Ten years have passed since Frictional Games’ seminal horror classic Amnesia: The Dark Descent traumatised the gaming world, and it’s been five since the release of its astonishing sci-fi horror Soma; finally, though, the Swedish studio is set to make its long-awaited return, this time revisiting its decade-old franchise with new series entry, Amnesia: Rebirth. Yet while that might initially feel like an unexpected regression, especially after the dazzling freshness of Soma, Frictional sees Rebirth as the latest evolutionary step in the studio’s journey – one it’s been on since its inception in 2007 – to create a very particular type of horror experience.
“The thing is,” explains Frictional’s co-founder and creative director Thomas Grip of the studio’s fascination with the genre, “in a shooter you shoot people, in a puzzler you puzzle things, and in a strategy game you strategise things, but there’s not really any activity that’s central to horror games… it’s the emotions that you evoke.
“I think that’s quite different from how you approach other genres and it adds so much more focus on how you structure narrative… and that’s a very interesting way of making games.”
It’s a development challenge Frictional has been attempting to perfect for over a decade now; however, since the acclaimed release of Soma – a game whose gut-wrenching moments of woozy existential terror lingered long after its unforgettable finale – the studio has focussed its ambitions still further, aiming to create narrative experiences that don’t just make players “think about things in a different way”, as Grip puts it, but, by carefully threading gameplay and story, makes them an “active force” in how events unfolds.
“In some ways,” explains Grip, “Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a newer and better version of Penumbra [the studio’s earlier horror title], and, in some ways, I even think Soma is a better version of Amnesia. One of my annoyances when doing Amnesia was that the player didn’t confront the things we wanted them to confront when we first made the designs. With Soma though we went all in and wanted people [to really] confront the thematics… but it also felt like the gameplay didn’t hang as tightly together as it should have with the themes we wanted.”
Rebirth, then, is essentially a culmination of all the studio’s learnings so far, and an attempt to address those perceived weaknesses with earlier games. “We’re trying to do what we did in Soma in terms of the overarching narrative,” says Grip, “but we’re trying to get back to better lower-level gameplay – which I feel we had in Amnesia – and then combining those two together to form a really coherent and nice package.”
“We’ve learned so much and gained so much confidence in doing Soma,” Grip continues, “that now I think we can really do it on a purer horror experience as well, and that’s what we’re sort of aiming for with Rebirth; there’s gonna be scares with monsters popping up from unexpected places and so on, but if everything goes as we want it to, that’s not what’s gonna keep you up at night. That’s gonna be the long-term effects of the journey throughout the game and the choices you end up making. That’s the thing that’s gonna be haunting you in the very end.”
Why, though, did Frictional feel the urge to return to the Amnesia universe, especially after the emboldening success of an entirely new, and refreshingly different setting, in Soma? “It’s two reasons,” explains Grip, “One is that after we released Soma, we never wanted to do another game that took five years to make – which we ended up doing anyway, but never mind – but we still wanted to improve, we still wanted to merge gameplay better with narrative, and we felt that if we could go back to Amnesia, that would be something that we had a lot of established things for. So it would be easier to have a go at a sequel and improve it and make that interesting, rather than just reinventing everything from scratch.
“But then on top of that, while the environment in The Dark Descent is actually pretty boring to render – it’s an old castle, there are some normal rooms, there are some cellar rooms, and that’s it, there’s just not a lot of variety – the lore of Amnesia has a tonne of environments. There are deserts, tombs, and all kinds of weird stuff, and it felt like it would be really cool if we could visit those places and have them finally not just being lines in the text. It just felt like we had a lot of unexplored lore to base it all around.”
Five years later and the studio’s continued experimentation with horror has resulted in Amnesia: Rebirth, a game that follows the harrowing journey of protagonist Tasi Trianon as she travels across the Algerian desert of the 1930s. It’s an unusual, ambitious setting – one that creative lead Fredrik Olsson calls “the biggest variation in environments we’ve had in any of our games” – not least because its brilliant light and wide open expanses seem completely antithetical to the traditional modes of horror.
