Creative Director at Frictional Games Thomas Grip discussed using players' imagination to enhance the horror elements in games, told us which game defines the studio, and explained why he never considered Frictional to be an indie studio.
What set us apart in the past and still sets us apart are mainly two things – most employees work from home, and we use our own engine.
Both of these necessarily defined our path. There were no good engine options back in 2005 when we started on Penumbra (the tech demo), and we had no money for an office. Both of these turned into defining features as we moved on and are all related to our workflow.
We make games that are of a very holistic nature. There is no sharp line between the part of the team that does story, gameplay, tech, and so forth. All of it is mixed together. Our own tech, and the kind of cooperation that online work allows us to do, are both crucial for making this studio work. We also try to keep the size of the team small. We are very careful about growth and rather take in people that can wear many hats than have experts in a very focused field.
At Frictional, we work on games holistically. This plays a crucial part in how our games look and feel. While all of our games have been horror in some way, what we really try to do is to get a kind of "playable immersion". What I mean by this is that we want to give the player some sort of immersive fantasy. Be that being a WW1 soldier trapped in a bunker or a robot stuck at the bottom of the ocean. We want to shape the game in such a way that story, gameplay, sound, art, etc, all work together to strengthen that core goal experience. It is also important to make sure this journey feels personal and that evoking emotions is the main goal.
Horror games naturally are where emotions are front and center. Games really excel at this. However, we are also exploring themes outside of making things spooky. Rebirth is about caring for an unborn child, and SOMA is about philosophical questions around consciousness. We delivered these themes within a horror context, but those stories could be told in another genre. It’s not about the fear, it’s about the holistic fantasy we deliver in each of our stories.
For future projects, I think we will cut back a bit on the horror aspects in order to give greater focus on other emotional qualities. I am confident that these games will still feel like Frictional ones. The immersion, the personal journey, and a holistic vision are what I see as defining traits of a Frictional game – not just horror as such.
The Studio's Defining Game
In some ways, I think that Penumbra is the defining game for the studio. For me personally, that was when we managed to take a bunch of ideas and a creative ethos and put that into a complete game. While we have managed to elevate a bunch of stuff since then, I think that Penumbra really set the tone for the studio.
What I think is interesting about Penumbra is how hard it was to make. Every encounter, puzzle, and map was a complex task and required the whole team to work together. There were very few things that came easy and it was a constant merger of gameplay and story. It was a very grueling process, but it also hallmarks what makes the game work.
Every time things come too easily or we skimp on this approach, the result is worse. For instance, in Penumbra, we added simple mazes with monsters – and those are easily the worst part of the game. Despite this, at least for me personally, I have always tried to make the development process simpler and less grueling. But every time we did that (Penumbra: Requiem with its puzzle focus being a shining example), things just got worse.
So over the years, I have sort of learned to embrace the difficulty of the process instead of being annoyed by it. It’s a feature, not a bug, so to speak. This all started with Penumbra; hence that feels like the defining game.
Of course, The Dark Descent really made the studio into a force to be reckoned with. But the thing is that I didn't see us doing much differently. Much of The Dark Descent's development took the approach: "Like Penumbra, but better!"
Leveraging the Human Psychology
Imagination, imagination, and imagination. This is really what makes it all click in the end. Players just make up more than there is to the game, and we utilize that as much as possible. Even in a game like The Bunker, which has a lot of focus on punishing the player and having concrete systems, imagination is still king. When people hear sounds, they IMAGINE things, and it is this mental imagery that fuels the experience.
I mean, there is no real danger in playing our games. It is just a game – it plays out on a screen with relatively simple systems driving it. But with the right context, as in story, art, sound, and so forth, the players just get immersed and lose track of what is real and not. This makes the player personally involved with the happenings of the game.
You also notice that the most interesting play comes when the players are not really playing. Forming a plan, hiding, thinking about something they have seen, and so forth. These are often the key moments in the game, and they are all in the player's mind.
Obviously, it cannot all be mind tricks. The Bunker is a good example of having actual consequences and interaction opportunities. That is key to making it all work, as you need the imagination to rest on a solid foundation. But in the end, crafting an elaborate fictional space in the player's mind is really what our work is about.
The Technical Side of Things
As I was not overly involved on the technical side, I don’t want to go too far into it, but I would consider crucial parts being:
- An interconnected world.
- System-driven interactions.
What this means is that the environment is not just a facade but is actually a real space. The player needs to revisit places, learn layouts, and such. This forms a mental model of the space. Remember what I said about imagination? Well, this is part of that. The titular Bunker is not just some sort of figment of the story, it becomes an actual place.
The systems do the same thing. Doors break from various sources, the monster visibly emerges through holes, there is an actual population of rats, and so forth. It is not just smoke and mirrors. The player can poke and experiment with them and get interesting results. And again, this makes the player form a deeper mental bond with these things.
Is Frictional Games an Indie Studio?
I am not sure I EVER thought of Frictional as an indie. We used publishers to a certain extent in the early days, and while we are fully self-funded now, I am still not sure I see us as an indie.
While the idea of indie developers has been a huge boost for games and development in general over the past 15 years or so, I am still a bit ambivalent about it in terms of Frictional. I think that the reason is that I always set the bar really high.
In terms of end experience, I do not see us competing on a lower level. While we might not have the budget for larger-than-life cutscenes, in terms of raw immersive experience, we compete with all games on the market. If people feel that some AAA games do horror better than us, then I don't simply think, "Oh well, we can't compete with that." Instead, I see that as a direct challenge. We want to be the ones that make the best experience in whatever genre that we choose to work with, even if that is populated by games from AAA studios. I'm not sure that makes us any less indie, but for me personally, I am not sure I have ever embraced the title.
As for running the studio, the landscape constantly changes. We are very fortunate to have a well-known and well-regarded pedigree. That means it is easier for us to get exposure and reach out. Both in terms of selling games and recruiting talent. And while the market is flooding with new games, the audience is also growing.
Not saying it's easy for us – it never has been. But so far, we are still thriving. You never know how long you can continue, but we will continue making games as long as we can.
What Should Developers Always Keep in Mind?
The player's imagination, imagination, and imagination. Inspire the player's imagination, and they will add just as much to the game as the developer does.