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The Dark Descent of Frictional Games: Part Two

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In the second of a two part opinion series, I will offer up my own personal conviction that the Amnesia games do not actually live up to the full potential demonstrated by their predecessors.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART ONE

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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Following the release of the Penumbra games, the future of Frictional Games as a developer was far from clear. The company had relied heavily on publisher involvement in the past to make their games, something which resulted in turmoil when a funding crisis and conflict arose between Frictional and the original publisher of Penumbra: Overture. With three releases now under their belt the developers eventually decided to go the fully independent route for the next game, something which brought with it its own kinds of challenges. In fact, if it were not for some additional government funding and several successful game sales, including one where the Linux gaming community in particular did more than than its own fair share to promote, it is unlikely that the developer's followup would have ever seen the light of day.

It was not just financial concerns that made the road to the next title a rocky one though. Before release, the game went through several conceptual and design changes that carried on almost right up to the month of release. At first they once again experimented with adding a degree of combat to the game, something which was thankfully knocked on the head fairly early on. The developers also expressed a considerable amount of frustration over the amount of time and effort it took to essentially hand craft an area or puzzle in Penumbra, and tried their best to find ways to avoid this in the future. Creative differences also resulted in Tom Jubert leaving the project in favour of Mikael Hedberg, who had previously wrote some of the in-game descriptions present in Penumbra: Black Plague.

Despite this, the final release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010) was at first glance not that far removed from what came before it. It was after all still ostensibly an adventure game with a few monster ambushes thrown in for good measure. A new sanity mechanic was added to further complicate things for the player, enemies were slightly retooled as to promote shorter more frantic encounters, and the developers also abandoned the use of textual descriptions after finding them to break the immersion too much for their liking. The game's puzzles were likewise simplified in order to help achieve a similar end, but they were still not all that different from what was seen earlier in the Penumbra games, with a few specific puzzles even reappearing in their entirety.

Amnesia did have a lot more to offer from a technical perspective at least. The next iteration of Frictional's own in-house engine was able to facilitate a far more refined and polished game experience than was witnessed in its predecessors, boasting a wider range of graphical effects while at the same time exposing bugs far less frequently and providing support for many new features. The ability to create and load custom stories in particular helped Amnesia to become a darling among the internet modding community, something that still manages to breath new life into the title to this day. The fact that the game itself also was always able to successfully probe my graphics setup for the best playable settings even when using the free software drivers for my video card never ceased to impress me.

If that was all I had to say on the the matter I could have easily just walked away from the game with an almost entirely positive impression of it. Unfortunately just like with Penumbra the devil is in the details, and in the case of Amnesia, it is in the details where certain things fall flat for me. The first sticking point as far as I was concerned was in regards to the game's setting. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with setting the game in an old Prussian castle in the year 1839, but by doing so Frictional necessarily had to sacrifice one of the greatest strengths of Penumbra which was its evocative and realistic environments. By going beyond a certain point in time an element of historical fantasy had to be incorporated in order to make the game work, something which resulted in Amnesia looking far more generic and contrived.

I do admit to some degree of personal bias on this front; being a farmer from a northern climate who works a land very recently considered to be on the frontier, it is only natural that I would feel a stronger affinity for a similar representation in a game. Part of the appeal of Penumbra for me was that it reminded me of the real decaying buildings and ancient machinery that I had previously encountered, especially with regards to the dilapidated structures and equipment still in evidence at my grandparents' old farm. I can fully imagine that for some European players the setting of an old and ancient castle might very well seem more attuned to their own notions of the past, but even with that being accepted, the world shown in Amnesia even on closer inspection can hardly be said to bear resemblance to any real place.

