Sunday, 23 May 2010

Experience and Live - Not Compete and Beat

What follows are some thoughts on where I want videogames to evolve. At the same time it is also a sort of explanation of the core design goals for Frictional Games. It is not meant to describe how to do things, instead it as attempt to describe how we want our videogame experiences to be like.

When reading a good book, I get drawn into its world and feel part of the events that unfold. Yet the happenings are just figments of my imagination. There is a one way feed of information and I have no choice of where to focus; the writer is my guide and points out details to explore and choses what path to take. Still I feel immersed in the environments and close to the characters, evoking powerful emotions inside me. To be part of this journey through engrossing and enriching worlds is one of the major enjoyments for me when reading books. When a piece of fiction really hooks me, it is an awesome experience and I truly feel like I am inside the fictional world.

Still, I am not there, the environment does not kick back, only existing as a stream of prefabricated perception that I tap into. When making a video game, we can take a step further and create something that in a sense is truly there. Something that I can see through my own eyes, letting me decide where and how to explore. This is extremely potent stuff and something that requires attention. The opportunity to create alternative realties lie at our fingertips, yet it seems to be that the chance is not taken. Instead of focusing on world building and emotions, the realities inside videogames are wrapped in abstract rule systems where the environmental experience is secondary to the core rules and competitive elements.

Some games do touch upon this kind of creation of realities, but is almost always bogged down by game rules that destroy the "living in a world"-experience in some manner. For example, I thought that the first part of Bioshock (and some later parts) where you could just go around and explore the locations where amazing. Sometimes I truly felt part of the great underground city. Sadly, most of the game was filled competitive combat sections, spoiling much of the experience for me. Other games, like The Void, have an intriguing premise and imaginative environments, but holds me back with very punishing gameplay making it very hard for me to immerse myself in the game's world. Many adventure game also suffer from this and include, many times obscure, puzzles that halt progress and pulls me out of the game's world.

Of course videogames with very game-like rule sets are not bad, they can be very rewarding and should not cease to exist. I love solving puzzle and trying to overcome unforgiving platform sections. But sometimes, I just want to be immersed in another world, explore and be part of an engaging experience. However, almost always when I try a game where I think I will get this, I am put inside a competition with me against a the computer/designer. This does not mean that all challenge should be removed, as encountering obstacles can be helpful for immersion in the world, but it should not be the focus when making an alternative reality. It is also worth noting that I am not after being spoon fed a story, but a videogame where engaging (let it be sad, fun, disturbing, etc) experience in a fictional realm is the main goal.

Sadly, these kind of games are few, to the point of not really existing. Instead, almost all videogames have as a core goal to challenge the player, and to be something that is meant to be beaten. I would like to see more games where the main goal is to make the player live an experience, to engage the player in a world and to evoke a wide range of emotions. I would like to start a game and be taken to another world, where I can focus on being immersed in an alternate reality instead of worrying about headshots, experience points or the solution to a sliding puzzle.

To make the player become part of a fictional world has been a goal for us at Frictional Games since we started working on Penumbra and it is still our main goal when creating Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We know we still have a lot left to learn and are stuck in many traditional game conventions. But we make sure to try out new things, noticing what works and what doesn't as we go along. Hopefully this will take us increasingly closer to the goal of making an experience that is not played but lived.


  1. Spot on, Grip. As always.

  2. Mikael Hedberg, Writer for Frictional Games23 May 2010 at 17:26

    Player survival is at the core in most games sadly enough. The will to change and better the world we are experiencing is so much more powerful, yet it is left largely unexplored by developers. Remind me to high-five you next time we meet Thomas. ;)

  3. Frictional is really the only developer I'd like to work with - above starting my own.

    Keep it up, guys!

  4. Generally, I agree, but I think the reason why things (games) are this way is that it is much easier to hook player up by challenging him to clear the obstacles rather than by some other means (like making him care for the fictional world/characters/stuff... or taking advantage of his curiosity, trying to always surprise him with new experiences).

