Tuesday, 15 October 2019

9 Years, 9 Lessons on Horror

By Thomas Grip
Edited by Kira

It has now been over 9 years since we released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. That is a bloody long time, and feels like we should celebrate that by talking about the craft of horror games.

Horror games are quite a different beast when it comes to the game industry at large. Most other genres revolve around what the player does. In a turn-based strategy you take turns doing strategy:

Into the Breach

 In a first-person shooter you shoot things from a first-person perspective:

Doom

In a Match 3 game you match three thingies:

Candy Crush: Soda


In a horror game, the activity is not at all as important. What is important is that the experience is a spooky one. This makes designing horror games different from designing within other genres. Many times the standard industry tricks just won’t work, which makes one think about game design in a different light.

In the past 9 years we have learned a great deal about horror games, and to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to share 9 lessons we have learned over the years.

That being said, I don’t see these lessons as only useful for horror games. There’s quite a bit of overlap with other genres, especially any games that aim for a narrative-heavy experience.

And finally – this is by no means an exhaustive list. Still, the lessons here are at the core of the craft of making scary video games.


Lesson 1: Horror is not enjoyable

The basic emotion of horror is not a pleasant one – yet people play horror games wanting to experience horror. This is the paradox of horror as entertainment. This paradox requires game developers to be careful in how they deliver the experience to the player.

You could draw an analogy between horror games and rollercoasters. The basic purpose of a rollercoaster is to simulate the sensation of falling. Under controlled circumstances the experience of falling is thrilling and fun (at least for a good portion of people). But if you put someone in a barrel and push them down a cliff, chances are they will not find the experience fun at all. Even if they survive unscathed, the whole ordeal would be a horrible experience.

The same is true for horror games. If you have a game that only relies on jumpscares – figuratively throwing people off a cliff in a barrel – few people will consider that fun. This became apparent in certain maps in Penumbra. We thought it would be good enough for a scary gameplay section to have a maze and some monsters. Instead of becoming mazes of fear, they instead became mostly... annoying. Amnesia: The Dark Descent had similar issues towards the end, where the monster encounters were just that, not supported by any other aspects. At that point the game no longer felt as entertaining.

Well this is a familiar face.


Lesson 2: Players are working against you

For a horror game developer, the worst enemy is… the players. Seriously, if we could sit around and make games without having to worry about what the players will do and think when playing the game, life would be so much simpler!

As mentioned before, being scared is not a pleasant feeling. Therefore the players will try to optimize the feeling away, often unconsciously. In the end, the players will ruin the intended experience for themselves.

Take the demon dogs from our first game, Penumbra: Overture. The game takes a bunch of time to build them up as creepy monsters that stalk the dark mines. However their AI has some weaknesses that some people are very quick to catch. Hence the dogs become easy to defeat, and are no longer scary.

Can't get me. I'm on a box.

And the crazy thing is that the players complain when this happens! They probe the system for flaws and choose to exploit them, yet want the dogs to remain scary. So their behaviour ends up going against their will.

Some games solve issues of player exploitation simply by making the enemies extremely hard (think Dark Souls): they make sure the monsters are just as hard to beat as they look scary. Another approach is to instead skip much of the gameplay (think Dear Esther): if there are no mechanics, there’s nothing for the player to exploit – problem solved, right?

I don’t think either of these solutions is optimal. Instead I think one should aim for a third route: making the players think about actions in a more narrative fashion. More about that later!


Lesson 3: Scares alone won’t make a horror game

Horror is like a spice that defines a dish. You cannot do without it, but you can’t cook a dish solely out of spices either. That would be just gross.

As an example, let’s take three horror movies I consider to be at the top of their genre: Alien, The Exorcist and Ringu. All three movies deal with very different subjects, have different styles, and are overall different from one another. But there is one thing they have in common: they all have very few scares in them!

Instead each movie is mostly about the characters, the discussions, the anticipation of the horror – building up the atmosphere and the dread of things to come. Very little time is spent actually facing the horror.

Let’s get back to our roller coaster analogy. When you think about it, the actual roller coaster ride lasts a very short time. Most of the time is spent doing things like buying a ticket, standing in line, and hearing other people scream. All these actions are not superfluous extras – they build up for the actual ride, and are crucial to the overall experience.

When we first made the study section of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we implemented a ton of jumpscares. Books fell down from shelves, doors banged, pianos started playing and so forth. But as the map became more complete, it felt like something was off. So we reduces the scares to just a couple, and instead focused on letting the player learn the castle’s mysteries. At first we were afraid this would make the level too boring – but as it turns out, spacing the scares apart made players much more scared than previously.

In horror, less is often more.


Lesson 4: Fun gameplay is just too… fun

In a horror game more than any other, the players go in expecting to have a bad time. And as designers we want them to feel anxiety, despair, and a whole array of negative emotions. But gameplay – because it’s so damn engaging – tends to counteract all these juicy emotions.

Let’s use Dead Space as an example. When I started playing it, I was really scared, walking around slowly and peeking around every corner. Then, about an hour in, I learned how to kill the monsters, and what tricks I needed to survive.

Dead Space 2 promo art
All of the fun, none of the horror!

Not only did I get good at killing the monsters, I thought it was great fun! The things that used to terrify me now became a source of amusement. Instead of dreading the monster sounds they now made me excited – oh great, another necromorph to dismember!

So where did the fear go? It was simply overshadowed by the rewarding gameplay.

Us humans tend to have this thing called attention, and we only have a limited amount of it. If the game is constantly engaging the player with thinking about their aim, checking ammo, and looking for loot, there’s no room left for much else. In other words, the players’ brain will lack resources to frighten themselves.

The early designs of Amnesia: The Dark Descent included genre-typical weapons, and even guns. We also experimented with very elaborate puzzle set-ups, everything from swinging chandeliers to redirecting rays of light. All these caused the same issues as Dead Space. They were too fun, and took attention away from what mattered: getting scared.

Eventually we decided to reduce the “fun” elements the gameplay had – and it paid off.

We saw this very clearly when watching Let’s Plays of the Amnesia games. Since players didn’t have things like combat to pay attention to, they reacted to things they might not have even noticed in other games. A vague sound, almost like a footstep, was suddenly a reason to look for the nearest cupboard to hide in. Had the players minds been filled with thoughts of loot boxes, they would have never reacted like this.


Lesson 5: Narrative is a core element in good horror

So if engaging gameplay can be counteractive to the horror, and you need to be careful with the scares, what do you fill a horror game with?

While no silver bullet, narrative is a big part of the equation.

By building up a narrative, us game designers can make game worlds bigger and more intricate than they actually are in-game. We can prime the player into doing a lot of the scaring for themselves.

In order to explain this, let’s take a random image let’s take a random image of a quaint town:

Aww, I wanna go there. :)

This feels like a great place for an evening stroll, right?

Now let’s give this image some backstory. Put on some spooky music, like the Amnesia soundtrack, and read the following:

It has been two weeks since a huge storm cut the town from the rest of the world. All means of communication are down.
Today, our emergency services received a call – it just started out as static, a joke that kids would play, but then the screaming started. The screaming of people, then an otherworldly roar, nothing a man nor beast on Earth could make. I had to find out what happened to these people up the serpentine road from us. 
I am now here, yet no one else seems to be. It’s like everyone vanished. But as the cold sun sets down over the mountain, I get a sense of unease…

...And now look at the picture again.

The worst monster of all is leaving the lights you've been murdered horribly.

Not so cozy anymore, right?

A new context leads to re-interpreting the environment based on this information, and get into a different mindset based on it. While you previously admired the view, you are now scanning it for signs of danger.

A big part of horror takes place inside a player’s head. And by fueling their imagination, we can turn a cozy village into a place of terror and despair.

Looking back on which areas worked in Penumbra, this component became apparent. The most loved environments were those where players could use lore and environmental clues to fantasize what happened… and what could happen. The expansion, Penumbra: Requiem, lacked a lot of this background information. So despite us designing some of our best puzzles and implementing interesting visuals, Requiem was received quite badly. Without a strong narrative component, the players didn’t get the experience they wanted.

