Amnesia: The Dark Descent – Interview

Some time ago, we reviewed Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a terrifying horror survival adventure, which is fast becoming a cult hit based on word of mouth and critical praise, but mainly due to its reputation of scaring the living daylights out of even seasoned PC gamers.  For the full background, we’ll direct you to our review, however, the game’s use of sound and the way it deprives players of any means of defending themselves, not to mention the rationing of precious light sources, helps to immediately conjure a thick atmosphere of terror and tension which has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

Amnesia’s small, indie development team, Frictional Games, very kindly agreed to take time out from their next title to answer a few of GamingLives’ questions.

What were your influences in creating Amnesia and its terrors?

There have been tons of influences over the development of the game. One major inspiration was the Milgram and Standford prison experiments that showed what the nature of evil is really like; this was something that got heavily incorporated into the story and feel of the game. Another influence is the first 30 minutes of Bioshock, which showed how to make an engaging experience through only exploration and a few exciting events.

The inability to fight or even use a weapon was inspired and was a large contributing factor in making the atmosphere so tense.  What led to the decision to remove the player’s ability to physically combat the various terrors in Brennenburg and how early in the development process was this decision made?

We made a tech demo six years ago of Penumbra, in which we removed the weapons in order to make a first person game that was not about shooting or player created violence.  We thought that with no weapons, it should be scarier as the player is defenseless and has to find other ways to survive. This worked really well, but people did complain quite a bit about it.  So with the first Penumbra game (Penumbra Overture), we tried to add tools, like a hammer and a pick axe, that were used to solved puzzles, but also with the intent that they would be a last resort of protection if trapped by monsters. To make it work like this we tried to make the tools quite difficult to use, so that you would avoid trying to fight with them and find other solutions instead.

It turned out that even if the tools were a pain to use, if you have something in a game that can be used as a weapon, then all will run around and bash on EVERYTHING. So instead of trying to use alternative survival methods, players were only complaining about the cumbersome use of the tools!  We learned that lesson, so for the next Penumbra game, Penumbra Black Plague, we removed all the weapons again! This created a great result, with a more intense horror experience, but it also created a lot of work, trying to come up with all the gameplay, as there was no core gameplay (like running and killing enemies); all the puzzles and things you do in the level had to be crafted for each unique situation.

So with Amnesia, we did originally try to have weapons again, having a second attempt at making something that could be a weapon but not used excessively. During testing it got quite clear that this was near impossible; some thought it was very easy and could kill all the monsters, while some thought it was near impossible. That, combined with what we felt would be a poor man’s version of Condemned, made us decide, yet again, to make a weapon-free game. This was around two years before Amnesia was released, so we worked for a very long time with this no-weapons design.

Many seasoned PC gamers were scared witless by this game, with some gamers either giving up through fear or refusing to play.  Was this something you had anticipated to this degree and does it secretly make you pleased?

It makes us publicly pleased!

A lot of positive comment has been passed on the realistic, physical interaction in Amnesia.  Do you see the game as pioneering the way forward in this respect, especially given the level of immersion that it helps create?  Was it a tricky process to perfect?

We do feel it is a bit of a unique system, with hardly any other game (with a first person perspective) using physics this way. It has been tricky to develop to say the least; the first version was in the Penumbra tech demo, so work had already begun in 2005. Originally it was an idea that came from us wanting to avoid having to make a lot of animations; if physics could be used to open doors and drawers, then there was no need to animate it and the items in a drawer could move around realistically. Then, for each game we have made, the system has been polished and tuned, with a big overhaul for Amnesia and we think there are improvements to be made yet.

As we explore the story, the simple notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ begin to twist.  The protagonist, as we discover by the end (mild spoilers for those who have yet to play), could be described as quite unsympathetic due to his actions, depending on how you see it.  This was quite a bold move; was it intended from the start?  Do you feel that Daniel deserves the redemption offered by the ‘good ending’?

