Frictional Games achieved commercial and critical success with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game spawned numerous fan reaction videos on Youtube and literally managed to scare the hell out of us. Now Frictional Games are upping the ante with SOMA, their next project which is slated to be a sci-fi survival horror game. And no, it won’t be similar to The Dark Descent as Frictional Games are planning to revitalize the horror genre once again, in the same way they did with Amnesia.
GamingBolt caught up with the Creative Director at Frictional Games, Thomas Grip to know all about SOMA. Check out his response below.
Rashid Sayed: Let us get the big question out of the way. Why is the game a console exclusive to the PlayStation 4 and not coming to the Xbox One?
Thomas Grip: The reason is rather simple: we simply do not have the resources to develop for both. We have never done a game for console before, so it felt like a too big of a risk to support both. Why Sony? Because we reached out to them first and they were really quick to respond and easy to deal with, so we decided to go with them. An Xbox One version after release is very much a possibility though.
" The main thematic that SOMA will deal with is the mystery of consciousness, and it is something that ties into all aspects of the game. It will not be a background thing but something that the player constantly faces head-on through out the game."
Rashid Sayed: SOMA is a survival horror game but are there going to be any other themes that the game is going to tackle?
Thomas Grip: The main thematic that SOMA will deal with is the mystery of consciousness, and it is something that ties into all aspects of the game. It will not be a background thing but something that the player constantly faces head-on through out the game.
While there will be eerie environments to explore and creepy monsters to encounter, what will really get to the player are the concepts of self and identity that are unraveled as you play. It is hard to reveal too many details without spoiling though. But basically we will take a deep-dive into what makes you feel like a unique person with a soul, and then twist that around in a really disturbing direction. It should create a sense of unease that lasts way longer than the primal fears evoked by being chased by a monster.
In a way I think of SOMA as a sort of neo-lovecraftian game. Lovecraft’s stories where all based on the new science at the time. Cosmology and Physics. The strange, hidden realities they reveal, and how insignificant us humans get in a cosmic perspective. We are doing the same thing, but with more recent science, especially advances in neurology, psychology and AI. Lovecraft made monsters inspired by stuff like Quantum Mechanics, we make monsters inspired by split brain patients and neural networks.
Rashid Sayed: The game will have a number of strange creatures that will be nemesis to the player. What can you tell us about them, their actions, behavior and AI?
Thomas Grip: Afraid I cannot go into much low-level detail. The monsters are not really enemies in the sense they are in a game like Resident Evil, or even Outlast. You will see very little of them, and we are very careful not to overuse them. Most creatures are only encountered in one or two locations. Also, it will often be unclear whether the monsters are a threat or not.
Some might seem dangerous, but never really harm you and the opposite is also true. You must even take help from some creatures in order to progress. We hope this gives a sense of paranoia you are unsure how to approach monsters you encounter. Finally, the creatures all also have different “rules” you need to figure out. Some cannot be looked at, others only go by sound and so forth. So not only do you not know if the creature is dangerous or not, you also need to make sure you engage them in the right way.
"So our goal is for SOMA to also feel like a revitalization of the horror genre, just as Amnesia did. Will it be as scary? I do think so! Not just in the same primal "run and hide in closets"-fashion that Amnesia evoked, but at a more deeper more psychological and gut-chilling level."
Rashid Sayed: The game has been under development since 2010. That is quite a long development period for an independent development team. What is the reason behind the game’s long development cycle?
Thomas Grip: First, we used a lot of time to develop new tech for the engine, so it took a year almost before the development properly started. Second, and by far biggest reason, is that it has been crazy hard for us to get our main design features, a thematic that you play through and active story-telling, to work properly. We had gone down many roads that did not turn out to work, and and to redo a lot.
Just figuring out what aspects of the thematic we wanted to discuss and how to do it without tons of info-dumps, have been a challenge. On top of that we wanted to do this as an active story, meaning that the bulk of the narrative is played and not gotten from notes/audiologs, and that has made things even harder. We have everything nailed down now though, and it is just a matter of polish.
Rashid Sayed: Amnesia: The Dark Descent revitalized the survival horror genre. It kicked off a series of YouTube reactions and horror tales. Personally, I haven’t still completed the game yet, it’s too damn scary. Do you think SOMA will continue this lineage?
Thomas Grip: SOMA will be scary in a different way from Amnesia: TDD and I really hope that people will feel it is a fresh experience. There have been so many games now that are just about running way from monsters, and I think a lot of player are getting desensitized to that.
So our goal is for SOMA to also feel like a revitalization of the horror genre, just as Amnesia did. Will it be as scary? I do think so! Not just in the same primal “run and hide in closets”-fashion that Amnesia evoked, but at a more deeper more psychological and gut-chilling level.
"We want most of the story to take place in present tense, and not just be something the player hears about in the past tense. There will of course be a lot of history and lore the player can discover, and it will be an important part in figuring out what is going on."
