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Interview: How Frictional Games Does Frightening Without Fighting

Following the release of October's big survival horror blockbusters, Gamasutra talks to Frictional Games, creators of the cult PC-based Penumbra series, about its alternate approach to the genre, Xbox 360 possibilities, and details on their new, 18

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

October 30, 2008

9 Min Read

[Following the release of October's big survival horror blockbusters, Gamasutra talks to Frictional Games, creators of the cult PC-based Penumbra series, about its alternate approach to the genre, Xbox 360 possibilities, and details on their new, 18th-century Codename: Unknown project.]

This busy October saw the release of two significant new entries into the survival horror game genre: Silent Hill: Homecoming and Dead Space.

While both games take rather different approaches to survival horror as it's been conventionally established, both games brought the issue of combat as a fear creation mechanism to the forefront: Dead Space for its "strategic dismemberment" approach, and Homecoming for the somewhat increased focus developer Double Helix gave the combat mechanics in a franchise that has historically struggled with them.

Swedish developer Frictional Games is a small studio perhaps lesser-known in the wider press, but its two Penumbra series PC games, Overture and Black Plague, have received widespread cult standing for the fashion in which they create a fear mood with only a minimal focus on fighting.

Interested in their approach to the survival horror genre -- and to the PC gaming market, and to episodic content, on which Frictional also maintains a focus -- Gamasutra caught up with co-founders Jens Nilsson and Thomas Grip to learn more about developing Penumbra, thriving as a small independent company, and to get some hints on their next project, whose working title is "Codename: Unknown."

The Penumbra 'Trilogy'

In 2007, the studio released Penumbra: Overture for PC, Mac and Linux, billed as "Episode One" in a trilogy -- although it didn't quite work out that way.

"When we first started working on the Penumbra series, we were going to do a proper episodic game in three parts, but due to massive problems with our first publisher, we could not go through with that," Grip explains.

So Frictional switched publishers from Lexicon Entertainment to Paradox Interactive, and the planned trilogy's last two games were released together early this year as Penumbra: Black Plague. Recently, the company released Penumbra: Requiem, a puzzle expansion that "ties up some story stuff, but [is] more of an add-on than part of the series."

"I am not totally sold on the whole episodic deal, perhaps due to the many problems we had, but I do like the idea of shorter, self-contained games," Grip reflects, and he also sees such a format as a good fit for the horror genre.

"I think horror games would fit nicely into this and think it would be fun to have a series with each episode a specific horror-tale," he says. "That sort of thing has been the concept of many TV shows, and I see no reason why you could not do it for games. Horror lends itself very well to shorter bursts, and you could have episodes taking part at different scary locations, and so on."

Frictional's problem with episodic games is not so much in the final result, but in the development process, and he outlined the challenges. "It is a bad thing to do them in a serial fashion, so you would rather do all the voice work at one time, figure out ways to share resources... and then you might as well do a full game, and skip all the extra work that comes with a release. Telltale Games (Sam and Max) seem to have pulled it off, though, so it seems like it might be possible."

"Telltale has released more than one game series this way and it seems to work with a nice flow, and meeting expectations as well," agrees Nilsson.

But for Frictional, the team says, the idea of episodic delivery is "currently put in storage."

"As we got such a horrible start in the industry with this idea, we can think of nothing else more fun than to simply create one complete game," says Nilsson. Though he says Frictional felt a sense of relief with the completion of Penumbra as a trilogy, "it is great to finally get started on a completely new and exciting project!"

Innovating On Horror

Frictional is interested in creating a somewhat different breed of survival horror than what's eminently available on the market -- and perhaps their history of achieving these goals is what has won them such a loyal fanbase.

"Our main focus is to make a compelling experience without having the main gameplay revolve around killing things -- and also to not rely on flashy (and expensive!) graphics to create the mood," says Grip.

Largely, the studio's physics system takes much of the responsibility for making this possible, Grip explains: "Using physics for all interaction came out of the simple idea that the player should be able to open drawers, and we figured that animations would be too expensive."

"We then figured that using physics would be easier, and after that all of the other physics interaction came about. This also helped with the problem of creating fun gameplay without having tons of enemies roaming around. When the player could interact with the environment, it increased the level of immersion and gave the player something to do while exploring the levels."