It was very much intended. As stated earlier, the game draws a lot from the some scientific research that is about just this. The same thing can also be seen in real life, for example in Abu Ghraib, where normal people committed vile acts. In Amnesia, we wanted the player to experience this first hand. First, we tried to make the player become the protagonist, and think in terms of “I am …” instead of “Daniel is…”. Then when we slowly unveil the lost memories, these should feel as  though they were your own hidden memories surfacing. As more disturbing facts emerge, one must take a very personal stance on this. Hopefully this has made some people consider these matters in a way that they previously had not.

As for the redemption of Daniel, that is really for the player to decide. Our idea with the final scene was that each ending should reflect the choice made. So when you decide to let Daniel live, the ending then reflects on how you handled Daniel’s acts. Our personal take is not really possible to give, as we did not live the game as intended.

Since there are/have been other orbs in existence, will we see another Amnesia game focusing on them at any point?  Presumably there is enough scope for a series/sequel/prequel in this case?  If not, then what is next for Frictional Games?

Yeah, a potential sequel is not a crazy idea. We are definitely interested in doing more of Amnesia, but not right now.  At some point, probably!  We are very early in the process of our next game, which is currently undergoing heavy technology development. It will be another type of game, yet will keep a lot of similarities with Amnesia, but not necessarily a core horror game. We feel the need to do something a bit different, so we are exploring some new ground for us, while keeping it in mind to have some horror themes of course.

The story contains dark themes of torture and pain and, often, graphic descriptions; were these difficult to deal with, given their unsettling nature?

Yes they are and hopefully they also create a thought or two in the mind of the player. We actually stressed this upon all team members, to really get a feel for this sort of thing and to understand that they are not just dealing with fantasies. Most of the acts described in the game have happened plenty of times in history and are still something people are forced to endure in our days. We hope this shows in the final product and that we do not just use the subject in an exploitative manner, but with the respect that it deserves.

With many games such as Alan Wake, Halo, and Fallout exploring cross-media elements to their franchises, such as video shorts, novels, and even comics, is this something that you would ever consider if budget allowed?  I can imagine a novella or comic, either of Amnesia itself, or expanding upon Daniel or Alexander’s past being popular among fans.

Absolutely, in fact we do have something planned for Amnesia that might come out at some point when the moon is aligned correctly with Jupiter (or was it Mars?).

Were you surprised by the game’s largely positive and enthusiastic reception?

Yes! We were quite worried about not being able to live up to expectations from our earlier Penumbra games, so when the reception was much greater than that we were really surprised, relived and extremely happy.

How important was word of mouth marketing?  I believe that there is even a ‘pay it forward’ phenomena happening on Steam, with people gifting strangers Amnesia in the hope that they will enjoy it and ‘pay it forward’; what do you think of this?

The pay it forward idea is crazy and amazing! Word of mouth is very important; while we spent a lot of time doing the traditional marketing with a lot of reviews and features for the release, it is not something that, on its own, can sell a game when there are so many games to purchase. Word of mouth is basically the same as when you make commercials that are broadcast all the time; you see (read) it over and over, so eventually, you have to check it out and see what the fuss is all about. Having a lot of reviews and such is, of course, important as well – to have layers of information and coverage about the game for people to stumble upon.

Frictional reportedly endured some tough times during Amnesia’s development, even risking going under.  How did you get through it and are you out of the woods now, so to speak?

The good bit first, out of the woods? Yes!  And now the bad bit: we cut salaries in half and, as they were not really great to begin with, it sort of meant the minimum each one needed to pay for expenses during a month, so we could create the game for quite a little amount of money, compared to other titles of same size and content value. Then we had some great things happen during the years, at crucial moments when we really did not have much more money left, so we could keep going.

For example: a sale of Penumbra Collection on Steam generated a huge buzz one weekend.  We had a similar buzz on a Linux blog called Blog of Helios which, combined with a sale, also gave a lot of much needed funds. Then finally we were part of the Humble Indie Bundle, which was phenomenal and hard to believe to be true.