Another thing that bothered me was the game's attempt at characterization. While in Penumbra time and energy was put into fleshing out the characters in order to allow them to stand based solely on their own merits, here they become for the most part mere vessels intended to move the plot forward, with Amnesia being more intent on elaborating on a set of prior events rather than opening up a whole new realized world as Penumbra did. The protagonist character of Daniel was also meant to be easier to inhabit due to the removal of the character's own ability to comment on things in the game, but instead one feels less attached to the character due to a variety of other more glaring reasons. The sanity mechanic for one thing made Daniel seem far less resilient than Philip, and whenever it came into effect I always felt that it was more Daniel that was flaking out than I was.

The classic video game trope of the voiceless and faceless protagonist is also somewhat compromised by Daniel seeming perfectly willing to talk when seen in flashbacks or when reading pages from his diary, but when he actively encounters events or even characters in the game he remains copiously silent. The best example of this is when we first encounter Agrippa, a rather awkward event in which the game's narrative takes an almost one eighty degree turn from passive to active. Here we have a full conversation with an individual where our own dialog is left mindbogglingly absent. Once the main sequence is completed Agrippa will start to repeatedly offer up the same inane chain of words each and every time you walk past, Daniel keeping up his strange stony silence throughout, no matter how many boxes you get him to throw at Agrippa's stupid jawless head.

It is things like this that remove one's sense of agency from a game. The closest that Amnesia gets to establishing a larger character is probably with the game's primary villain Alexander, but even then that is somewhat subverted by a disappointing reveal towards the end. When I first played Amnesia I got the impression that Alexander really was a long-lived German baron that was using the power of the vitae he extracted from torturing people to prolong his life, something that was infinity more unsettling than him just being an inter-dimensional alien trying to use the power of the vitae to somehow construct a portal to take him home to his wife. It really does sound strange and even a little laughable when one goes and writes it down, but that is essentially what the character comes down to.

While meant to add a last minute element of moral ambiguity to the game by making Alexander's own motivations seem a little more noble, all it really does is help separate the character from his own actions. Since Alexander is now revealed to be an alien presence the same standards of human empathy can not realistically be applied to him, making his displays of inhumanity all the more justified. Likewise, unlike with the deaths of Amabel or Red in Penumbra, in Amnesia the terrible things that Daniel is supposed to have done are all in the past, something that allows you to easily distance yourself from the actions as well as the character himself. The fact that the game makes Daniel both an integral part of the back-story while at the same time attempting to leave him as an empty shell for the player to inhabit in the end impairs both while improving neither.

While I was disappointed that many of the aspects I enjoyed in Penumbra were absent or at the very least deeply subdued in Amnesia, there were some features and narrative devices which were an improvement, or at least tried to break new ground. The allowance for multiple ending paths was a great example of trying to provide for more player choice, and while this could have been better implemented in the game, I for one do very much welcome their inclusion, particularly with regards to the option of actually letting Alexander win. The game's habit of also showing off notably nude male corpses, not to mention Alexander himself, was also at least a different take on body horror, which can be applauded as being a nice subversion of the already long established inverse trope of female nudity being used as a visual device in video games.

The actually plotting of Amnesia is also certainly no weaker than what was found in Penumbra, and while I have never been fully sold on the sanity mechanic, the actual gameplay was still largely inline with what came before it. It was no surprise to me then when Amnesia turned out to be wildly successful, with it admittedly being made more digestible by no longer being chopped up into varying episodes, and with it also arriving at a time when the independent market had finally reached a certain saturation and maturity as to allow Frictional's still revolutionary ideas to reach a wider audience. Based on this success, the developers soon after put out a free downloadable content expansion entitled Amnesia: Justine (2011) which was surprisingly experimental and in some ways a return to form. Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
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About the author -
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 hompage where he lists everything he is currently involved in.
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11 comments
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Eike 2 November 2014 at 8:30 pm UTC
Dark Descent was the only game that gave me literal shivers from top to bottom.
I played Justine and Machine for Pigs as well, but didn't care for the predecessors. Finding that you like them even more made me buy them yesterday.
All Penumbra parts bundled are available for less than 2 Euros at the moment.
But... being such a coward when it comes to spoilers, I did not yet read your articles! I'll be waiting for a dark, lone evening when I can sink into Penumbra, and then, when I'm back from it, I'll go read your articles.
Linas 2 November 2014 at 8:44 pm UTC
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I very much agree that Penumbra games are quite a bit more immersive exactly because they feel real. The places you visit in the game seem natural somehow. Like some place you have actually been to, something that has been used by actual people. It makes you wonder what actually happen to the place.