    If you tune down or completely remove this game-rule aspect you are risking that players (not sure if players is the right word now) won't immerse as much as they otherwise would.

    Example: Visual novel and RPG have completely same setting (world, atmosphere, whatever...). If I don't like the setting, I wouldn't care to play the visual novel, but still might try out the RPG, if the mechanics are interesting enough.

    But don't get me wrong, I would love to 'play' something like this, for example: I hope that Dreamfall:Chapters will be this way - further turning away from game mechanics in favour of narrative and atmosphere.

  5. What you wrote, sir, is the essence of why I'm in love with Frictional Games since playing Penumbra.

  6. Nickless_One:
    The problem of engaging a player without the normal game stuff is still something that needs to explored a lot more than it currently. I agree that normal gameplay can be used to "lure" the player into a world, but doing so poses problems, as now you need to conform to the gameplay in order to keep the player engaged. This means that you cannot explore certain aspects of the virtual world unless they are related to the rules of the game.

    Then, good gameplay is also a great thing to force you into staying with a terrible story :)

    Final note is that I am not after a visual novel, which I think is the trivial solution when focusing on the world. What we wanna do is to fill the videogame with stuff that is not game rules, but still engage the player in similar manner.

  7. If I'm understanding what you're getting at, then I think my favourite games like this are open-world RPGs such as Oblivion or Fallout 3. Both make me feel as though I am living in the world. Combat is there, but you can spend ages doing other things as well.

    Two very recent games which seem to go in opposite directions here are Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption.

    I think that Red Dead Redemption, like Fallout 3 and Oblivion, are very immersive due to the freedom the player is given, either to take part in combat or to just go off and do other things around the world.

    With Alan Wake, the opposite is (at times) frustratingly true. They created a beautiful world to explore in Alan Wake - even using an open-world mechanic, but then they made the game almost entirely about surviving through each 'level'. It's a great game as it is, but the possibilities for what the game could have been are all too obvious. There are a few slower sections, but for the most part, the player is being constantly harassed rather than being able to explore.

    What I loved about Penumbra (and will hopefully be true of Amnesia as well), is that there are a few enemies there, but they are mostly just to keep you from completely relaxing, but the world is also great to explore, and for the most part, the horror comes from the atmosphere, and the fact that the player know there's 'something' out there.

    It just shows that you don't need to be constantly throwing enemies at the player to create an immersive game and game environment.

  8. I've always thought videogaming is the best medium for creating experiences and have been eagerly waiting for developers to actually use all it has to offer (shooting tiny men from behind corners stopped being an experience a long-long time ago). With time it will come, but what worries me is that most people don't seem to even know to crave for it and so might, once found, discard it as obscure and un-fun.

  9. Professor Paul129025 May 2010 at 00:34

    As uncool as it might be, this post really reminded my of Myst Online: Uru Live, which was recently brought back again as free to play.
    It's not a great game by itself, but it does have something that resembles a "alternate world" to it.

    It has "game stuff" in the form of puzzles, but puzzles are only good a few times through. Some people keep coming back to play not for any actual built-in gameplay, but to explore the alternate reality that is both presented in the game and extended beyond it by the fanbase and the developers.

    What has helped with this a lot is that despite having a more or less fantasy setting, it tries to maintain parallels or connections with the real world whenever possible. Players essentially play as alternate versions of themselves, the Myst series the game is a spin-off of is a series of computer games based on real events, and so on. Even outside the game most players will often roleplay a bit and talk and whenever possible talk about the game as if they've really been taking trips to some underground ruins in New Mexico and travelling to other worlds through books.

    Of course, in this case the so called "alternate world" is created just as much outside the game as it is inside the game and the game itself probably wouldn't stand very well without that part of the alternate reality that was built around it.

    Still, I think the fact that the community went to great lengths to maintain and roleplay the alternate reality from the game through other means even after the game had failed twice before says something about the world they've managed to create.