The low price-point of Amnesia was quite a surprise.  Was this a calculated gamble and has it paid off as well as you had hoped?

We price our games at 20 USD because we personally think that it is a level where you feel it is affordable, even if you are not sure what the game is about. Taking into account that for many European countries there is also a sales tax added, it makes it difficult to go higher. Also, as a mainly digitally distributed game, it is hard to justify a higher price when there are a lot less middle hands and no production costs.

Even so, we might go up a little bit in price for our next game as we feel that comparable titles charge more, even if they are produced and released on similar terms. But we will probably do other things, like include any sales tax into the price, to even out the pricing for people, regardless of country, to compensate and things like that.

Is a purely digital distribution model something you will continue in the future?

We are mainly a digital distribution company, but we are also interested in getting boxed versions of our games out. With Amnesia we have had a hard time finding suitable partners for the boxed release, so it was not so much a choice to do digital only. But the really nice aspect of it is that digital distribution has really matured to a level where you can make your living very well on it, so the boxed release is more of a bonus. In a way, the days of having to sell your soul to a publisher are over and you can just say no if there is not a sound agreement presented.

In the trailer, we see the player hauling a table across a door to barricade it, although this was not possible in the finished game.  What led to the decision to leave this out?

At first, all of the tables were dynamic as well, but then when we tried it, it created all sort of problems. It is still possible to barricade doors using boxes and similar though, so the scene seen in the teaser can be pretty much replicated, just not with a table.

Was there anything you had to leave out or couldn’t do because it wasn’t working or due to time and budget constraints?

Most of what we planned got into the game; during the last year there was not really anything we can think of that was scrapped. Going further back into the project, there were probably a ton of things changed; for example the weapons that were removed or a lot of items we had, like coins you were to collect. Much of what we removed felt too much like gameplay elements that did not really belong in the game. Usually these mechanics were transformed more into something “to experience” rather than “play to win”.

If you could, is there anything that you would go back and change, in hindsight?

No, it’s a masterpiece!  Jokes aside, there are always lots of things to change and improve when you, as a company, never feel 100% satisfied with what you do – you can always do better! This is actually a good thing, because feeling that our latest game was perfect would make us extremely stressed when making our next. It is quite good to feel that there were tons of things to improve (to a certain point at least).

The sound direction in the game has been widely praised and is key in stoking up the thick, terrifying atmosphere.  Did you employ a foley editor to create your own sounds or did you use stock sounds?

It’s a mix of both, we do most sounds in-house, that are based on working with stock sounds and own recordings. Then we have worked with an external sound designer for areas that we have wanted to put an extra effort into. The external designer created all his sounds from scratch and they really added a lot; for example all sounds from the creatures in the game and in the visions you have are the work of that designer.

Does your own game scare you anymore?  Can you ever envisage any fan created content scaring you?

In general no.  The whole process of making a game takes so much replaying and design on paper, so even when trying something the first time, you know too much about it for it to be scary. But every now and then something happens that you did not expect and that can be scary, for example, sometimes when working with a puzzle, you might be in-game and testing it, concentrating on the puzzle, while a monster is sneaking up on you and giving you a good whack in the back!

Absolutely for content created by someone else, as when you do not know what to expect, it is the same experience for us as it is for others.

Are there any plans to port the game to other platforms?  I imagine, due to the physical way that the player interacts with the environment, that motion control could have some interesting applications?

We discussed it a bit, but at the moment I think we are quite settled that it will not happen. If we make a console game it will probably be something different entirely.

Finally, if Castle Brennenburg existed, which one of your team would crack first if you spent the night there?

After much discussion I think we sort of lean towards everyone but Luis, our tools programmer, running head first out of the castle! Luis is just a very cool Spanish fellow, while the rest of us are weak, pale Swedes.