Penumbra: Requiem, or as we call it, The Marc Game.


Lesson 6: The world must feel real

In order for a horror narrative to have proper impact, the world it takes place in must be taken seriously by the players. But what does “serious” mean? Grey and brown tones with no cartoonish elements? Not quite.

Let’s draw a parallel between real and imagined worlds. If you suffer from nightmares, there’s a trick to that: make a habit out of knocking on walls, tables, or whatever is closest to you. Eventually you will start doing the same when you’re asleep. However, when you knock on walls or a table in a dream, your hand is likely to go through the surface – that’s how you’ll know you are in a dream, and no longer need to be afraid of the world around you.

Making horror games is basically a business of creating nightmares. But it’s hard to be successful when you have a bunch of players (those damn players again!) constantly doing the equivalent of “knocking on surfaces”, simply by playing the game. As soon as they discover some sort of glitch the immersion of a terrifying world breaks, and it takes a long time to build it back up again.

Let’s look at an example from Penumbra again. In Penumbra we want the players to imagine that the demon dogs are “real”, implying all the traits (demon) dogs possess. So, we want players to be worried about encountering a dog, and hiding from it. However, some players “knocked on surfaces” by messing around with the environments, and figured out that the dogs can’t reach you if you camp on top of a box. So, whereas a real dog could jump up on the box and chomp the player up, the AI dog cannot. Therefore the fantasy of dogs as “real” is lost, and the game loses a bunch of its scariness.

The intended reaction when encountering a demon dog

Because of this effect, game developers have to be careful about how they construct environments, and what tools they give to the player. There should be enough things to do to make the place feel real. But not so many as to aid players in breaking the illusion.


Lesson 7: Keep it vague

You know creepypasta and scary photos you can find on the internet? Almost always the thing that makes them scary is that they leave a lot to the imagination. Seeing a silhouette and glowing eyes out in the corner of a photo feels threatening. A close-up glamour photo of the same monster does not.

AAH! What IS that?

Oh, just our good friend Terry bringing us a gift. (by ThiccBoiMyers on Discord)

As mentioned before, much of the horror comes from simply not being sure what the hell you’re looking at. It’s when there is a gap in our knowledge, a certain amount of uncertainty, that horror can really shine. This is especially true when you combine it with some sort of danger element.

It is quite common in games to make sure the player understands the systems in place as clearly as possible. This often results in some really daunting tutorials. Of course for some games, like fighting games, it’s important to have in-depth knowledge about the systems to be able to optimise the game. In horror games we actually want the opposite!

A vague and uncertain game system is like a creepy photo. You can make out enough to get an idea of what’s going on, but there’s still room for the imagination to go wild. Let’s use the health meter in Resident Evil as an example. Internally it is an analog property, a decimal number from 0 to some value, but the player will only ever know that it has “three” states. This strikes a great balance between giving information and being vague, and helps crank up the tension.

The sanity system in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is similarly vague. You know scary things – whatever those are – lower your sanity, and bad things – whatever those are – will happen if it drops too low, so you don’t want to risk it.

This was not always the case. We started out with a pretty straightforward gameplay system, hoping players would play along with it. However, people either game it or got frustrated by it. When we tweaked it so it was much less clear how it worked, it sparked player’s imaginations and it was much more enjoyable.

Alex isn't looking so good.


Lesson 8: Players need a role

All stories are driven by the characters that are contained within it, and how a plot plays out is determined by the characteristics of these characters. Just imagine how different Jurassic Park would be if the annoying lawyer guy was replaced by Judge Dredd! So, in order to get the most of any narrative, it is crucial to establish roles.

Games are no different. The role that a player inhabits will determine what actions they have at their disposal, what their goals ore, and so forth. Knowing the character is a vital component in order for the player to be an active part of the story.

Yet this is one of those components that many horror games forget. You are often thrust into a story as some generic character. Often the thought behind this is that the player would “play as themselves”, but this is not how any narrative really works. In order to properly parse a story situation, you need to understand what kind of person is dealing with it.

Say that you come across a corpse. You are playing as Sherlock Holmes, a corpse means a case! You will want to search for clues and try to solve the mystery of how this person died.

Now imagine you’re playing as a flesh-eating ghoul. Now the same corpse is suddenly dinner - yum!

An alternate universe where Daniel is turned into a ghoul. Bon appetit!

In most areas, horror games are well beyond your average game in terms of narrative. But for some reason, a large portion of horror games just fail to set the player role properly. It’s strange, relying on a narrative backbone, yet losing so much of the atmosphere by not defining the player role.

Another big reason for defining roles is that it can help with some of the issues addressed earlier. For instance, it can limit the number of actions the player feels is rational to take. For example Penumbra’s protagonist Philip is a physics teacher, so while he could perhaps fight some demon dogs, it would be more logical to run and hide from aggressive humanoids.

This lesson we clearly learned in SOMA. At first we thought about having a non-speaking Simon with very little character. However, this made player distance themselves from the events. Things got a lot more personal when they played as a character who was reacting to what was happening. While players previously wouldn’t ponder the strange events in-depth, Simon pushing them in the right direction it worked much better.


Lesson 9: Agency is crucial

When I talk about agency, I’m not talking about the CIA. What I mean is agency of the free will kind. A game that has a lot of agency lets the players make decisions and feel like an active part of the narrative.

This is closely tied to the previous lesson. Not only do we want to give players a role, we also want them to own that role. They need to feel like they really inhabit the character they are supposed to play. A game can achieve a lot by combining agency with keeping things vague – and letting players decide to take uncertain decisions.

Say that you are faced with a dark tunnel – dark tunnels are pretty scary!

Now imagine that the game explicitly tells you that your goal lies beyond the tunnel. There’s no choice, you gotta go in. And if the game forces you do something, it will also make sure you do actually have the means to complete this quest – in this case get to the other side of the tunnel.

What's the worst that could happen? :)

But what if entering this dark tunnel was voluntary, or at least presented as such? The game vaguely tells you that there might be something important there – but you don’t know, and might also be a certain death. All of a sudden the tunnel feels a lot less safe. By adding agency and making entering the tunnel an uncertain choice, all sorts of doubts pop up in the player’s mind.

There’s also a number of other ways to add agency. Say the player needs to do something unnerving, like Amnesia’s Daniel drilling into a corpse to get blood out. In the game it is clear that there is no other option. Overall reactions to this was not very strong.

Just petting a guy's head while the drill drills a hole in it.

Compare this to similar moments in SOMA, where intended course of action is much less clear. Here players are forced to actually think through what they need to do, and get emotionally involved in the process of it.

While SOMA did do this part better, it also had its shortcomings. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the game was divided into hub maps, so there was no one path or right order to do things. These choices increased anxiety. Whereas maps in SOMA were way more streamlined, and we noticed a considerable drop in scariness due to this.


In closing

And them’s the rules! As said before, these are not the only ones, but I believe these come out on top when listing the most important ones. You could also go into them with a lot more depth, but I wanted to keep this blog concise. A lot of my previous blogs in the design tag dive deeper into related subjects.

Finally, I want to close by saying that, because of all these special requirements for horror games, I don’t think you can approach them like other games. Instead of “finding the fun” and iteratively building upon that, horror game design needs to start with some strong principles.

When designing a horror game, you want to hone into what you’ve chosen as your core principles, be it atmosphere, theme, or something else. Then, as you progress in development, you don’t want to evaluate the game on how “fun” or “nice” it is to play – but in how well it fulfills its set core principles. And a cornerstone for being able to do that evaluation is to keep the above lessons in mind.

This in itself is a huge topic of its own, and will need to be dealt with in some future post. Stay tuned for more!


