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The Dark Descent of Frictional Games: Part One

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In the first of a two part opinion series, we will explore how the Penumbra games through a process of gradual evolution created a solid design template for later Frictional Games titles to follow.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART TWO

Author's Note: Being an editorial this piece is purely a reflection of the views of its writer, and in the vein of true artistic criticism, the opinions here merely reflect my own personal appreciation, or lack thereof, for the associated works in question. As such, they should not be taken as being either a condemnation or an expression of contempt for the actual living, breathing people behind these works. I should also stress that this article will contain numerous spoilers which may negatively affect people who have yet to play the games in question.

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It feels strange to me that, even though I only started using Linux as my primary gaming platform relatively recently in the grand scheme of things, the fact that I made the jump all the way back in the ancient days of 2007 can make some of the newer adopters feel that I am one of the great old ones. That is certainly not the case, and I very much encourage people to read up on the full and proper history of our platform and its associated video games industry, something that actually stretches back at least twenty years or more. Still, considering the subject I am about to review, it seemed only appropriate to start things off on the right foot with a slightly dodgy H.P. Lovecraft reference.

The independent gaming market was still very much in its infancy 2007, with digital distribution still being on the fringe of acceptance, with most people still acquiring their games on retail disk. This of course meant that, other than a spattering of usually older game titles, the selection on Linux remained very much limited. Even then though we were still very much on the cusp of something great, as in the spring of that same year a small development studio in Sweden put out their first commercial product in the form of Penumbra: Overture (2007), the first instalment of their episodic Penumbra series. The game was remarkable enough simply for what it had to offer on its own merits, but what made it all the more surprising was that a Linux version of the game was put out within a mere two months of the original Windows release.

Overture also offered something that many people had already given up for dead at the time; a focus on pure survival horror with less of an emphasis on either heavy weaponry or all out bloodshed. As the Indie gaming boom increased in scale a whole raft of previously cast off game genres would find their way back to land of mainstream acceptability, and thanks to Frictional Games pure survival horror would be one of them. Strangely enough though Overture itself was not actually a pure survival horror experience in its own right; the main narrative that one can always attach to the Penumbra series is one of progression. While the main selling point of the game was its unique for the time take on object interaction from within the game world, it also featured in limited degrees some combat in the form of melee weapons which could be used to counter weaker enemies such as dogs and spiders.

The game itself made a great deal of noise that these things should be avoided if at all possible, and it did at least try to make using these weapons difficult, but once one got into the rhythm of things it was always far easier just to bash these annoying creatures on the head enough times, rather than have them get in the way of your puzzle solving. The fact that Overture could also be classed as an adventure game was yet another example of how it was trying to rehabilitate long forgotten game genres, even if it actually had a very modern way of doing so. As I mentioned previously, the Penumbra games were one of the first to allow for a more authentic way to interact with most of the physical objects in the game world, as through the use of the free software Newton Game Dynamics physics system objects could be picked up, dragged about, thrown around, and agitated through the use of specifically defined mouse gestures.

At a time when video game consoles were just starting to experiment with dodgy motion control sticks and other such measures, the fact that a tiny developer from Sweden had arrived at such an elegant solution using existing computer controls was nothing short of remarkable. The real appeal though, for me at least, was in the finer aspects of the game's crafting. From the environments to the characters, a lot of effort was put into making a convincing world, despite the obvious constraints placed on the game by the developer's budget. Overture takes place in an old abandoned mine in northern Greenland, and within the confines of this harrowing world a distinct narrative was spun from more than just the multitude of written notes hidden about the place. The thing which always strikes me about Overture, and indeed the entire Penumbra series as a whole, is the fidelity present in the environments, something which allows them to always strongly evoke a specific time or place.

As one progresses through the mine one can see a history emerging merely from observing the construction of the walls, not to mention the tools, the equipment, and the mementos that the various miners have left behind. I am a strong believer that art should be made to best suit its particular medium, and given the fact that the main thing that sets gaming apart from its contemporaries is the interactive aspect, having a story told simply from the exploration and interaction with the game world is a real pleasure to behold. The oldest part of mine dates back to the early 1930's and the Second World War, and later on in the game the player reaches newer additions that were built in the early 1970's. Everything from the lights, to the equipment, to the feeling imparted by the construction of the rooms present in each particular section so successfully manage to correspond with my own interactions with similar objects from those decades as to send a reverential chill down my spine whenever I see them.

All of this can add beautifully to a horror game, as there is always going to be something innately creepy about the past, especially the recent past, largely because it functions something like a fun-house mirror. It serves to show us a strange vision of our own lives and societies, exhibiting a world that is still so much like our own and yet at the same time still so uncomfortably dissimilar as to seem almost alien to the modern observer. It is all quite disconcerting, and it definitely shows what can be done when one realizes that creating an effective feeling of horror can depend on more than just elaborate displays of blood and gore, despite how welcome these can be in many other games and contexts. It also shows that gaming does not necessarily need to resort to the same trick and traps as other mediums to impart the same emotional effects.

If that were not enough, the game also had another ace up its sleeve in the form of Tom Jubert, a professional game writer which has in recent years been involved in a number of critically acclaimed titles for a variety of platforms; Linux gamers might also recognize him for his work on such games as FTL: Faster Than Light (2012) and The Swapper (2013). The basic plot of Penumbra had already been basically established by the time that the initial technological demonstration was first released in 2006; the game's protagonist Philip receives a letter from his dead father urging him to destroy the last trace of his work in an unidentified location in northern Greenland. Unable to contain his curiosity, Philip instead endeavours to uncover his father's buried secrets, only to discover that some things really are better left buried.