We’d like to thank everyone at Frictional Games for taking the time to answer our questions and wish them continued success with Amnesia: The Dark Descent which can be purchased either through Steam or via Frictional’s own site.  We look forward to seeing what they have in store for us in the future and hope that by then, our nerves will have steadied themselves after the fear-soaked experience of Amnesia – an experience that we can’t begin to recommend enough, though with the caveat that you should play with headphones on if your heart can handle it!

Last five articles by Lorna



  1. Edward Edward says:

    Wow, an absolutely amazing interview. Well thought-out questions that led into very in-depth answers and interesting discussions that made me even more interested in the game than I was after your review, Lorna!
    It’s a shame I’m still too much of a pussy to play the games, but I have a great amount of respect for the makers after reading this :)

  2. Samuel Samuel says:

    This is a very in-depth look at the game and the developers intentions, and a fascinating read even though I’ve not played the game. It’s obvious that you’ve put a lot of time into the game itself, and enjoyed it a lot, because of some of the questions you’ve asked here, much more intelligent and informed than you normally get in similar interviews. Puts my own recent effort at interviewing someone to shame, comparing the two, heh.

    Really well done on this one. A very enjoyable read, and another worthy smaller indie game being championed is always a good thing in the present market.

  3. Ste says:

    Great interview Lorna. I’ll be definately keeping my eye out for this when the Steam Christmas sale hits. :D

  4. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I loved discovering that some of their influence came from Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment… both of which utterly fascinate me, and I love that they took the time to even research the human psyche like this rather than just churn out “another horror game” like most other companies would, because it’s not what we see that frightens us the most, but what we think we see and what’s inside our heads.

    Great interview, great questions, great answers… I really REALLY need to knuckle down and play this bloody game. I’m going to make it my christmas break project! Closed room, pitch dark, projector on, headphones up full… yeah baby!!!

  5. Ste says:

    @MarkuzR – You forgot the change of pants!

  6. Tania Tania says:

    Fantastic Interview, I really must get back to this game at some point. I look forward to meeting my first monster! :)

  7. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    @Ste – I always game in the nude. Even in company.

  8. Splicer261 says:

    Wish it had a console release :/

  9. FC360 says:

    awww I was hoping to find out what physics engine they use in the game :(

  10. jens says:

    Physics? Here you go:

  11. Kat says:

    Fab interview Lorna!

  12. FC360 says:

    ah it uses the newton physics nice :)

  13. Lorna Lorna says:

    Thanks so much for the postive comments folks, they are very appreciated and I had a great time working on this. Despite, often, barely being able to play the game for more than ten minutes at a time because the atmosphere was so laden with fear and anticipation, I absolutely loved it and had a fantastic time playing it. The team at Frictional did a great job and I’m glad my enthusiasm showed in the questions. I was very pleased with the detailed responses we got :)

    @Splicer – It would be great on console, but I am not sure it would work with a conventional controller without an overhaul of some of the interaction controls that are done with the mouse, which would risk destroying one of the ingenious elements of the game. Your ‘hand’ doesn’t just open doors…depending on how hard you push or pull your mouse, you can ease doors open in order to peep around them, or slam them open while being chased! Once you get the hang of it, it is a fantastic control method which feels very intuitive. You can even hide in a cupboard and slam the door shut behind you before easing it open a crack to peep out (if you have the guts) while a monster smashes around the room. :) It is a shame because it would be awesome if it reached an even wider audience – just an excuse to grab a new PC rig though ;) Imagine the achievements for Amnesia…survived the game 1,000,000 points :D

  14. [...] It’s been over two years since we first stumbled upon a tiny indie game’s press release, buried on a media server and were sent a review code.  Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a terrifying game, and one which we confidently predicted would become something of a hit, in our review.  We were right.  Hundreds of YouTube scare videos later and Amnesia has become a runaway success, with people all over the world either terrifying themselves with the deeply atmospheric title, or simply happy to watch others scare themselves silly. We were later lucky enough to grab some time with the developers for an interview. [...]

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