Friday, 4 October 2019

Winner Showcase of Frictional Fan Jam 2019

The autumn is getting cold, but our hearts have been warmed by the participation in the Frictional Fan Jam 2019! We would like to extend an equally warm "thank you" to everyone who participated. The outpour of love and creativity has been overwhelming!

We have now gone through the entries, voted among the Frictional Games staff and the Discord Moderator team, and picked the winners - as well as a few special mentions! The entries were divided into Mods/Games, Fanart, Fanfiction, and Other, and one or more winners were picked of each category.

As promised, the winners will receive a few physical goodies, a mention in our video, as well as keys for the upcoming game. People who got special mentions will receive keys! We will be in contact with these people next week.

This is enough bureaucratic talk: please behold our winners! The winners of each category will be showcased in the video below, or you can read about the entries under the video. All entries can be seen on our the Fan Jam Showcase on our Discord server.





Mods/Games


SOMA: The Fall of Freedom
by Rubyes

The Fall of Freedom takes us on one Pathos-II employee's journey through the now-infested station. Unlike the mods, this game is made in Unity and uses a minimalist yet efficient pixel style. It's short and (bitter)sweet, with Frictional-type puzzles translated into a 2D environment, and great sound design.


Hollow
by TiMan

Ever wondered how Alexander ended up on Earth? TiMan's Hollow imagines Alexander's story on his home planet, and how his banishment came to be. It has a distinct Amnesia feel despite being made on HPL3, the SOMA engine, and the custom assets make it fun to explore. The puzzles and gameplay have a classic Frictional feel, making it easy to play as a standalone installment.


Special mention:
Amnesia: Decayed History
by Sabatu

Sabatu's Decayed History mod did not fit the requirements of expanding upon one of Frictional's titles, yet we felt that it deserves a special mention. The HPL2 mod is an impressive length considering it was made in three short weeks, and the writing is great despite Sabatu only having studied English for about a year. The protagonist is given a task to find old documents in their childhood home, claiming their right to the house. But things are not quite as they seem...


Art

Castle Brennenburg
by Kripi

Kripi's cutoff of Castle Brennenburg might as well be a professional technical drawing! The longer you look at it, the more details you see, making it an ideal doll house for tiny Daniel, Alexander, and the rest of the residents.


Some things mustn't be forgotten...
by Lou

Some things mustn't be forgotten... and this artwork is one of them! Lou's piece reveals more than you see at first glance - the falling leaves are petals of the Damascus Rose, akin the drops of blood, and a spider looms in the background, tying the characters together.


As the autumn leaves wither away...
by cypii

Hazel, Daniel's sister, has a melancholy story told in the notes of The Dark Descent, and Cypii has captured this mood with lonely composition and muted tones. You don't need to see Hazel's face to know that she is withering away, just as the leaves outside.


Special mention:
SOMAuse
by i3670

I (Kira, your community manager) almost drove my bike into a traffic sign because I got teary-eyed from thinking about this picture. The little mouse in the reflection still has hope in its eyes... and thankfully we don't see the expression on the other side. Dammit, I'm crying again. And that deserves a special mention.


Writing


A Hymn for the Curie
by FrenchRoast

A Hymn for the Curie takes us aboard MS Curie around the time of the comet's destruction. FrenchRoast's version of the events features a cast of believable characters, from the stoic Captain Palander to the empathetic Hopper, whose points of view have you live the events alongside them - have hope, despair, and ultimately perish.

You can read A Hymn for the Curie on French Roast's Drive.


Special mention:
SOMA - Cadiz
by Clyde Cash


Cadiz also tells the survivor story of another team, landing ashore Cadiz - a realistic description of a landscape ravaged by desperate humans before the comet has the chance to strike. The characters have have very human musings about the imminent destruction. The story starts a bit slowly, but the end had us in tears.

Unfortunately this piece of writing didn't have a link, but you can find it on our Discord server.

Other

Untitled Song
by Tosha
   

Themes can be hard to portray through music alone, but we truly felt the cold winds of autumn in the Untitled Song by Tosha. It plays on the themes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent's soundtrack, but delivers an original composition.

Thank you once again for participating and cheering others on! We hope to see you back for another Fan Jam in the future.

PS. We played the mod entries and read some fanfiction during a stream. You can find the video in our Twitch archive!


Thursday, 12 September 2019

Releasing on Nintendo Switch: Unattainable dream to reality

By Thomas Grip, Creative director

This is one of my earliest memories. Eons ago, when I was about 5, my dad took me with him to his work, a department store. He then proceeded to dump me in the electronics department.

Nowadays you can find game test booths everywhere, but back in the day this was definitely not the case. Instead every single item was locked inside a glass cupboard. Usually these cupboards remained locked unless you bought something… but that day was different. Tony, my dad’s co-worker, let me try out a game.

As I trembled with the excitement of a 5-year-old boy, he jangled his keys, and took out the showcase version of a grey box called the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Ice Climber for the NES was my first video game experience, and from that moment I was hooked.

Since that watershed moment, Nintendo games have always had a special place in my heart. Super Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Battle Toads, Blaster Master and many others were all a part of my childhood magic. The plastic feel of the controller, the chunky cartridges, and instant-booting games still evoke fuzzy feelings in me.

Because of these magical childhood memories, and how video games were perceived back in the day, Nintendo has always had a certain mysterious feel to it – like an enchanted factory in a far-away country, creating games through some sort of wizardry.

When I started making games myself, some 20 years back, I never thought the hobby would evolve into anything bigger. It felt highly unlikely that people would want to buy anything I produced. But, eventually, what started as a hobby turned into a job. That felt so surreal. There I was, with my stupid hobby, except it was suddenly a source of income to me. Game development still felt like that enchanted factory, full of people who knew a lot more than me with tech I couldn’t possibly afford to have. But it was real, as I came to realize over time.

Yet consoles, and especially Nintendo, retained a very illusory feel. While I released my games on Steam and similar stores, the birthplace of my childhood magic felt far off.
That’s why it’s so special to announce the following:

AMNESIA: COLLECTION IS NOW OUT ON THE NINTENDO SWITCH


Finally – Frictional Games has made it to a Nintendo console! What had, for most of my life, felt like a distant and far-fetched dream, has now become reality. Sure, it’s not shipped on one of those fantastic grey cartridges, nor will it have a Nintendo “seal of quality” slapped on top, but I’ll take what I can.

If the 5-year-old me heard about this, he would never believe me.

But this is by no means the end of a journey for me – quite the opposite! It’s thrilling to think just how far the company has come, and it makes me super excited for what the future will hold.


A huge thank you to our friends at BlitWorks for making the port possible, and Evolve PR (with special thanks to Ryan!) for the great trailer!


Friday, 6 September 2019

Frictional Fan Jam 2019


Screenshot courtesy of Newsman Waterpaper and their mod The Streets of London.


#FrictionalFanJam

September is a meaningful month for Frictional Games, as it marks several of our anniversaries. This year on the 8th of September Amnesia: The Dark Descent will be turning 9, on 10th Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs will be 6 years old, and on 22nd SOMA will have been released for 4 years.

Therefore we would like to make this month special by celebrating your community creations. Please join us for Frictional’s Fan Jam of 2019!

We have recently launched an official Discord server, so you are welcome to ask questions, share ideas, and chat with other participants in the #fan_jam channel.

Overview

The goal is to create a new fan work related to one of Frictional’s games: SOMA, Amnesia games and the Penumbra series, or older titles such as Unbirth. You are free to create any transformative work: a mod, fanart and fanfiction, cosplay, or something different like a video or a plushie. The project should be at least loosely related to the given theme.

Since some projects (for example mods) can require more effort than others, you are also welcome to participate in teams.

Please see submission guidelines below!

Theme

Autumn/Decay

Deadline

The event kicks off on Friday the 6th of September. The deadline for submissions is 23:59 UTC on Sunday the 22nd of September. The jury will be going through submissions starting Monday the 23rd.

Prizes

The jury of Frictional Games employees and Frictional Games Discord moderation team will pick the winners of the jam. Jury members can participate in the event, but are disqualified from winning.