  10. I really hope you guys succeed!!


    on the subject: I think the problem is the distinction between the game structure and narrative structure - the first is about challenge, about choosing the right strategies to achieve your goal (for example, we find excellent games without any plot); while the second is about building a metaverse, a fictional world that requires ability to be good immersive. And this second is the kind of game you want with Amnesia.

  11. Just wondering, have you played The Path? Because this ...

    "It is also worth noting that I am not after being spoon fed a story, but a videogame where engaging (let it be sad, fun, disturbing, etc) experience in a fictional realm is the main goal."

    ... is pretty much the description of that game. Needless to say, if you didn't play it, you definitely should. For whatever faults those guys commited, noone can take from them that they've created a truly unique, heavily immersive interactive experience which still retains quite a bit of what makes a game, if you can see through the disguised mechanics.

    It's pretty fascinating to read negative reviews and see how badly so many people missed especially this last part, because they would seem to be unable to understand information if it's not presented in the form of glimmering arrows and colored bars.

  12. Great its premise may be, but "The Path" is unfortunately a complete technical failure. The (extremelo slow!) engine barely manages to display stuff in a consistent manner. Twice I had one of the girls get stuck inside a tree trunk when simply walking through the forest. I don't need to tell you how big an immersion-breaker this is :-) You'll also lose whole minutes trying to tell your girl what to do, but being ignored since she will not be standing in the EXACT appropriate location. Nothing like this happened to me in Penumbra.

  13. Yes, yes, yes! This is absolutely the kind of game I want more. A while ago when considering what I most want out of a game I came to the conclusion that it was to be able to explore rich, interesting and immersive worlds. This is exactly what you are saying. I agree that games often force gameplay onto the player in such a way that you don't get a chance to meaningfully engage with the world. And I also agree that it's not necessary for every game to offer a challenge to a player, at least in the way they often do.

    The question then is what gameplay to place within the world to occupy and engage the player. Many of the issues we may have with other games probably ultimately come down to needing creating some new and original styles of gameplay because just shooting people, for example, is rather stale.

    I like a lot of the gaming philosophy and thinking you're doing and I encourage you in your creative endeavours but I'm afraid I won't be playing Amnesia. I want immersive games that won't frighten me half-to-death.

  14. This post confirm that my pre-order money are well spent! :D

  15. I found it weird that you'd cite punishing gameplay as something that made it hard for you to be immersed in The Void. The Void is a terribly harsh place, and the gameplay reflecting that was, I thought, one of the greatest strengths of the experience.

  16. are you going to the E3 aswell?

  17. IMO, "Experience and Live" is more than, but also includes "Compete and Beat", which is not true the other way around.

    So, rather than eliminating the "Compete and Beat" element, a game should SHIFT FOCUS from it in favor of the more _profound_ and _serious_ "Experience and Live" approach.

    A dictionary would define the word profound as "showing intellectual penetration or emotional depth" - this is exactly what we want from modern games. That said, the "Compete and Beat" element, IMO, should exist within a (story-related) context, rather than just be a puzzle (simple, or elaborate, action-packed, but still a puzzle) per se.

  18. This is exactly how I see it. The ultimate realization of my dream game would be one in which the player MAKE the story with his actions... I understand there is some limitations right, now, but I think we are coming to a time where this will be possible. There must be rules, because a world without them wouldn't be believable... I mean, in our world there are some (we need to eat, to breath, a dagger in our heart kill us, etc).

    I'm really happy to see I invested well in pre-ordering Amnesia, and I hope that I could, in a couple of years, work with you on a project, when I'll have the necessary experience.

    Live long and prosper.

  19. I felt pretty much the same with Bioshock. And this is what makes me not even look twice to a great ammount of games out there. I tried Farcry, Doom 3, and watched some videos of FEAR and Crysis, and I decided to not even care for them.