Although having the somewhat novel aspect of being delivered in an epistolary format, the main plot of the game is actually far from extraordinary; it is for the most part the same Lovecraftian fare that gaming has been obsessed with since the dawn of the medium. In fact, the name of the protagonist's father as well as the player character himself are actually named as deliberate homages to the infamous American horror author, with them boasting the handles of Howard and Philip respectively. Instead, the real draw of the story comes not from the background plot but from the characters, an element of the game that Tom Jubert himself actually had a huge amount to do with. Once again the game's limited budget comes into play, and while little is actually seen of Jubert's various creations, their presence is actually felt all the more because of it.

Overture features one character which is only known from a collection of sound effects, some notes, several wood engravings, blood trails, and a severed tongue. Once again exploration and interaction are the game's watchword, and one has the liberty to discover as much or as little about the character as they choose. Any commentary on Penumbra would of course also be remiss without a few words about Red. Played to perfection by voice actor Mike Hillard, Tom "Red" Redwood is a trapped miner driven to the edge of sanity by being left on his own for decades, with nothing more than some books and his own mental imaginings for company. The result is a man with very little idea of what he is truly saying, resulting in some truly unnerving while at the same time highly amusing phrasings.

Once again the player's interaction with the character is limited only to hearing the man's voice over the radio, at least until the game's affecting final moments. The end result of this is that Red can still assert his presence without getting in the way of the player's own sense of isolation and loneliness, an integral part to any survival horror game which many of its busier contemporaries often seem to forget. Through a variety of written notes, more of the mine's former inhabitants are also revealed to the player, and while in Overture these may have been overused to the point of breaking credulity sometimes, they do at least help provide some context to the well crafted worlds that Phillip finds himself in while journeying in search of traces of his long lost father and his associated works. Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
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About the author -
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Hamish Paul Wilson is a free software developer, game critic, amateur writer, and farm labourer living in Alberta, Canada. He is an advocate of both DRM free Linux gaming and the free software movement alongside his other causes, and more information on him can be found at his icculus.org homepage where he lists everything he is currently involved in: http://icculus.org/~hamish
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8 comments

EKRboi 21 Oct, 2014
Good article so far. I do have all of the Penumbra collection but have not sat down to attempt to tackle them yet. I do like survival horror games, though I admit I usually prefer to have some sort of weapon for self defense. Looking forward to the second part of this. I have played a bit of The Dark Descent, but it ultimately did not grab me so I didn't get past more than a couple of hours.

I think the root problem with these games with no/not many weapons is that I don't stick with them long enough to really get into the story, which is what makes them good. I have read nothing but praise for Penumbra over the years so I promise to REALLY try to give them a go when I do. I don't know if there is much hope for me and Amnesia though.. I've tried a couple of times and I just can't do it. I get bored too quickly.
DrMcCoy 21 Oct, 2014
Interesting article. :)

I love the Penumbra games to bits. I did play them in a darkened room with headphones, and, yeah, that was an unique experience.

And while I do think it's weaker, I still like The Dark Descent. A Machine for Pigs kinda didn't really grip me, I'm saddened to say. I played a few hours and didn't return as of yet. It feels a bit too...scripted, too much like a fairground haunted house to me.

About SOMA: I'm a bit disappointed that it is going to be another one in that style. After those real-life teasers, I kinda hoped for an FMV adventure, like Tex Murphy or Ripper. I want it to explore the themes it invoked in the teaser: how the mind works, how you define a personality, if you can copy a mind; all those transhumanism themes. And I think you can do that better in an adventure game than a survival horror one.
Hamish 22 Oct, 2014
Quoting: DrMcCoyAnd while I do think it's weaker, I still like The Dark Descent. A Machine for Pigs kinda didn't really grip me, I'm saddened to say.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I do still like Amnesia as well, and can even say a few nice things about Piggies... but then I should save any elaboration on that front for the next article. ;)
oldrocker99 22 Oct, 2014
Thanks to Frictional, one genre Linux gamers have had for quite some time, and is well-represented, is first-person horror, and the games have been pretty freaking scary as well.

Excellent article. Saved to my Documents folder.
GoCorinthians 22 Oct, 2014
Tnx heaven. I thought that I was the only person in the world that frictional are in my TOP 5 devs of all times! lmao!

TWIMC: Valve - RED - From Software - 4A - Frictional

SOMA Steam dayONE FTW!

GoCorinthians 22 Oct, 2014
Quoting: DrMcCoyInteresting article. :)
A Machine for Pigs kinda didn't really grip me, I'm saddened to say. I played a few hours and didn't return as of yet.

Nope.

Frictional Games --> Amnesia The Dark Descent
The Chinese Room --> Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Hamish 22 Oct, 2014
Frictional was still the publisher for A Machine For Pigs and had a supervisory role on it, so they can not completely wash their hands of it, if you would agree to the term..
GoCorinthians 23 Oct, 2014
Quoting: HamishFrictional was still the publisher for A Machine For Pigs and had a supervisory role on it, so they can not completely wash their hands of it, if you would agree to the term..
Yep. Though I want to know how much supervisory on it.

I could say easily that clarence is one of my favorites chars in games!

"Im taking u with me!"...monkey!
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