The winners will receive a poster of a game of their choosing, signed by the Frictional team members, sent to their home address (teams can decide on one address, max 4 prizes per team). The Frictional Team will also be featuring the works on a video with comments from Thomas and other employees. And finally - upon release of the next game, the winners will receive download codes for the game on an available platform of their choosing.

Contact

The jam is organised by Frictional Game’s community manager Kira together with the moderation team of the official Discord server, proposed and drafted by Draugemalf. The easiest way to contact the organisers is on the Frictional Games Discord server’s #fan_jam channel. The channel can also be used to share ideas with other community members, get feedback and look for team members.

If you don’t have a Discord account, you are also welcome to contact Frictional Games through Twitter or our Contact Form, and we will help you as soon as we can.

Submission guidelines


  • The works must be related to one or more of Frictional’s games (SOMA, Amnesia: TDD, Amnesia: AMFP, Penumbra, and Unbirth, Fiend, Energetic)
  • The works must be at least loosely related to the the thematic of Autumn/Decay
  • The creation must be submitted on 22nd of September the latest
  • The work must be your or your team’s original creation
  • For mods you are free to use assets you can legally use, or have the permission to use from the creators


Submitting your work

You can submit your works through several channels, either by posting an image (for fanart, cosplay and similar) and/or a link (mods, fanfiction and similar).

  • On Discord, you can share the project on the #fan_jam channel. Please make it clear that it's your final version.
  • On Twitter and Tumblr, you should mention @frictionalgames and tag the submission with #FrictionalFanJam.
  • If you don’t have a social media account, please send your submission to team@frictionalgames.com with the title “Frictional Fan Jam”.
  • Due to Instagram and Facebook’s limited searching and tagging tools, we will not be accepting submissions through those platforms.
  • All submissions will be posted by the jury on Discord’s #fan_jam_showcase channel for easier judging.



And that’s it! Go get creative! We’re looking forward to all your great projects!

If you have any questions, just let us know.


Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Hiring: 3D Art Lead



Title: 3D Art Lead
Focus: Pipeline development, 3D modeling
Type: Full-time, permanent
Last day to apply: 8th of September 2019
Location: Sweden, applicants residing in European countries welcome


A door swings open, a dim light beckons you to come step further, pick up the dusty items, give them a long look before venturing forward, the architecture leading you ever deeper. Frictional’s games are filled with intrigue and emotion, the art subtly guiding  the players. To keep up the illusion of a living world, the execution has to be consistent across the board.

This is where you come in.


What will you work on?

We are looking for an experienced 3D Art Lead to join Secret Project #2. This is a senior position, meaning you will have responsibility over foundational elements of the project. You will work closely with other team leads, such as the creative lead and art lead.

Right now Secret Project #2 is in pre-production, which means that you would find yourself working on establishing pipelines and practices for a good workflow.  On the creative side you will be working within the established style of the game – creating art, researching and documenting. The 3D art you would work on include architecture and complicated props, as well as putting everything together into functional and beautiful environments..

Once the project shifts into production, your role will involve more lead work. You will find yourself communicating with other employees and outsourcers, making sure tasks get assigned and done, and giving feedback. Alongside you will still be able to participate in creating art.

As a small team, everyone in the company has a wide variety of responsibilities as well as rights, but we consider that our strength – no day in development will look the same!


What are we looking for?

You have to be a European (EU/EEA) resident to apply. We cannot consider other applicants.

The person we’re looking for is creative, self-motivated, and comfortable in a lead position. We need you to fulfill the essential requirements, but are flexible with how you have acquired your experience.

We welcome applicants regardless of background, situation, sexual orientation, religion, and similar, so don't let anything like that hold you back from applying!

Here are the essential requirements:
  • Knowledge in 3D asset creation pipelines in digital games
  • Being up to date with the latest trends in 3D art tools and techniques
  • Not being afraid to give feedback to coworkers and outsourcers
  • Substance Designer skills in creating procedural textures
  • Ability to adjust artwork based on an established art style
  • Major role in at least one released title (not as a student/intern/trainee)

And here are some more technical skills:
  • Experience with face weighted normals
  • Experience with trim sheets and tiling textures
  • Experience in Medium Poly Modeling
  • Knowledge in Modo, or willingness to learn it as a main 3D modeling tool
  • Some technical art knowledge (you will not have to create anything from scratch, but you should be able to communicate your needs to the programmers, or have suggestions such as saving performance on assets)

If you want to impress us:
  • Experience with character art and/or organic art
  • Knowledge in blendshapes
  • Knowledge in motion capture
  • Experience with scripting tools in Modo
  • Experience with Marvelous Designer
  • Experience in  setting up lighting and doing basic level set dressing
  • Love for hard sci-fi
  • Penchant for bold design

What do we offer?

We at Frictional make games, because making games is what we love. But we know that’s not all there is – there’s also playing games, doing sports, or spending time with loved ones. We believe that a healthy balance between work and life creates positive ripples throughout, which is why we discourage crunch.

We also offer:
  • Variety in tasks
  • Opportunities to influence your workflow and workload
  • Flexible working hours
  • Participation in internal Show & Tell sessions for both projects, meaning giving feedback to and receiving feedback from all members of the projects
  • An inclusive and respectful work environment

We welcome remote applicants from European (EU/EEA, UK) countries. However, you are welcome to join us in our office in Malmö if you live in the area, or would be willing to relocate after the trial period.


Apply!

If all of the above piqued your interest, we would love to hear from you! Send us your application 8th of September 2019 the latest - but the sooner, the better! Please attach your:
  • Cover letter
  • Why should we hire YOU?
  • CV
  • Portfolio (link and/or PDF)
  • Answers to preliminary questions (see below)

Send your application to apply@frictionalgames.com!

Please note that we require all the attachments to consider you.


Preliminary questions

Please provide a document answering the following questions:
  1. When is the earliest you could start working?
  2. Tell us about the daily work you did on your last finished game project.
  3. Name two games you think have high quality 3D art. Explain why.
  4. Imagine you are in charge of the 3D art pipeline for a new sci-fi game. Name the top 3 things you think need to be included.

If you are not living in Sweden, please also answer the following:
  • Do you have the ability to invoice?
  • What kind of hardware do you have?
  • What kind of internet connection do you have?


Wonder how we hire? Read our blog on How we hire at Frictional Games.
What kind of application are we looking for? Read our blog on Writing the best application for a Frictional Games job.


Privacy Policy

By sending us your application, you give us permission to store your personal information and attachments.

We store all applications in a secure system. The applications are stored for two years, after which they are deleted. If you want your your information removed earlier, please contact us through our Contact form. Read more in our Privacy Policy.


Thursday, 22 August 2019

We're launching an official Discord server!



Join our server here!

Frictional Games is a distant and cryptic game developer, quietly tinkering with unspeakable horrors in the darkest depths of Europe. Yet over the past while we have been chipping away at that image, exposing a softer core. And now we’re ready for the final nail in the coffin of mystery: an official Frictional Games Discord server, where you can talk directly to us, or to other fans!

We hope that having a fluid, shared space like this will help casual and hardcore fans alike connect over topics that interest them, from lore conversations to sharing the cutest K8 plushie sewing patterns, from best uses of AddUseItemCallback to fanfiction tips. And, of course, anything and everything Frictional Games.

Aside from community-centered involvement, we hope to bring us developers closer to you with events like Ask Me Anything threads, and an occasional casual chat. Who knows what else the future will bring?

Upon launch the server includes channels for:
- Frictional’s news, sales and patch notes,
- Discussions about SOMA, Amnesia games, Penumbra games and Frictional Games in general,
- Showcasing your mods and other fan creations like art, cosplay and videos,
- Connecting with peers and discussing modding, creating fanart, or how to avoid overheating when wearing a Grunt suit,
- Social media feeds,
- Buying our games directly from Discord.

To celebrate the launch, all our games are heavily discounted at the Discord store pages.

