Video Game Career Analysis: Frictional Games
Do you enjoy video games that are designed to terrify you? Please tune in to this Career Analysis of Frictional Games, indie developer of incredibly scary and very enjoyable series of PC games.
All Frictional Games games have several elements in common: a story-driven plot that’s provided in small pieces at a time, relatively low-end graphics that don’t demand an expensive PC, limited (or no) focus on combat, physics-based puzzles, and FEAR. Barring Soma, all of the following games are cross-platform (yay Linux!) and have low hardware requirements. Because a huge focus isn’t placed on cutting-edge graphics, more resources from the small company are devoted to attributes like story and gameplay mechanics. Speaking of gameplay mechanics, I want to explain the previously mentioned “physics-based puzzles”: in the Frictional Games universe, if you see an object like a box or a book you can pick it up and manipulate it in several ways. The physics engine is quite sophisticated; such that you could open up a desk drawer, place a long 2×4 into it, and attempt to close said drawer but find that it won’t close per to the wooden obstruction. You can also close a door and stack up boxes in front of it to ward off an enemy who craves nothing more than your demise (this will happen a lot over the course of the games). Let’s take a look at some of Frictional Games’ greatest hits.
Penumbra: Overture (2007)
The studio’s debut offering does not disappoint. The developer must have had a few goals in mind when establishing their name and managed to accomplish most of them first time around. Though not without flaws, the brand hits the ground running with a frightening, challenging puzzle game in Penumbra: Overture. From the opening sequence:
My story began in February, year 2000
For my part in this allegory, I’m not going to make the same mistake my father made.
Howard vanished from my mother’s life before I was even in it, so when he sent me a letter, a few days after mum’s funeral, it was the first I’d ever heard from him.
A pity he was dead. Writing from beyond the grave must be a genetic habit in my bloodline.
After reading a letter from your deceased father, you try to gain entrance to a compound at which he was performing research. Eventually you get access, but the journey provides peril after peril in an attempt to stop you from doing so. This is the only game in the developer’s career that involves combat and it is incredibly clunky and, quite frankly, seems like a last-minute addition to an otherwise polished product. You will run into a few large spiders and irradiated dogs. The game’s narrator (in essence your tutorial) recommends that you hide and wait for these dogs to pass; but you can easily dispatch of EVERY ONE of them by crouching and swinging your pickaxe a few times. Upon discovering this simple work-around all combat related suspense is gone, and future encounters are reduced to simple but annoying obstacles in your path.
Having said that, the story is still quite ominous and frightening and employs several head-scratching puzzles; but the name of the game “Overture” becomes quite apparent upon completion of its eight hour (give or take) storyline. Once the player reaches the end, he may be left thinking “that’s it?!”; but this will give motivation to immediately begin the second (and best) title in the series. Overall I rate Penumbra: Overture
6 / 10
Penumbra: Black Plague (2008)
The story picks up immediately, as Overture provided the path TOWARDS a nightmare disguised as an underground mining / research facility, Black Plague is the journey INSIDE it. Therefore the quality and quantity of scares present in this game are much higher; and also the technical gripes have been remedied. For instance, combat has entirely been removed from the franchise, replaced with a true sense of “survival horror” that would become canon from here on out in the developer’s resume. No longer are weapons an option, for when an enemy finds you, it’s time to HIDE! Prepare to be chased by multiple… these guys:
(The game calls them “The Infected”, I call them “Penis Monsters”.)
I realize that one screen capture of an Infected doesn’t seem too scary, perhaps even comical; but when you have no weapons or other means of defense and three swipes will kill you, they become quite frightening. The flawed combat from the first game is now replaced with the necessity to run and hide to survive the compound’s many Infected. Often you’ll wind up in a wing of the compound that resembles a maze, and it’ll be your job to find maps posted on the wall to navigate to where you need to go next… meanwhile an Infected or two are relentlessly chasing you around corridors with which you aren’t quite familiar!
Black Plague presents the player with an immensely rewarding story that’s told through various character narrations and multiple case listings found scattered among different desks. I can’t tell too much about the plot, as the game does such a fantastic job of providing small tidbits of the story a little at a time; but it involves research on the “tuurngait virus” that started to infect several of the staff members who took part in the experiment. The ending provides one enormous HOLY CRAP moment that basically makes up for a short conclusion (Speaking of which, the story is satisfactorily completed after finishing Black Plague. I can understand why the company chose to deliver the third entry as an add-on, rather than a continuation of the story.).
Exacerbating the threats from the first game and eliminating the unnecessary and annoying combat system, Black Plague improves upon its predecessor in every aspect. There are times when I considered quitting Overture, but that never happened once here. Yes the puzzles are more difficult and creative in execution, but you do have to deal with the occasional maze, something one would think to be obsolete after the first Resident Evil game. And most importantly, the story builds to a quality conclusion without ever collapsing under its own weight. As an overall gaming experience, I’ll award Black Plague a solid
7.5 / 10
Penumbra: Requiem (2008)
I am very sorry to inform you that I did not complete Penumba: Requiem after reading that it was just an expansion pack to Black Plague with a goal of solving puzzle after puzzle, in which the inventory does not carry over from one puzzle to the next. I tried playing this title but found that there was little to no story involvement in the overall Penumbra universe, so I quit. GameSpot DID give it a solid 7.8 but I wasn’t interested in spending much time with the title. I hope you can forgive me and enjoy the rest of my analysis.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
Having completed the Penumbra series, Frictional Games looked to a completely different setting to inflict fright after fright upon the player. From the very beginning it’s obvious that the company had ironed out all its previous wrinkles and constructed a truly memorable survival horror title in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I recommend watching the following trailer before reading further.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is scary. So scary that a couple of years ago (placing me at around 31) I could not play this game alone, and so I built a second PC to play it in the living room with the help of a friend. On a given Friday night we would tell our friends to “flush off”, consume tons of alcohol, turn all the lights out, and shit our respective pants whilst experiencing The Dark Descent. There was one sequence so scary that my friend sat up, tossed me the keyboard and mouse and said “Nope… I’ll be in the other room while you play this part.” We’re talking adults here!
