Amnesia: Rebirth Interview – Building “A Deep Dread”
As the people who made Amnesia: The Dark Descent – considered to this day one of the best and most impactful psychological horror games of all time – Frictional Games have an enviable legacy in the horror of genre, and with 2015’s incredible SOMA, their stock only went up even further. The future, however, is looking even more exciting for them and their fans. 10 years after creating the Amnesia series, they will be returning to it with Amnesia: Rebirth later this year, and with the experience of The Dark Descent and SOMA to guide them, they are looking to craft a horror game for the ages.
We recently got the chance to pick their brains over just how they plan to do that, asking them about what fans can expect from Rebirth’s storytelling, mechanics, atmosphere, style of horror, and more. You can read our full interview with creative director Thomas Grip and writer Ian Thomas below.
“We’ve built the game by evolving the systems and mechanics of the old one, and we’ve approached it as a completely new story, but have kept going back to the original game to sync up on the atmosphere and feel. Hopefully we have struck a nice balance.”
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a landmark game in the horror genre for so many reasons, and still stands as one of the best games in the psychological horror space. In light of that, what’s your approach been to Rebirth during its development, in terms of sticking close to what the first game did so well, but also paving its own path with new ideas and directions?
Thomas Grip (Creative Director): I think there are two aspects to this. One is that we have been trying to keep the things that worked in the first game and to retain the essence of the atmosphere. The second is that we have done our best to make sure that players will be surprised, and feel that they won’t know what’s coming next. So on one hand you want the game to feel as if it is Amnesia, and on the other you want something that feels new and fresh. We’ve built the game by evolving the systems and mechanics of the old one, and we’ve approached it as a completely new story, but have kept going back to the original game to sync up on the atmosphere and feel. Hopefully we have struck a nice balance.
What prompted Frictional to return to Amnesia after a decade of not having worked on it?
Thomas Grip: The main reason is that we felt there were a lot of interesting places and concepts to explore in the Amnesia universe. Especially locations that you only read about in the earlier games, but you’ve never got to actually visit. We’ve also been going through a transition into a two-project studio, and letting one of the teams concentrate on an existing property such as Amnesia, where a lot of the overall direction was already established, felt like a good idea.
Clearly, Amnesia: Rebirth is going to have close connections to The Dark Descent, but how much of a connective tissue is there with A Machine for Pigs? Frictional didn’t develop it, and as it is it was a pretty self-sufficient story, but should fans of the game expect to see narrative connections to it as well?
Ian Thomas (Writer): The Dark Descent, Rebirth, and A Machine for Pigs are all set in the same universe, and there are common elements that thread through all three. However, there is a much more direct connection to the original game.
What can you tell us about Tasi, and the arc that she will have through Amnesia: Rebirth?
Ian Thomas: The short answer is – not much, as we wouldn’t want to ruin it for you! Perhaps unlike The Dark Descent, Rebirth is very much focused on the here and now of Tasi – while she is making discoveries about the past, the story is about her present. She is an ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances and much of the game is about finding out how she copes with that.
“The main lesson we learned in SOMA is to have build-up and narrative pay-off that spans many hours of gameplay. We are making full use of this in Rebirth where the biggest horror will not come from moment to moment scares, but a deep dread that slowly builds up as you play the game.”
SOMA was an incredible game that really took your storytelling style to new heights. Obviously, Amnesia is a different series, but are there any lessons you took from it and are applying to the development of Amnesia: Rebirth as well?
Thomas Grip: The main lesson we learned in SOMA is to have build-up and narrative pay-off that spans many hours of gameplay. We are making full use of this in Rebirth where the biggest horror will not come from moment to moment scares, but a deep dread that slowly builds up as you play the game.
Ian Thomas: We’re also drawing a lot from the feeling of embodiment and immersion that really helped us in SOMA, to try and build up a visceral connection between the player and our main character.
SOMA put a much greater emphasis on storytelling while somewhat deemphasizing other aspects that players usually expect to engage with a lot in survival horror games, such as inventory management. What kind of a balance will Amnesia: Rebirth strike between those two?
Thomas Grip: I think Rebirth is the game where we have best managed to tie together gameplay and the narrative. There are a bunch of mechanics that directly drive the narrative and vice versa. We had a bit of this in SOMA; but it is much stronger in Rebirth. In certain aspects Rebirth is also more of a traditional survival horror than SOMA was, with a strong focus on mixing puzzles and monster encounters. What I think makes Rebirth special is just the sheer variety of these activities and how deeply they all connect to the story.