Welcome!

PS. We are open to getting a few more members for our moderator team, especially persons to balance out the majority of men. Contact community etc manager Kira for more details!


Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Hiring: Audio Lead / Sound Designer



Title: Audio Lead / Sound Designer
Focus: Creating and implementing sounds, managing audio content
Type: Full-time, permanent
Last day to apply: Monday 15th of April 2019 /CLOSED
Location: Malmö, Sweden (Doing remote work from EU/EEA countries welcome)

You remember it: a faint rustle in your periphery, dragging footsteps around the corner, a raspy breath. You still break in cold sweat when you hear that high-pitched screech that means a monster is near. All the iconic soundscapes that make Frictional games what they are.

We are now looking for an experienced audio designer to work in-house and continue this tradition of keeping a new generation of gamers on their toes with lovingly designed, eerie and memorable soundscapes.


What will you work on?

We are quite a small team, but we consider that our selling point. As a sound designer you will get to work on everything from small effects to the overall mood of the project. This means your contribution will greatly influence how the final game sounds, feels and evokes emotions.

Here are some of the things you will be working on:
  • Collaborating with designers to create soundscapes, taking both artistic and gameplay aspects into account.
  • Being a part of designing the overall mood of the game.
  • Creating some of sounds used for our monsters, machines and other otherworldly noises using libraries, or from scratch if possible.
  • Creating sound effects timed with specific events and animations.
  • Refining events by working with both our map editor and scripting tools.
  • Researching various technical features needed to achieve certain effects.
  • Handling the music, either by creating it or working with a musician.
  • All in all, helping the game world come to life.

We also encourage working outside of your area of expertise, and always learning new things. The more areas of development you are willing and able to  take part in, the better! For example you are encouraged to participate in our fortnightly testing and leave feedback on other aspects of the game.


What are we looking for?

You have to be a European (EU/EEA) resident to apply.

The person we’re looking for is creative, driven and self-sufficient. With a remote team such as ours, the ability to organise your own work is a fundamental skill.

We have recently set up a central hub in Malmö, Sweden, and will help you move to our seaside city if it suits your situation.

Here are some essentials we require:
  • Hardware and equipment to work with.
  • We don’t expect you to have a fully equipped home studio, but enough to work on most of the sounds. Additional equipment can be provided if needed, but it is important that you have the hardware needed to start working.
  • At least one year of experience in audio production for games.
  • Good understanding of sound and music, and how they affect the player experience.
  • Ability to challenge yourself, make bold creative decisions, and try non-conventional things.
  • A critical approach to your work, with the ability to take a step back and reflect.
  • A strive for structure, efficiency, and clarity.
  • Strong self-drive and ability to organise your own work.
  • Interest in and ability to do research for interesting sound and music solutions.
  • Love for working on a variety of tasks.
  • Fluency in English.
And here are some more techie skills:
  • Familiarity with FMod or Wwise.
  • Basic knowledge in programming.
  • Basic knowledge of creating maps in a level editor.
If you want to impress us:
  • Love for horror, sci-fi, and narrative games.
  • A major role in completing at least one game.
  • Experience in level design.
  • Strong game design skills.

What do we offer?

We make games, because that’s what we love. But we know there are other things we love, like playing games, taking part in sports, or spending time with our families. We believe a healthy balance between work and life reflects positively on your work, which is why we don’t encourage crunch.

We also offer:
  • Flexible working hours.
  • Opportunities to influence your workflow.
  • Variety in your work tasks, and ability to influence your workload.
  • Participation in our internal game Show & Tell sessions, so you’ll have input into all aspects of the game.
  • Social security and holidays that are up to the Swedish standards.
  • An inclusive and respectful work environment.
  • An office in central Malmö you can use as much as you please.
  • Fun workmates, game and movie nights, and other outings!

Apply!

If all of the above piqued your interest, we would love to hear from you! Send us your application 15th of April the latest - but the sooner, the better!

Please attach your:
  • Cover Letter 
    • Why should we hire YOU?
  • CV
  • Link to your portfolio site
  • Link to a video reel demonstrating sound design abilities
  • A document describing a game soundscape you have worked on. Please write about the following:
    • What you worked on.
    • What you were going for with the design.
    • What went well in the project and what you would prefer to change in retrospect.
Please note that we require all the attachments to consider you.

Send your application to apply@frictionalgames.com!




Wonder how we hire? Read our blog on How we hire at Frictional Games.
What kind of application are we looking for? Read our blog on Writing the best application for a Frictional Games job.

Want to know how sounds were made in the days of Amnesia: The Dark Descent? Check out the video starring our old sound designer Tapio Liukkonen below.





Privacy Policy

By sending us your application, you give us permission to store your personal information and attachments.

We store all applications in a secure system. The applications are stored for two years, after which they are deleted. If you want your your information removed earlier, please contact us through our Contact form. Read more in our Privacy Policy.


Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Writing the best application for a Frictional Games job

Written by Kira, who goes through and replies to all your Frictional applications.


So, you have decided to apply for a job here at Frictional Games? Great, we would love to hear from you!

…But before you hit that “send” button, you want to make sure that you are showing yourself and your talent in the best light possible. We have already written a blog post on how the recruitment process works, so you can mentally prepare for that.

In this blog we will help you construct a good application, consisting of a CV, a cover letter and the portfolio, and even get down the nitty-gritty of the email. While we hope you apply for our positions, you are obviously welcome to use the tips when applying for other jobs too.

Just remember the most important thing: Always customise your application for the position you’re applying to.

A job application is like a love letter. You have to show interest in the recipient, and tell them why the two of you could be a good match specifically. You can write a letter about how great you are and send the same version to different recipients, but be warned – that’s pretty transparent, and will not likely land you a (business) relationship, no matter how good you are.

In this economic situation it might be tempting to say fuck it and cast a net as wide as possible (yes, we have moved on to fishing metaphors now). But the best fish will slip through the loose holes of a haphazardly set net. Instead, try finding one good spot and throwing in a hook with a juicy bait – the juicy bait being your best application. If you are good enough, a fish will definitely bite, and a love letter recipient will definitely swoon.

Frictional is a small company with little turnover. We’re not looking to burn through talent, but to find the right applicants who will stay with us for a long time. That’s why we want the applicants to be interested in and motivated to work with us specifically.

Do you love us? We love you too! Now let’s go write that application!


1. Read the job posting

This might sound obvious, but start by reading the job posting. Then read it again.


If you’re exactly what the posting is looking for, then great. You can use your previous work as examples of why you’re a good match. Are you a generalist? Pick your strong points that you would use in this job.

Feel like you don’t quite fit the criteria? Do not despair. Especially women tend to not apply for jobs they don’t feel 100% qualified for. Think about your best qualities. Think about the hobby projects that you’ve done. Those count too.

(But be realistic about it. If your skillset is wildly different from what the job would be, you might want to wait for another opening. Otherwise you are mostly wasting your own time.)

Now compare your skills to the job’s requirements and get ready to use those points in the next steps.


2. CV

The CV is all about you, dearest. It’s your dating profile where you can show your best angles, or that really big fish you caught once.

When the perfect job comes along, you don’t want to spend hours digging out when exactly you interned at that one place. Keep a meta-CV of all your experience, skills and achievements. This can be a document, or it can be a website or LinkedIn page you can link in the CV. An accessible online CV especially good if you have gaps in your relevant experience because you were helping out at your cousin’s ice cream business or similar.

Remember the previous step where we looked at the job requirements? You can now cherrypick the most relevant points from your meta-CV and put them in your tailored CV. Quality over quantity and all that. Start from the most recent relevant one.


A good CV is 1–2 pages long. If you only picked the most relevant experience, you should be able to keep it tight. But do write in detail about the relevant experience. If you only gloss over your experience in big strokes, the employer will not be able to tell what you have actually done and achieved. Share specific tasks and examples, list your best achievements.