The game’s story is heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. It begins when the player awakes in Brennenburg Castle with no memory of how or why he is located there. Upon research and discovery, it turns out that you were a guest of the castle run by a character named Daniel, who would sadistically torture and kill random civilians for sacrificial purposes. Unfortunately this is all I can tell you about the story without providing major spoilers! But believe me it is worth the 10-12 hour campaign.
(This is your primary antagonist. He is Amnesia’s version of Bob. You cannot defeat him, you must simply run from him. And I wish you the best of luck in doing so.)
The game utilizes a sanity meter. Let me explain: if you choose to hide in a corner and avoid any interaction with the bad guys, your sanity level drains. After a short period, you will experience warped vision and perhaps insects crawling across your computer screen, and after a long period you will become insane and die. But it’s a lose-lose because if you pull out your lantern (which consumes oil as it burns) you restore your sanity but Bob can now find you more easily. This provides a wonderful challenge to the game as lamp oils are rarely found in nooks and crannies of the castle; but Bobs are quite plentiful. This give-and-take system never feels as if it were designed in favor of your demise, you always have paths of survival though they may not be immediately obvious.
The aforementioned physics-based gameplay mechanics work so perfectly in The Dark Descent: in one of the more suspenseful sequences, you must race across an underground sewer line, open a door, turn around and close said door, then run towards the next door; all the while being chased by an invisible bad guy called a “Kaernk” (though you can throw pebbles to distract him, he’ll always come back to you). You’ll also be collecting different ingredients from around the castle and combining them in a particular order to create special concoctions. Though the puzzles were consistently difficult, I never had to give up and read a walkthrough: I could walk away, discover new regions, and come back to solve them later on.
There are so many things that this game does correctly: challenging puzzles, engaging story, excellent sound design, a consistent sense of dread, and gameplay that’s simply FUN! It’s never so scary that I stopped enjoying myself. Since playing the game, I cannot think of a single fault; it’s easily on my top 10 games of all time.
10 / 10 … (Perfect)
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs (2013)
A Machine For Pigs is not a sequel to the Dark Descent; it is rather an independent title whose story takes place in the same universe but 60 years later and with all different characters (Have you ever played a game called Dear Esther by The Chinese Room? Whereas it adheres to the definition of a game, Dear Esther is really an interactive novel, as there is no combat or character interaction whatsoever.). This game was actually developed by The Chinese Room, but produced by Frictional Games and employs their Amnesia game engine. It is this collaboration betwixt the two companies that results in a hybrid survival horror/interactive novel title in A Machine For Pigs.
The game begins on New Year’s Eve 1899 in London, England. You play as Oswald Mandus, wealthy industrialist and father of two. As with Dark Descent, you awake with no memory and walk around piecing together the plot by reading notes left all throughout the world. Soon you learn about someone who has been breeding an atrocious hybrid of man and pig, and eventually they find and start chasing you around. But most of the game is discovery and the operation of various industrial revolution era machines (utilizing the excellent, physics-based engine).
There are a few major mechanical changes that separate this title from The Dark Descent, the first being that there is no inventory. Every puzzle that the player encounters is solved pulling levers, turning valves, or pressing buttons in correct sequence. Also the lack of inventory means an unlimited supply of illumination: no oil or batteries to collect, your lamp can be used during the entire duration of the game. The sanity meter is also gone, so you are free to hide from bad guys as long as you’d like. By stripping these core elements away from the gameplay, much of the suspense of the previous title is missing. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it’s a big disappointment after experiencing the masterstroke that was The Dark Descent.
Overall, A Machine For Pigs does retain many of the quality elements of The Dark Descent such as atmosphere and quality storytelling, but loses points because of the aforementioned mechanical changes. Meanwhile, the ending is more satisfying and the story is a more mature, disturbing, and sorrowful one (The developer boasts that the game provides “The darkest, most horrific tale ever told in a videogame,” and I don’t disagree). Combine that with excellent sound & music design and more than a handful of terrifying sequences, A Machine For Pigs scores an
8 / 10
Soma (not yet released)
Taken from the Wikipedia page, “Soma (stylized as SOMA) is a science fiction survival horror video game being developed by Frictional Games. It is expected to be released in September 22, 2015. The game will take place on the PATHOS-2, an underwater remote research facility with machinery that begins to take human characteristics.” One thing we can count on is that it’ll be scary (see a running theme here?). I cannot wait.
So do yourself a favor and pick up one or all of these games on Steam. They aren’t very expensive and each has a campaign of around 10 or less hours, depending on how much you like to explore. Make sure to turn out the lights and either have a good pair of headphones or surround sound system, perhaps even a friend nearby to hold your hand. Oh yeah, and a few changes of underwear.
Aw heck, since you’re at it join the Steam Toilet ov Hell group! Nerds as far as the eye can see.