One of the standout aspects of Frictional’s horror games has been that they each have a very slow, palpable style of horror, which slowly builds up and keeps players on the edge of their seats, even if there’s nothing particularly “scary” happening in the immediate moment. Is that something that you’re going to stick with for Amnesia: Rebirth, or should players expect to see it being taken in new and different directions?
Thomas Grip: I think that this kind of horror is a defining feature of all good horror. For me it is really a core feature of what makes a scary narrative good. So it is definitely part of our approach. That doesn’t mean the game will start out at a snail’s pace though, quite the opposite. There will be mysteries, scary environments, and so on right from the beginning. What it means is that the more long-lasting horrors will take a few hours of gameplay before they start to fully emerge.
With its desert setting, Amnesia: Rebirth is looking like it will look very different from the likes of The Dark Descent and SOMA, but can you talk about how it makes use of that setting from an art design perspective to contribute to the game’s overall atmosphere?
Ian Thomas: Again I wouldn’t want to spoil too much here, but a good comparison is with SOMA. There, the crushing pressure of thousands of meters of water is always lurking at the back of your mind behind every other aspect of the game. In Rebirth, the bleakness and isolation of the desert is behind everything – the sheer loneliness of the world for Tasi. She is forced to take chances and make decisions in a place where she has no one else to rely on.
Roughly how long will an average playthrough of Amnesia: Rebirth be?
Thomas Grip: It depends a lot on your playstyle. I played it through recently and as someone who knows where everything is and how to overcome each section it took me almost 7 hours. So I think that it might take up to 10 hours, or possibly more, for a first time player. But as I said, it depends a lot on the player.
“In Rebirth, the bleakness and isolation of the desert is behind everything – the sheer loneliness of the world for Tasi. She is forced to take chances and make decisions in a place where she has no one else to rely on.”
What new methodologies are you using to enhance the horror mechanics this time around? Is there a new pursuer enemy?
Thomas Grip: The new stuff mostly relates to the higher level story telling. We have a few mechanics that are all there to tie into certain narrative aspects of the game. I think these will make the game feel quite unique, but unfortunately we want to keep these secret for now.
Can you talk about why Amnesia: Rebirth is launching as a console exclusive for the PS4? Do you have any plans to launch on the Xbox One down the line?
Thomas Grip: For various reasons, having PS4 as our only console release (we are still coming to PC on launch day!) made a lot of sense. We will work hard to make sure an Xbox One release follows, but it will take a few months before it does.
Will the game will feature PS4 Pro-specific enhancements? Is 4K/60 FPS on the cards?
Thomas Grip: We haven’t really decided. Our focus is currently just on making the plain vanilla game run as smoothly as possible. After that we will look into any possible PS4 Pro enhancements.
How is the game running on the original PS4, in terms of frame rate and Resolution?
Thomas Grip: The game runs as well as SOMA did. Rebirth contains bigger and more varied environments though, so we’ve had to work really hard for it all to run smoothly. We will lock at 30fps just like SOMA and aim for any dips below that to be really rare.
Given that next-gen consoles are right around the corner, have you given any thought to next-gen ports for the game?
Thomas Grip: We will see! A lot of the new features are really exciting for our upcoming games too and it is more fun to think about that than ports. We will definitely try and have our games on as many platforms as possible though.
“The game runs as well as SOMA did. Rebirth contains bigger and more varied environments though, so we’ve had to work really hard for it all to run smoothly.”
What are your thoughts on the PS5’s custom 3D audio engine Tempest? How much of a difference do you think tech like this will make to how immersive games can be?
Thomas Grip: While I think sound are really important for good immersion, I think that narrative and gameplay mechanics are way more important. So I am more interested in how we can use any new tech in that space.
How are you ensuring that your engines/framework/tools are up and running for PS5 and Xbox Series X?
Thomas Grip: I think the hardest part is to figure out which platforms to focus on. If we want to release on both PS4 and PS5 that means we need to design things so they can still run on a PS4, and yet take advantage of the PS5 and so forth. So there is a lot of thinking here. I don’t really see that more computer power will cause us any issues – if anything, they are opportunities. The big problems arise when there are a variety of different platforms you want to support at the same time.