    I find rather amazing that we have such a great amount of power nowadays in what game making is concerned, and then looking at the games themselves I find a huge patern in design and a great stagnation in their essense. I'm having trouble with having fun with recent games as opposed to the fun I had with games 10 or 15 years ago. They were linear, simpler, and in most cases very limited, but they were fun and in many cases something new and straight-forward. And anyone would have a computer that could run them without much reducing of graphical settings. In most cases.

    Oblivion got me disappointed in a shocking way, as I was expecting something grand, something beautyful, but when playing it I couldn't help being slaped in the face with everything looking so mechanical, unforgiving, ilogical, and repetitive/paterned. The only thing that really worked towards immersive playing was the real-time-leveling that helped keeping me focused in doing things instead of distributing points through skills and attributes. Aside from that, everything else was constantly slapping me awake and aware of not being there. The story itself was more of the same. I grow tired of starting as a prisoner who was arested in some misterious way, and then being told "I'm the chosen one". After playing Arx Fatalis and Planetscape Torment and many others, this felt greatly disappointing.

    I wonder why do developers don't use more time to evolve a nice gameplay and a touching story, instead of evolving all the minor/support details that are the physics and graphics.

    I wonder why are the head guys so afraid of defying these so called "trends" that do not make sense at all, because people buy whatever you sell them, even if it's quality is doubtful, provided that you advertise it well. As been proven throughout the years where all the mentioned games, and many more, have sold more than enough.

    I wonder why is it easier to sell a tech demo like Crysis, than it is to sell a great story like Penumbra or Dark Fall...

    I wonder why the great majority of people don't realise this...

    I wonder why there's so many people that let themselves go by the "I can start saving money now and buy a new rig tomorrow and then I can play this game!" kind of thinking, over and over...

    I wonder why there not many devs with guts like Frictional Games. Especialy in the non-indie mainstream scene.

  20. Well, this is definitely the sort of direction that games can go in, but it does have limits. For example, certain mechanics (such as hunger, thirst, bodily functions) are removed from games, not because they break flow, but because they are "mundane"... although all of these things *can* be used to create immersion.

    Thirst, especially, is the forte of the largely defunct Dark Sun setting for DnD, and imagine a survival horror where one of the things that happens, albeit rarely... well, only once, otherwise it gets annoying... is that you get attacked "on the can", as it were!

    Nonetheless, I applaud this sentiment, and have often thought about this very concept... a game where someone explores, immerses themselves in the world. Where the puzzles are logically placed (something the Myst games often suffered from... did all the characters have Evil Villain Syndrome or something?), but few, if any, are *truly* necessary in the world. Definitely buying Amnesia, and both wishing the best of luck to, and looking forward to, the continuing career of Frictional Games.

    Jay, Gamerfill.

  21. I find it funny that in posts like this, we always have to make sure that people who like games aren't offended. That we have to tell them that their games are fine, that there's nothing wrong with them. But that we want something else, that can exist next to their precious hobby. They are an aggressive bunch, aren't they? And damn conservative too.

    Anyway, I'm with you all the way. And still amazed that not more designers are focussing on this amazing potential of the medium. Especially since many of them are definitely toying with it but they can't seem to bring themselves to remove the game structure. Which is the one thing that stands between videogames-as-a-niche-hobby and videogames-as-the-artform-of-the-new-century.

  22. What I think games need is deeper levels of what might be called improbable interactions, significant game-level reactions for events that don't happen all that often. For instance, in Fallout 3, I run a lot of scrap metal to the ghouls in Underworld. The guy I'm feeding says thanks and pays up, but the ordinary ghouls I run into never lose their suspicion of me, and Willow, the guard outside, will be just as dismissive and unhelpful on my twentieth trip as on my first. You'd think that sooner or later she'd realize the value to her people of what I was doing and feed me a hint or two about whether there was something waiting for me around the corner from the Museum entrance. Or at least stop calling me a tourist....


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