Grip says the initial inspiration for Rebirth’s desert setting came from a book he was reading called Skeletons On The Zahara, which charts the real-life story of Captain James Riley and his crew in the early 19th century, after their ship became wrecked on the shore of the Sahara. “It’s really much a horror story,” explains Grip, “and I felt, well, wouldn’t it be cool to have a horror story set in the desert, because that’s fairly uncommon… but we sort of figured out the hard way that deserts are not so scary. We started making the first concepts, and, well, when you have a desert in front of you, it looks very much like a day on the beach. It’s not all that frightening.”
The solution, it turns out, was variety; “Rebirth doesn’t just take place in a desert,” says Grip, “it takes place in caves and other sorts of buildings that you can enter, but I really like that diversity. The desert is a really cool way of emphasising the contrasts that you go through; in one area of the game you squeeze through tight tunnels and then come out of an opening and you’re in the middle of this wide-open, endless desert. And that just makes the desert seem even bigger and more empty, and it makes these crawl spaces feel even more claustrophobic… that’s a really cool sort of juxtaposition to work with.”
“And there’s a difference between how you contextualise things,” continues Grip. “If you have a desert setting, and you just put the player there, it’s not very scary. But if you build a narrative where they’re alone, and they have to get out there because they’re dying, then just being in a desert and not seeing any kind of help in any direction, suddenly, it’s a scary place to be. So it depends a lot on how you build it all up. I think that’s an interesting part of the challenge.”
But while a desert might be something of a bold choice for a horror game, it’s a setting that, crucially, is immediately understandable – a valuable lesson Frictional learned while working on Soma’s relatively high-concept bio-mechanically infested water world.
“When we started making Soma,” explains Grip, “one thing I had in my head was, ‘Okay, we’re just gonna skip any kind of convention, we’re not going to do any tropes, let’s just go wild here’. But I remember seeing the first impressions from a friend… and he was like, ‘You know, I can’t really figure out what genre this game is because it starts here, and then there’s some weird thing there, and then it goes to that sort of environment.'”
“He didn’t talk at all about what he thought about the game,” recounts Grip, “he was just so confused where to place the game genre that he didn’t really get a good experience. And from that I was like, ‘Okay, shit, we actually have to pull back a bit on the weirdness, because otherwise that’s all that people are gonna talk about and think about’.
“And we had that same thing when we asked people, ‘What do you think about your situation as a robot in Soma?’, and they’d reply, ‘My situation as a robot?! Well, I was thinking about these weird air blimps that were flying all around!’. So you have to sort of ground things, and I think that tropes can be extremely important; in a dark castle, for instance, the player knows, ‘I’ve heard about these from ghost stories and if I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night with the wind blowing and rain on the windows, I would be fucking scared’. And then people can very easily relate to that situation, and you’ve got them hooked… they’re like ‘Oh, now I understand the concept of this environment, now I can start getting scared by it!’.
“So I think that some sense of familiarity is extremely important if you want to build a good horror experience. If you just go all out to crazy wild, it’s just gonna fly over [people’s heads].”
Understandably, Frictional remains keen to talk about Rebirth’s actual game experience in only the vaguest of terms ahead of release. “We’re really hoping that people will find this to be a very personal and kind of different experience,” explains Olsson, “and we don’t want to spoil it until people actually get their hands on the game”. However, fans of The Dark Descent should immediately feel at home with Rebirth, not least because it shares the Amnesia series’ DNA of, as Grip puts it, “isolation, striving towards an uncertain goal, and constantly not only fearing for your life but also trying to survive your own internal demons”.
“I think we had to have an amnesiac story too,” continues Grip, “so that’s sort of what we’re going for here as well; it’s going to start out with a bunch of mysteries, the…