Interview: Thomas Grip, creative director, Frictional Games
“Some people have said that it’s totally unscary, and others say it’s so scary they can’t even finish the opening hour”
Frictional Games co-founder Thomas Grip should be a happy man. At the time of writing, Soma, the studio’s first in-house game in five years ( Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs was handled by The Chinese Room), has shifted just shy of 100,000 copies in its first week on sale, and garnered almost universal praise. But Grip is a perfectionist, so in this interview we discuss Soma’s hits and misses as he sees them. (Spoilers follow.) As an environment, Pathos-II feels really authentic. How much research did you do into undersea bases? Not that much, actually. The base was very much, ‘Let’s make it up as we go along.’ That sums up the entire project, because there were a lot of unknowns from the get-go. Early on we weren’t even really sure how much of the game would be inside, and you were originally meant to spend a lot more time in the water. So a lot of the indoor structures came along as we started to redesign stuff. But we did a lot of research into specific stuff like fish. We were very careful to pick species that could live at the depths where the game takes place. BioShock’s Rapture casts a long shadow over any underwater environment. Was that problematic? It’s really interesting: from what I read about the development of BioShock, we mirror a lot of how that game was developed. But we haven’t been that influenced by BioShock other than checking out how the water was handled – we did that for a lot of other games, too. We found BioShock really helpful from a technical standpoint, but not aesthetic. Actually, the thing that has cast a bigger shadow on us has been the Alien movies, because we really wanted to make sure that our sci-fi corridors had a distinct feel to them. We really enjoyed the Aliens references, especially the missing-crew moment with the locators. That was almost a direct rip from it [laughs]. We had the storyline, but then we added other sections where we have these black-box locators, and it just hit us: ‘This is Aliens – we need to have a map that shows where everyone is!’ It emerged naturally from our story and works, so we thought, ‘Let’s use it as an homage.’ Giger seems to have had a strong influence on the WAU constructs and dripping structure gel, too. It was a big influence, and it came pretty early on. The initial idea was ‘Giger with fish scales’; then one of our concept artists, Rasmus [Gunnarsson], sketched some early designs of that and it was like, ‘Yeah, this is cool – we need to have that.’ It feels like there should have been more games with his inspiration. Perhaps I missed some, but I can only recall Dark Seed. Something else that’s uncommon in horror games is humour. Were you nervous about including it? I mostly left Mikael [Hedberg], our writer, to do what he thought fitting. He believes it’s the environment and journey that set the atmosphere, so the characters don’t have to make it more scary, they just need to bring the human part of the story instead. And humour is the most realistic thing you can do in horror because it’s a vent that you need in order to keep your sanity. In terms of your goals for the game’s enemies, how pleased are you with the final result? I’m semi-happy. The most common complaint that we’ve had is that there’s not enough mechanical variety to them, and not enough mechanical differences to other games. But that’s actually a design decision. The whole idea behind the enemies is that they should be a background element that you project your imagination on to. It worked out awesome for the people who experienced everything [as we intended], but it worked out really bad for some other people. Amnesia popularised hiding in cupboards, but why did you choose to leave that out of Soma, and other genre staples like hiding under desks? I’ll actually say straight out that I think that was a slight design blunder from us – we could have done more. But then again, it leaves you a bit exposed and we did include some hiding places, but I think a closet or two here and there would have been appreciated! It’s always a difficult balance between having environments that are narratively plausible and environments that, gameplay-wise, offer you all the options. What was the thinking behind the health system? Once you’ve experienced death you know where you’re at – you know you’ve experienced the worst thing that can happen to you. It’s the unknown that’s the most feared, so instead you’re knocked down, you’re hurt and you need to go further. And then incorporated into that is this health system, which is disgusting, and it’s also unclear as to whether what you’re doing is ultimately more harmful. We had even more ambitious efforts on the death system from the get-go, but it didn’t turn out. Were you worried the game might be too scary for some and not hardcore enough for horror obsessives? [Laughs] It’s been very hard to figure out where to draw the line. We’ve heard everything from people saying that it’s totally unscary, to others saying it’s so scary they can’t even finish the opening hour. So I can’t see any way to oblige everyone. We’re just going for our intended experience and hoping for the best.