Whereas in Amnesia you find yourself in a fantasy world where everything is possible. And where everything is possible, is there really anything you wound not expect? Does not make it for a lesser experience in itself, but it becomes more of a fictional story. Like Dracula and Frankenstein -- scary and fascinating, but not real.

As for A Machine for Pigs, I would not consider it such a bad game, as many people describe it. Sure, it is average in every possible aspect, but admit it - could be worse. The one real complaint I have about it is visibility. It is so hazy and low contrast that I had trouble seeing anything even when playing in the dark. By the time I was finished, my eyes were sore from squinting all the time trying to figure out what I was looking at.

Anyway, I am happy I can play all of these games on Linux, and discuss them here with you guys.
Segata Sanshiro 3 November 2014 at 12:21 am UTC
This is a great review! Was looking forward to this second part.

I have both Amnesias in my library but (as with most horror games) never get round to playing them. I'm one of those people that really like the buildup of suspense and subtle storytelling, but also really don't like the idea of sitting alone at night (when I usually play games) playing a horror game... I'll get round to it though!

Can't really say much for SOMA from what's out there at the moment. What I can say is that it really annoys me when people misuse names from books - in this case Soma, but I can't see any relation between the game and Brave New World other than the setting being the exact opposite.
Hamish 3 November 2014 at 1:15 am UTC
Segata SanshiroCan't really say much for SOMA from what's out there at the moment. What I can say is that it really annoys me when people misuse names from books - in this case Soma, but I can't see any relation between the game and Brave New World other than the setting being the exact opposite.

When I heard the title I thought of Huxley as well, but I think it actually has more to do with the biological and Latin understanding of the word:
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/soma
Segata Sanshiro 3 November 2014 at 3:32 pm UTC
Quoteit actually has more to do with the biological and Latin understanding of the word:

Oh, that makes more sense! Thanks
philip550c 3 November 2014 at 5:03 pm UTC
Also dont forget that soma has other meanings, such as the vedic soma. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soma
GoCorinthians 4 November 2014 at 3:08 am UTC
Seems to me that the main effort of Amnesia by Frictional was completely ignored by you sir.

I tend to agree that in some many aspects Penumbra series(specially Black Plague) felt to be more vivid than in Amnesia, but we could agree that in experience, was found the main victory of Amnesia: the dark descent.

I could bet that SOMA will be a mix of the very best parts of Penumbra and Amnesia...

As for Frictional and its incoming new game SOMA I wish it to be at top-sellers games for months at Steam and PSN clients...

STEAM dayONE! DRM-free my as? lmao!

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Hamish 4 November 2014 at 4:32 am UTC
I would respond to the comment left by GoCorinthians if I could work out anything more than an inarticulate screed from it and a rather childish jab at my praising Frictional for their support of the DRM free gaming community.
GoCorinthians 4 November 2014 at 11:01 am UTC
oh gosh. DRM is treated like a black plague for some linuxers.

I feel that the only thing OPEN in linux communities is the source code of applications.

You MUST love that fake evangelism that DRM-free is freedom.

as said in penumbra: you had to know how stupid I was.
Liam Dawe 4 November 2014 at 1:40 pm UTC
You really are strange GoCor, DRM is only in place to restrict people, and it's a pain in the ass.

I gather you weren't around when LinuxGamePublishing started having problems? Their servers went down and people couldn't activate their games. They disappeared totally not long after.

There's then SimCity (the newer one), it's a single-player game, yet people had to sit in a login queue for hours because...DRM.

Shall we continue? DRM is not good for gamers, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't really know what DRM is.

Edit > Fixed a wrong word.
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