If you have skills outside your field, such as multiple languages or software, you can list those too. Just keep them tight. But, despite being your so-called dating profile, listing hobbies might not be very relevant. But if you’ve done game jams or similar, go ahead! They are relevant and they count.

Do:
  • Keep a meta-CV.
  • Always customise your CV based on the position.
  • Start with the latest relevant experience.
  • Write in detail about your relevant experience.
Don’t:
  • Send the same CV to every position.
  • List every job you’ve ever held.
  • Start your CV with the first job you ever had.
  • Start with education instead of work experience (unless you’re a recent graduate).


3. Cover Letter

If the CV was your dating profile, the cover letter is your love letter. And a love letter cannot just be a glorified dating profile.

Picking relevant experience for the CV already shows that you put thought into your application. But the cover letter gives you an opportunity to show that you truly care about the company, their games and the position – or at least have knowledge about them. It’s incredibly easy to spot if someone sends the same cover letter to everyone, because they only talk about themselves. You can reuse lines you’ve written for similar positions, but make sure to keep them relevant.

The cover letter is also a great opportunity to talk more about why the skills you have acquired would translate well into the position advertised – especially if your experience is moreso from hobby projects. Convince the company why you would be a good match for them.

It’s easy to get lost in profound expressions of love, but a good cover letter is half a page to 1 page long. Being concise is also a skill.

If the job posting mentions expected salary, this is a good place to mention it.

Do:
  • Talk about why you want to work with this company specifically.
  • Talk about your skills in relation to the job’s requirements.
  • Tell the company why they should hire you. Be bold.
Don’t:
  • Send the same cover letter to every company. It’s easy to spot.
  • Only change the name of the company in the letter. Generic wording is also easy to spot.
  • Only talk about yourself with no relevance to the company or the position.


4. Portfolio

For better or worse, looks are important. In this case your dating profile pictures are your portfolio. The portfolio is a way to back up the claim that you’re as good as you say you are, for both artists, programmers and other folks.

While a good portfolio looks different depending on whether you’re an artist, a designer or perhaps a communications person, there are still good general practices when it comes to putting one together. In this segment we will use artists as an example, but you can use your imagination to apply the tips to other fields.

Just like with a CV, keep a master portfolio. For artists it can be sites like Artstation or Behance, or perhaps your own site. Pick the pieces you are most proud of, but are varied enough to show off your versatility.

From the master portfolio, you should again pick the pieces most relevant to the position and create a tailored portfolio. If the company is looking for a props and environment artist, those are the things you should be concentrating on. Also look at the stuff the company has previously done. Have they only done high-poly? Their next product will probably not be low-poly.

There is no rule to how long the portfolio should be. The key is making it easy for the recruitment team to immediately see if you are a good or potential match. For an open position you can choose some pieces relevant to the position and put them in a PDF, or link them from the master portfolio. For an open job query, pick a few pieces that are most in line with what the company is doing.


It is also a good practice to mention what you actually did for your works. Here at Frictional we wear all of the hats. The artists do everything from whiteboxing to textures. We need to know if you know how to do those and didn’t just make others’ textures and assets look good.

Do:
  • Keep a master portfolio of all your work.
  • Send a portfolio or links to a few relevant pieces.
  • Mention what you worked on for the pieces.
Don’t:
  • Send the same top picks to every company and every position.
  • Send all the portfolio pieces as separate files (links are ok).


5. Email

Chances are, there are also other jobs you have or will apply for. It’s good practice to have a professional email account for official business. Something with a neutral email handle and your real name as the sender. It makes it easier to find your application later. Having a signature with your contact information and links to your master CV and portfolio is also handy.

Some email platforms will show your profile picture, so make sure you at least know what it is. You might want to think twice before using a topless beach pic or a dank meme. The recruiter will probably have a chuckle, but might not be left with the best impression.


Make sure you include some sort of cover text in the email. It can be pretty generic, informing of your interest in the position and the attachments you have provided. This is also a good place to mention your master CV and master portfolio. Even better if you get a short elevator pitch in.

Do:
  • Use your real name in the email.
  • Have a signature with contact info and links.
  • Write a short cover text, like an elevator pitch for your application.
Don’t:
  • Have a shirtless profile picture. No, seriously.


6. Personal Information

Getting a feel of a person is important, but not all information you provide will help us with that. There are some things the employer is not even allowed to ask (family relations, religion…), and being upfront about them puts the potential employer in an uncomfortable position. Emphasis on the potential part. If you get hired, we will ask you for the details we need.

What a potential employer DOES need to know:
  • Real name
  • Email address
  • Country of residence
  • Links to your master portfolio and CV
  • Phone number (we don’t need it but most companies do)
What a potential employer DOES NOT need to know:
  • ID number
  • Birthday
  • Home address
  • Marital status and/or children
  • Ethnicity or nationality, gender, religion. disabilities or similar


7. Think of the recruiter

The recruitment team might get hundreds of applications every day. Sometimes the recruitment team is just one human being, who also does other things.

Just like with life in general, the key word is empathy. So send the kind of application that you would like to receive.



Make sure the application easy to go through, and that the attachments are easily accessible and in proper file formats. Be sure the relevant links are easy to find, and that they work. If you want to make a recruiter happy, include your own name in the attachment names (so it doesn't become CV(69).pdf on the recruiter's computer).

Do:
  • Save your CV, cover letter and any other files in PDF format
  • Make everything easy to find
Don’t:
  • Save your text files as doc/x, rtf or txt, or especially png or jpg.
  • Send your portfolio pieces as multiple separate files.


8. Afterword

There is no sure-fire way to make the perfect application. But the more tailored your application is, the better your chances are.

And lastly: even in an application, feel free to let your personality show. If the company doesn’t like your genuine application, you wouldn’t be happy working with them anyway. If they do… they will remember you.

Good luck!


Monday, 14 January 2019

Thoughts on Detroit: Become Human

By Thomas Grip

Quantic Dream learns with each game, and adresses their issues with new features. But with new features come new issues, and lots of juicy design lessons. In this blog post I will talk at length about affordance, then touch upon branching and themes.

Intro

It has been a while since my last design blog, and I felt it was finally time to write one again. And since I just played through Detroit: Become Human, that’s what I decided to write about.

First off, let me say that I quite liked the game. I had issues with how they tackled some of the themes (especially in regards to robots), and felt they could have taken some aspects of the world they created more seriously.

What made up for the so-so narrative bits were the production value (such as some very cool environments), and the myriad of exciting scenarios. It’s not an easy feat to create scenes that are not just narratively compelling, but also engaging play-wise – especially not in the sort of story that Detroit tells.


On top of this, the branching and the choice possibilities in Detroit are insane. It is a lengthy game, taking well over 10 hours to complete, and yet as the story unfolds there is a constant stream of differences that all depend on your previous choices. Everything to how crime scenes change to how characters make remarks depending on how you played some previous scene is amazingly well done. The scenes are constantly constructed from a wide array of options, but everything flows together into a coherent whole. Other branching games, such as Hidden Agenda, have a much more jarring presentation where the inserted lines and cuts in the flow are obvious. In Detroit, flow flaws are basically nonexistent.

So, it is fair to say that production-wise Detroit is quite a achievement. However, the game starts to stumble as it tries to be just that – a game.

Just like with previous titles from Quantic Dream, Detroit tries to be what is essentially a playable movie. Mixing film and games gives rise to all sorts of interesting design decisions and issues – issues that are hard to see in other games. It is clear that Quantic Dream are aware of the flaws they have had in their previous games, and there are a bunch of new feature that try to address the issues.

But with new features come new issues, and lots of juicy design lessons. In this blog post I will talk at length about affordance, then touch upon branching and themes.


Affordance

The first topic of this blog is how Detroit: Become Human handles affordance. The game takes place in one of the most challenging environments there is design-wise: inhabited real-life spaces. Spaces that contain a bunch of everyday items, such as drawers, pictures, tools, televisions, coffee cups, keyboards, clothes and so on and so forth. These are all objects we are not just accustomed to interact with – we also have expectations of their usage. As a player, you need to be able to figure out what objects you can interact with and in doing so you are constantly battling your ingrained notion of how these objects ought to work.


