sound like it makes that big a difference, but it really adds to the mood and gameplay. As an example, you can use this system to just slightly open a door and peek inside the room. This is something that is not present in any current game that I know of.

The action in Penumbra: Overture is also very different from other games in the same genre. In games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil the main character is often well armed; however, in Penumbra the player is essentially without any weapons. Instead she/he has to rely on their wits and stealth to survive enemy encounters. A big part of the game is to use the environment; this means the player can throw objects at enemies to knock them out, hide in closets, barricade doors, and much more.

GSUK: The game grew out of a tech demo into a full game. How did that come about?

TG: The first demo was made for a Swedish game competition. This competition did not go very well, and we decided to stop working on the project. We just put it up on a few sites on the Internet and started working on other ideas. However, after a few days the game started spreading and there was a flood of downloads, actually so much that the school server we hosted the game on crashed. This made us realize that people actually liked the game, and we decided to continue working on it.

GSUK: Tell us a bit about the backstory for the game.

TG: The game starts off with Philip, the protagonist, getting a letter from his late father. He is told to burn a book but instead starts to study it. The notes in the book seem to point towards a place on Greenland, and after much thought, Philip decides to head there. Eventually Philip is caught in a snow storm, and when he is about to die from exposure he finds a strange metal hatch in the snow. With nowhere else to go, he decides to open it and climbs down. This is where the game starts, and the player needs to figure out what is going on.

One of our design goals is to make all the environments part of the story. A room should not be just another filler storage room, but instead have a history. This way the player can find out things about the story by examining the different locations carefully.

GSUK: As a survival horror title, have you taken influence from any of the Resident Evil or Silent Hill games?

TG: To some degree, since both these game series are landmarks in horror gaming it is hard not be influenced. However there are several things that appear in these games that we are trying to move away from. One is the action. As I mentioned in the previous answer, there will be a lot more sneaking and thinking instead of simply bashing zombies with a lead pipe. We really want the horror to come from gameplay, not just scripted events.

Another thing we wanted was to move away from the out-of-place puzzles like opening a door by placing four coins in the correct order. Instead we are taking inspiration from point-and-click and interactive fiction adventures where the puzzles are a part of the story. We are really trying to give some meaning and backstory for all events in the game.

GSUK: What weaponry will be available in the full game, and how long do you expect the adventure to last?

TG: There will be some weapons but these will not be very powerful. As I said before, the player will need to rely on his/her brains rather than muscle. The weapons will be used more to solve puzzles than for killing bad guys.

We expect each episode--and there will be three--will last around eight hours. This will of course vary a lot depending on the player. Since the game is about exploration and discovery, a player who runs through the game might finish it in half the time but will also miss out on a lot of stuff.

GSUK: Are there any plans to port the game to other platforms?

TG: We are already working on Linux and Mac ports, which should be released along with the PC version. Console ports are not planned at the moment.

GSUK: The game is retailing for a budget price and being released episodically. How often do you plan on releasing updates?

TG: Although the game will be slightly cheaper than a full-priced game, it is not a budget game. The low price is mainly due to the shorter gameplay and to make it possible for gamers to afford all three episodes.

The current plan is to release all of the episodes in 2007, with the first one coming out sometime in March.

GSUK: It's also going to be released online--are there any plans to release the game through Steam, like other episodic titles such as Sin?

TG: It might be. However, we have so far been unable to get in touch with Steam. We are currently looking for other options and also spamming the Steam offices. Rest assured that it will come out online, one way or another!

GSUK: The tech demo is available online, but are there any plans to create a proper demo of the Overture release?

TG: There will most likely be a special Penumbra: Overture demo available shortly after release of the first episode. Our plan is to build a map especially for the demo that ties in to the game's story. This way, playing the demo will not spoil the game.

GSUK: Can we expect the game to take advantage of DirectX 10 when it's released in Q1 2007, and will it need a high-end machine to play?

TG: Penumbra: Overture will not need DirectX 10. However, it will still have some next-gen features like motion blur and depth of field. Those with older cards will still be able to play it, though. We are trying to make the game work on as many computers as possible. Of course, people with new machines will be able to have much more eye candy.

GSUK: Thomas, thanks for your time.

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