Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Amnesia Previews & My Predictions

As some of you may have noticed, Amnesia previews have started coming in thick and fast. If you don't know already, Amnesia is the new IP from my chums over at Frictional Games, the guys who - by taking a punt on me for Penumbra: Overture - gave me the break I needed to kick start my career as a games writer.

There are a couple of things I'd like to highlight in this post regarding the game. The first is that the early previews - based on a couple of hours' code from the beginning of the game - are roundly positive and that now's the time to pre-order. I realise previews are always roundly positive, but still. They're being - to my mind - positive about the right bits.

The second is that, not being involved with this game, when Amnesia comes out I'll be interested to see if the experiment Frictional is attempting with their narrative structure is pulled off. Part of the point of establishing Plot is Gameplay's Bitch was to be as candid about development as possible, and while for what I hope are obvious reasons I don't particularly want to say an awful lot about Amnesia before it comes out, I certainly don't want to be left in the "Me too" / "Told you so" camp once the game's released. To that end, let me tell you a little about...

What Concerned Me
To put the following comments into context, I should state that I was involved briefly with Amnesia back when it was known as Lux Tenebras. Since then everything bar the setting and familiar Frictional gameplay has changed, and while I have played the first few hours of the game, I'm commenting largely from a theoretical standpoint based on design work and discussion between myself and Thomas (Grip, Frictional Co-Founder).

The story-telling approach Frictional is adopting on Amnesia is very passive (the story itself, that is, rather than what it demands of the player). Their objective has been to instill the game world with a history, diminishing almost entirely active, present tense story in favour of allowing the player to discover that history and to construct his own picture of events. To put that a more graspable way, there'll be lots of written notes, SS2-esque overheard dialogues, and a twisting character backstory to unravel. There will be (at least from what I understand) less of what we pursued in Black Plague in terms of tying puzzles into the active narrative.

Frictional's objectives in this are to provide a less hand-holding experience, to allow the player to digest the story at his own pace, and to allow him to personally contextualise his in-game actions rather than relying on NPCs. These are admirable goals, and I hope their experiment pays off, but I have my concerns. The reason I was proud of Black Plague was precisely the better job we did of justifying the puzzles and the game progression, and of placing the story emphasis in the present tense. It's my feeling that the relative narrative weakness of Overture and Requiem stems from their reliance on passive story, and that Amnesia may reawaken those issues. I know when I stated my concern that Amnesia was a Requiem, rather than a Black Plague follow up, Thomas disagreed. September will tell.

What I Think Will Work
What I do know for a fact is that Amnesia will prove the most polished, and the truest Frictional game to date. The central goal of the writing in their games has always been two fold: to drive the player through the world, and to reinforce the threatening atmosphere established by the visuals and expertly employed by the gameplay, making Frictional's releases some of the most frightening games ever made. While I fundamentally query how successfully the former can be pulled off, Mikael Hedberg is an experienced writer who cut his interactive teeth on the in-game descriptions in Black Plague, and so the latter will I hope be delivered on in spades.


When Amnesia hits the shelves on 8th September 2010 it'll be very interesting to watch the critical reactions: for a game whose narrative will ostensibly look and sound like an iteration of what was begun with Penumbra, will reviewers even identify the shift in approach?

Despite my concerns, I'd thoroughly encourage you to support indie development and to pre-order Amnesia from the Frictional store. It's guaranteed to be a fascinating experiment and the most confident expression of Frictional's horror credentials to date.

5 comments:

  1. While I'm on the topic of the Penumbra games, I discovered a very entertaining site called TV Tropes the other day, it's got some great / smart / funny bullet pointed insights into the story.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Penumbra

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  2. I like to keep away from the hideously addictive TV Tropes as much as possible, as you can click links forever on that site, straight through hunger, malnutrition and death. Still - had no idea that Penumbra had been written up.

    Interesting to read your thinkings on Amnesia and I can see that you're genuinely interested to see the final product. I never got my hands on Requiem, so don't have that comparison to hand. Even if the narrative doesn't work so well as Penumbra, at the very least I'd expect the atmosphere to be quite delicious. At any rate - I pre-ordered Amnesia a little while back. I always buy games these days at discount, Savygamer saw to that, but always feel a twinge of guilt if I buy an indie at penny prices.

    One thing you didn't mention which you said you were going to touch on: why you're not working on Amnesia? Was it creative differences as this implies?

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  3. Yes, it was really. I didn't want to do another Requiem where narrative decisions beyond my control might, I thought, damage the game. I was open about my doubts, suggesting they might like to bring in a different writer but that I would do the work if they were stuck. The rest is, as they say...

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  4. TJ did you ever read the exchanges between Robert Yang and Lewis Denby on 'context as narrative'? I'm sure you'll already be aware but the two of them are responsible for a bunch of mods for HL2 and both of whom approached narrative design from opposed angles. It sounds as if Lewis Denby's mods took the approach that the Frictional guys have taken while Robert Yang's probably aligns more with your take on things. You can check out the exchange here. Really interesting.

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  5. Yeah, I saw that quite recently, interesting stuff. You're right about the comparison. I talked with both Lewis and Dan Pinchbeck (of Dear Esther) down at Develop last week, and they're certainly performing some fascinating experiments.

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