In Heavy Rain (2010), Quantic Dream’s earlier game, the only way to figure what you can and cannot interact with is to carefully check your surroundings and see if an interaction icon pops up. There are some objects that signal pretty clearly that you can interact with them, such as a corpse at a crime scene that you are able to examine. A design goal for a game should be to be able to use your intuition to figure out what sort of items you ought to be able to interact with – but the Heavy Rain never lets you train that intuition. Obvious objects are more an exception than a rule, and thus the player’s optimal strategy ends up being doing a brute force search of the room to try and locate all the hotspots.

So why is this bad?

There are two main issues with not being to identify points interaction. The first one is that it lessens the game’s sense of immersion. The second is that it doesn’t allow you to properly “play” the game. Detroit has some tricks up its sleeve to reduce both of these, but before we get into that it is worth to discuss just what is so problematic with these issues.

Immersion

Let us first go over the issue of immersion.

In order for a player to feel immersed in an environment, they need to internalize the surroundings. This is something I have covered in other posts, but basically it means that players need to actively take a part in the fantasy. And in order for a player to feel present inside a virtual world, they need to have what is called internal representation.

While it may not seem like it, real life also operates on internal representation. You don’t simply “see a chair”. The act of seeing a chair triggers all sorts of data about chairs: what their physical properties are, what you can do with them, what are your available actions and so forth. All of these combine into the actual sensation that there is a chair in front of you.

Here comes the issue. If you play a game where looking at a chair lacks any situational data, the player’s mental representation is empty. They fail to build any vivid fantasy for the virtual scene that the game tries to build. In turn the player is unable to place themselves, as in their actual selves, inside the game world. When games fail to take this into account it results in a world that doesn’t feel very immersive.

Play

Secondly, the gameplay issue with affordances is that the player lacks the ability to plan. I have gone over player planning and why it is so important for good gameplay in a previous post, but let’s do a quick recap: we don’t play games by just reacting to stimuli that the games send our way – instead, most of the gameplay takes place inside our heads. We survey our environments, go over long- and short-term goals, and decide what set of actions are the most optimal to reach said goals. The longer and more accurate plans a game allows the player to make, the better it will feel to play.

As a clear example, let’s compare a moment playing Dragon’s Lair (1983) to a moment in Civilization (1991). Civilization is filled with possibilities and room for planning. Dragon’s Lair on the other hand is just a linear path where you can only get good by memorizing a specific sequence. This is not the most fair example, but should illustrate the primal differences.


Games like Heavy Rain and Detroit, as well as classic adventure games, rely on putting the player in a real-life situation and making that the core of planning one’s actions. Taken at face value, it’s somewhat easy to understand what your options are when trying to find shelter for the night, because it is all based around elements that we know from real life. It’s much harder to know what to do during a laser-wielding vampire bat robot attack.

The issue is that the real world is incredibly complex, and a game cannot possibly recreate all the alternatives that a person could think of. This means that even though you might intuitively make up a certain plan, you can’t be sure whether the game will actually support it or not.

Solutions?

The main trick of Detroit, and Heavy Rain before it, is to simply make each scene feel like a movie scene. It gives the player a feeling for how the scene ought to evolve next, and how the character(s) ought to react. So the player gains their affordances not from how they view the scene, but how they imagine the characters (and to some extend the director) doing it. On top of that, the very cinematic structure pushes a narrative that makes up for the lack of immersion.

The player’s feelings here depend a lot on how they play the game. If they play as if they are the protagonist, these problems can become quite severe. It is a lot less damaging if the player views their role as a director. Then they are distancing themselves from the game and viewing the whole experience differently. Most of the discussions I bring up in this post are mainly centered around the former playstyle where you actively take on the role of a certain character.

Therefore, imagining yourself as the character in Quantic Dream games doesn’t really hold up – especially when the player is supposed to have a more lengthy interaction. In Heavy Rain it is easy to fall into optimizing behaviour and do brute force search to see what you can interact with. This sort of searching turns what is supposed to be a realistic environment into an abstract play field. Heavy Rain also has real trouble giving you a sense of your options. So, most of the game is played based on moment-to-moment reactions rather than deliberate planning. More Dragon’s Lair than Civilization.

It is clear that Quantic Dream know about these issues, as Detroit does quite a lot of things to try and fix this. The two major ones are explicit hotspots, and quest lists. The hotspots that pop up make it feel like a “batman mode”, where the time stops and the environment gets a line-mesh overlay. When in this mode, all nearby possible interactions display glowing icons. On top of this, all of the character’s short term goals are displayed as well, including those that haven’t been unlocked yet. Detroit also shows various goals, and even characters’ feelings, as big in-world text throughout the game. This gives the player a better idea of what they are supposed to do, and what are the available tools to achieve their goals.

Problems

The problem is that these new features don’t really try to fix the underlying problems of affordance. They are more like crutches, propping a flawed system. In a perfect world, these systems should be used as a sort of tutorial for the player. Once they get a better sense of how the game works, they should be able to stop relying on them, and instead rely on their intuitive understanding.

What happens instead is the opposite. The further you get into Detroit, the more prone you get to use these systems. In my playthrough of Detroit I used the “batman mode” quite sparingly for the first few hours – but as time went on I used it more, to the point where I almost stopped trying to intuitively parse the environment at all. Why? Because if I didn’t use it, I was more likely to miss hotspots and tasks, and therefore not get everything I wanted from the scene.

In the end, this style of play actually made me plan more. But all of this planning was happening in an abstract realm. I was playing a game of “choose from explicit options given to me by the game’s designer”, rather than actually making decisions based on the world that was presented to me. This often lead to weird situations where I did tasks that I didn’t know existed (eg. go look for a bag I didn’t even know was there).


Worse still, it made me act less like the characters I was supposed to be playing as. Detroit features a fair bit of detailed crime scenes that I was supposed to search, but because of the crutches I never tried to analyze the scenes as an actual detective. Instead I was simply searching for abstract hotspots. To make matters worse, the game often told me just how many hotspots there were to find, making me feel and thing even less like a detective.

The important takeaway here is just how important it is to find a way to create a game that actually makes the player engage in the game as it is. Detroit is not the only game that uses this kind of crutch, it’s quite common. And it is not always bad, either. For instance in Metal Gear Solid you have exclamation points pop up over soldiers’ heads when they spot you. However, they key difference here is that it adds information to the scene that is already in front of you. There are actual character models, sounds and so forth that play into the scene.

When you try to design crutches, you need to make sure that they supply something extra to the fantasy. They shouldn’t act as a substitute for the game’s actual world.

The magic of narrative

It might seem like I didn’t like the gameplay in Detroit – but the fact is that I found it quite engaging. I think this is really interesting. Despite all of the apparent flaws in the system, it still felt like I was part of the narrative. This was especially true for the detective work. The same was also true in the 2018 Call of Cthulhu game. There the detective scenes were even more simplistic, almost like playing a basic “hidden object” game, and yet I found them strangely compelling.

How is this possible? I think a lot of this is in line with the 4-layer approach that I’ve written about before. The foundational thinking with the 4-layer approach is that when you put any gameplay in the context of story, doing that gameplay feels like playing a story. Detroit does a lot of things right when creating this sort of merger between systems and narrative.

First of all, Detroit is very good at setting up the context. A scene always starts with some sort of cutscene (“cutscene” feeling like a weird word in an interactive film game, but working as a distinction in this context), that lays out the story reasons as to why you are doing the investigation. So when you are essentially searching for hotspots, the whole setup makes it feel as if you are doing detective work, even if you are not mentally embracing the detective role.