Frictional also has a no cut-scene policy, with a focus on "keeping the player in charge as much as possible."

Says Grip, "Whenever one shows a cut scene, or somehow locks the player and forces some event, the player is brought back to reality, and some of the immersion is lost. Half-Life started doing this the right way, but still locked and forced the player to wait for some event to happen at times."

Although he wouldn't do away with all game cut scenes, Grip thinks it's best to leave them out of the kinds of games where immersion is essential to the experience.

"In Penumbra, we had this in mind throughout the design of the game, and tried to narrate the game through the ways puzzles where constructed, by showing evidence of events in the environment, and more. Still, we feel like there is a lot left to be done with this -- and will go several steps further in our upcoming game, Unknown."

Challenges In The Unknown

"Unknown", according to the team, will be set in a whole new universe from Penumbra's, and in a different time period -- "the end of the 18th century to be exact," says Grip.

"The game will have less focus on combat compared to your average survival horror game, but will have a lot more action-oriented gameplay than Penumbra."

Grip clarified that "action-oriented" refers to "more flow in the gameplay," suggesting that Penumbra's heavy reliance on logic puzzles might have "forced the player to stop and think" for extended periods, thereby interrupting the dramatic pacing.

"Now this is not necessarily bad, and we still want to have some more complex puzzles in Unknown too -- but we want the base of the gameplay to consist of action.... without adding tons of pickaxes, shotguns and roaming zombies."

Action without fighting -- Frictional knows it'll be difficult, but Grip and Nilsson say they're "confident" they can pull it off. Again, the game's main feature will be reliant on a "simplified and yet extended physics system."

The biggest challenge in designing these kinds of puzzles, says Grip, is avoiding letting the player get a puzzle into an unwinnable state -- no small concern with unpredictable physics. "Mostly the player needs to want to screw up for it to happen though, so it is not that bad," he explains.

Another challenge in Frictional's approach to survival horror, says Grip, is to moderate player expectations. In Penumbra: Overture, for example, they added support for melee combat to allow the player to defend himself in last-resort situations -- but many players seized their weapon and tried to aggressively fight the enemies.

"Because of this many thought the fighting system was really bad, even though that was a design choice," he says. Still, all weapons were removed from Black Plague in favor of letting players stun enemies with environmental objects.

"While this gave a nice addition of fear, it also forced players to only use these few options of behavior," says Nilsson. "As we do believe in giving player choices, as we often do with multiple solutions to all the puzzles in our games, we are going to try and address the weapon/no weapon issue in Unknown as well."

Nilsson says Frictional will add some weapons to Unknown, but with "negative side-effects" for their usage in order to encourage the player toward more favorable resolutions.

Unknown's first prototype is currently in progress, Nilsson says. "The final prototype will be ready in January, and by then we will have tested, re-designed and tweaked everything enough to move on to the full game production."

As the team's been at work since early summer, it makes about six months of pre-production, and Frictional appreciates the leisurely pace as compared to the Penumbra games, aiming for an early 2010 release.

Looking At Other Avenues

Frictional's also recently become licensed as an Xbox 360 developer -- "so we are looking into it and just waiting for the right opportunity," Grip says.

According to Nilsson, "It would be great to try and get something done for consoles. It’s also a tad scary with all the unknowns and new ground we need to learn about, but all in all it would be a very exciting venture."

Though Grip says that the studio's had little insight into how the Penumbra games have performed via GameTap, as the venture was done through another company, Frictional is interested in moving to Steam if possible.

"We have tried to contact Steam several times to no avail," says Grip. "Not sure if they are missing our mails, or if they simply do not want do business with us."

"From a pure Metacritic point of view, the average rating of the games available on Steam is below ours so it seems that quality should not be the problem," adds Nilsson. "Also, considering what sort of games the majority of the user base plays, it also feels as it would be a nice fit for our games."

"To end with a positive tone, we do think Steam is great and the closest to iTunes available in the games industry. If we ever had the opportunity we would love to get some products out on Steam."

This article was first published in 2008 and was lightly edited for formatting in 2023.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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