“In trying to create the best horror experience, you’re instantly drawn into very interesting game design problems, almost philosophical questions, like how much free will the player needs to get a sense that they have agency?” said Thomas Grip, creative director and co-founder at Frictional Games. “You’re exploring how to create narrative in games not just for its own sake, but because you need it to make a good horror game! That’s also why you see a lot of horror games actually having a pretty good narrative.”
“Rebirth” makes this case, immediately beginning with a harrowing, familiar lament about grief, and the long struggle in bearing such pain. If you played their previous games, like the heartbreaking science fiction story “Soma,” you might be reminded that the developers enjoy exploring the depths of human denial, and how so much of being alive means needing to push away or suppress disturbing thoughts about the nature of our existence. Once again, Frictional Games is setting its stage in your mind.
With certainty, 2010′s “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” is one of the last decade’s most influential games. It not only ushered in a new era of horror games that play with our psyche and emotions, but also boosted the early careers of some of today’s most prominent gaming influencers, including PewDiePie. Reacting to the scariest moments of “Amnesia” is deeply embedded in YouTube culture today.
One of the most important innovations of “Dark Descent” was its use of quiet space, along with how you, as a player, have no way to fight back. In trailers for “Rebirth,” the new protagonist Tasi can be heard talking to herself quite a bit, which caused some concern among longtime fans that the newer game might be more chatty, akin to Nathan Drake in the “Uncharted” series. Not so, says Grip.
Daniel, from “Dark Descent,” also wasn’t silent, neither was Simon from “Soma.” Tasi fulfills a similar role. Grip said the team is constantly debating the value of allowing for a silent protagonist, which some developers argue is better for immersion. But because it’s a horror game, Grip said they needed a voice to help direct a player’s emotions.
There was a moment in “Soma” where Simon realized he had just swapped his consciousness into a new, artificial metal body. Simon audibly reacting to this gave the moment more emotional weight, otherwise it risks the player simply accepting the new body as function, and not the literal vehicle for the narrative.
“Having a character that narrates their reality, it makes the player used to [the world],” Grip said. “So when you have a character-to-character moment, like when Simon does his body swap [in “Soma”], it comes perfectly natural. You’re building a long relationship from hearing that voice, and hearing it from someone else can have an interesting reaction in the player.”
There’s an early moment from “Dark Descent” where its trademark “sanity event” feature triggered a scream effect to go with it. Grip remembers it vividly because it was an example of overt developer control over what the player should see and hear.
“No one has ever complained about that moment, even though we’re really imposing on the player,” Grip said.
It’s a balance of having a believable character with realistic reactions, while ensuring the audience stays connected to the character. Grip said it’s why you don’t often see game characters expressing personal, political or religious beliefs.
“Some players will be, ‘I don’t accept how this player feels about this current situation,’ so you have to thread a very thin line,” said Grip, adding that some players complained that Simon in “Soma” didn’t react strongly enough to certain events. “We were worried about going overboard.”
Grip said Frictional Games has felt immense pressure to follow up on “Dark Descent” and its legacy. Since its release, there have been hundreds of games in the market that feature defenseless characters in frightening, impossible and nightmarish situations. “Rebirth” isn’t going to be a new revolution, Grip admits, but he’s confident that no other game will put us in the situations they’re about to give us.
“What we’re trying to do is make something that feels like very dedicated craftsmanship,” Grip said. “Every new environment you step into in ‘Rebirth’ is going to have some twist on the formula. … I don’t think we’ve ever seen a game do some of the things we’re doing.”