Secondly, when you find a hotspot, you always get information that has something to do with the narrative. The actual value of the information varies a lot: sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it’s just techno babble. But in all cases it feels like narrative feedback. When this is combined with the explicit – and very gamey – feedback that says you just found one of the three clues, it feels more like progressing a case than fulfilling abstract game requirements.

Finally, when you manage to find all the clues, the abstract (game-y) accomplishment always comes with some sort of narrative reward. For instance when searching a corpse, you get to view a reconstruction of what happened to this person. In many other cases you may unlock a new dialog option. And in every case you feel like completing the tasks makes you progress the narrative. So, even though the gameplay is abstracted, you still feel like you are inside a story.

The power of holism

On the surface all of this feels a bit like cheating. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Instead it’s something to be embraced.

In fact, on our journey to progress the storytelling potential of games as a medium, I am of the position that trying to do it without any form of “cheating” is a dead end. All entertainment is based on fooling your audience. Illusion is an essential part of the craft. The trick is just to cheat in such a way that it goes unnoticed.

What feeds into this illusion is the fact that humans tend to be bad at understanding why they’re feeling something. As an example: one tends to find a potential partner more attractive when drinking something hot while around the person. That is because hot drinks activate responses similar to arousal, eg. increasing the blood flow. The brain just tends to attribute these responses not to coffee, but to the potential partner, tricking you into thinking you are feeling aroused.

In a similar manner, when you feel accomplished for finding one of the three abstract hotspots, that feeling gets entwined with the detective narrative. These two parts get mixed into a single whole, and that whole becomes a compelling experience. It is worth to note that both sides can help the other. The narrative makes simple gameplay feel exciting, and the feedback on the other hand can make flawed narrative feel compelling. It is larger than the sum of its parts in the purest sense.

You can get an especially good sense of how this two-way feedback works when the system starts breaking down. I find that this can happen quite a lot in Detroit’s action sequences. There the narrative stops being the focal point, there are less narrative rewards upon success, and the input gets less clear (as it is merely about split second reactions). As long as the goals and actions are easily identifiable, eg. hiding and closing a door, the narrative-system symbiosis remains in place. But once it turns into blocking and returning punches, the player (or at least I) get distanced from the action. It becomes more of an abstract challenge than a piece of interactive storytelling.


So in a way, the increased abstraction actually works for Detroit’s benefit. By showing some numbers going up, and clear objective pointers, the game manages to add a more concrete feedback loop. As explained above, it also comes with issues, but also gives the game more opportunities for narrative-system symbiosis.

Detroit uses the symbiosis to simulate all sorts of situations, often with quite pleasing results. What stood out for me was an interrogation scene with a stressed-out android, and a scene where I had to make sure a police officer didn’t become too suspicious of my character. The success of those scenes came from mixing simple, gamey systems together with narrative in a holistic manner.

If you want to dig deeper into various ways to achieve this sort of merging of elements, Detroit is an excellent case study. Since the scenes featured are quite diverse, the ways of combining systems an narrative vary, and the results vary along with that.

Improvements?

While there are many interesting aspects about the game, it does have lot of room for improvement. I want to discuss that a bit.

Detroit relies heavily on increased abstractions (such as the aforementioned hotspots and objectives), and I don’t think that’s the right way. I find it better to try and achieve the same kind of affordance by using a story-like world. It is not the abstraction per se that allows to combine systems and narrative, but the player’s understanding of cause and effect.

Using abstractions also comes with a lot of issues. In my opinion, the biggest issue is the negative effect on immersion. If the world the player navigates is just filled with simple, systems-specific abstractions, the player can never transport themselves into the world.

At best, the actual rendered world (environments, characters etc.) just becomes narrative background. Instead as a designer, you want the world’s elements to be what the player uses in order to be an active part of the game. The aim should be for the player to gaze at a rendered scene, and have a mental model of all the interaction points and how these can be used for various plans, as I have written earlier.

Just compare a scene from Detroit…


...to a scene in Super Mario Bros.


In Detroit, I am not sure what things I can interact with, nor how they would affect me. From just looking at the world as-is, it is impossible to make any sort of concrete action plan. On the other hand Mario is very accessible, at least to anyone who has ever played the game. You can easily see every object, imagine how you can interact with it, and plan your progress accordingly.

The sort of readability that a Super Mario game has is what you want as a game designer. The thing to learn from Detroit is that you don’t need incredibly complex actions in scenes to create an engaging narrative. In fact, the actual gameplay can be simple and “dull” – as long as you are able to combine it with a narrative. However, there would be a huge difference if the interactions you partake in are grounded in the game’s world, instead of just being abstractions.

There are obviously other things to improve, especially the player’s ability to plan. But as a first step, I think having Super Mario level of affordance in the game’s world would be a huge improvement.


Branching

Now before I end this article, there are two more topics I want to cover. The first of these is branching.

Before making Detroit: Become Human, Quantic Dream made Beyond: Two Souls (2013). This game took a slightly different approach to the idea of a game as an interactive movie – especially when it came to branching. The game’s story had a ton of different ways to play out, but as recounted in this article by Press X to Story, it went mostly unnoticed by players.

It feels like Quantic Dream really reacted to this because damn, they are now really pushing the branching angle. There is a node tree at the end of each scene, there’s visual cues when conversation subjects unlock, there are lists of things you could do, the latter scenes obviously change, and so on.

And it really does feel like the open story and the branching matters. Especially interesting are the node maps. In the maps, all the choices you could have made are laid out, but the ones you didn’t make in your current or previous game are blanked out. At first I really didn’t like it, but the more I played the more it grew on me. It seems like it had a certain ad-hoc effect, and I can still sort of feel it. Remembering a scene often feels cooler than actually playing it. To me, the Detroit showing you potential paths I could have taken make my choices seem more compelling, when viewed in retrospect.


This might feel a bit like a cheat. But as discussed before, cheating is how entertainment works. Still, a part of me wonders if Detroit could have handled it in a more subtle way. Sometimes it felt like too much to get all the possible courses of events shoved in my face. I would have liked it if the would have treated the overall branching as it did the special dialog and changes in scenes. But at the same time, I wonder if that would have given across the feeling that the story was indeed open-ended and had tons of options – as Beyond: Two Souls failed to convey.

The best way to get away from the trap of being overly explicit is to, as explained above, up the level of affordance. In a perfect scenario, the player should know about the ways the scene could have gone simply by having mentally analyzed the scene. For instance, Civilization doesn’t need a node map at the end of a round for the player to know that there are many other ways things could have gone. This is not the most fair comparison, as I don’t think it’s possible to make a storytelling game that is as systemically driven. But it does give you a sense of what sort of feeling games could strive for.


Themes

Given that Detroit deals with a few themes similar to SOMA, it feels like I need to say something about Detroit’s themes to close this off. It would be too much to go over all aspects of the game, so I will just focus on one: robot and human similarities.

I think the game would have been a lot more thematically interesting if the robots didn’t look so human. Instead I think it would have been much better if they looked like the robots from the movie I, Robot (2004), or perhaps something out of the Boston Dynamics lab.


Right now it’s just too easy to sympathise with the robots. It would be much more fun if the player started the game thinking the robots did not deserve any rights, and the thinking would evolve throughout the game.

The robots’ thinking is also too human. Again, it would be much cooler if they felt more alien in how they handled their emotions and so forth. There is actually less neurodiversity between humans and robots in Detroit than there is among real humans overall.

For example, right now it doesn’t make much sense for a player to want for Connor to stay an obedient robot. The story pretty clearly pushes the player to want Connor to become a deviant (a robot free from human masters). If the Connor had looked a bit more spooky, or had weirder ways of thinking, it would have made the choice less obvious and forced me to think more about my alternatives.

It would also seem weird that people would want to buy servants that look so human. People can already feel bad for a Roomba, let alone something that looks like a fellow human. It would make more sense for the robots to actually look like robots.

I know that Quantic Dream wanted to show off their facial animation tech, and make sure it was easy to relate to the protagonists. But the point stands: a version of Detroit with robots that are clearly not human would be damn interesting to play.