Rashid Sayed: Amensia had a very simple inventory mechanic. What kind of changes will the inventory system have in SOMA given that the game has a certain sci-fi theme to it?
Thomas Grip: It will actually be even simpler than in Amnesia: TDD. The reason is that we simply do not rely much on items in SOMA, and it did not make sense to have a full blown inventory for it. You can pick up items, but they will only become possible to use as you are near certain objects. I think this gives the game a better flow and also gets rid of that annoyance of not being able to use items on objects that feel perfectly reasonable.
Rashid Sayed: The story in Amensia was relayed via collectible text books. Are you planning to make SOMA’s narrative more intriguing in the form of cut scenes?
Thomas Grip: We try to stay away from cut-scenes and feel the game should be playable from beginning to end in the largest extent possible. However, we will not just rely on notes and audio logs to tell our story this time, in fact, they have only a minor part in how the narrative is told to the player. Instead most of the storytelling comes from simply playing the game. Encountering creatures, exploring the environment and solving puzzles; this is what creates a narrative for the player.
We want most of the story to take place in present tense, and not just be something the player hears about in the past tense. There will of course be a lot of history and lore the player can discover, and it will be an important part in figuring out what is going on. But really, you could play the game without checking out a single audiolog or note and still get most of the narrative.
Rashid Sayed: Does it make you feel comfortable that you have a great launching pad with SOMA given that the original Amnesia was a massive hit without the marketing of AAA games?
Thomas Grip: Yeah, it feels good to have made a name for ourselves with Amnesia, it helps a lot. But it also means that we get really high expectations, especially as it will be almost 5 years after Amnesia’a launch when we release SOMA. I also fear that people might think SOMA is Amnesia 2, which it is not, and solely judge it based on that. So it is a bit of a double edged sword, but on the whole I think it is a good thing.
"I think third person is superior to first person in some regards. For instance, it is easier to connect to the kind of character you are playing and get a better sense for the kind of physical struggles they go through."
Rashid Sayed: Have you played P.T.? If yes what are your thoughts about it?
Thomas Grip: Not played it. But seen some videos and love the fact that it plays out in such a small environment and still manages to be engaging. Will have to get hold of a PS4 so I can try!
Rashid Sayed: 2014 has been a great year for suspense and horror fans. We had Alien Isolation and The Evil Within, both of which were a critical success. But as someone who is developing first person horror games, what is your take on third person view? Do you think it kills the atmosphere and the suspense factor?
Thomas Grip: I think third person is superior to first person in some regards. For instance, it is easier to connect to the kind of character you are playing and get a better sense for the kind of physical struggles they go through. On the other hand, first person is a more claustrophobic and personal view, and it also works better for certain UI stuff (such as our interaction system). So one is not better than the other, it depends on what sorta game you want to make. For SOMA, first person was a must, for reasons that I think will be clear when you play the game.
Rashid Sayed: SOMA will run on the latest iteration of HPL Engine i.e. 3.0. What are the benefits of this engine over version 2.0?
Thomas Grip: Tons of new stuff: Terrain, HDR, better script system, and much more. One feature that I think people will notice especially is the streaming, which means there will be no loading screens between levels. Our goal is to get it as seamless as possible so the entire game feel like one big environment that you travel through.
Rashid Sayed: Is it safe to assume that SOMA will run at 1080p and 60fps on the PlayStation 4?
Thomas Grip: Actually, we will probably be doing 1080p and 30fps. We have the game running at 60fps in a lot of the game, but there are still some places where we have issues, so 30fps is probably what we will target instead. Since the game is so slow moving, I do not feel it makes that much of a difference. Still not decided though, we have to see what more we can optimize.
"SOMA is by far our most ambitious project ever and we have put effort and thought into its various aspects in a way we have done for none of our other games."
Rashid Sayed: From the looks of it, the game will be utilizing expensive Global Illumination techniques. What was your approach towards handling the slower clock speed of the PS4 CPU?
Thomas Grip: We have some limited GI, in the form of Spherical Harmonics. It more there to spice things up though, and not something that has a great effect on the overall look. We got it pretty late in development, so it felt unwise (especially since the game had already take a long time to make) to do any major revisions based on it.
We handle the slower clock speed by trying to offload as much as we can on the GPU and to use multi threading were possible. Having to deal with the PS4 CPUs has made our tech programmer, Peter, do some really nice optimizations to the game and engine, which in turn means that much lower-end PCs will support it. If it has a DX 10 card, will probably be able to play SOMA.
Rashid Sayed: The PlayStation 4 has a GDDR5 memory. Did you face any latency issues due to that?
Thomas Grip: Afraid I have not worked to closely to the PS4 side to answer that in any detail. As far as I know, we have had no issues. RAM is not a bottle neck for us.
Rashid Sayed: The game is confirmed for a launch in 2015. Can we expect an early 2015 launch?
Thomas Grip: The game will not launch in Q1, but later on in the year. That is as much as I can say right now.
Rashid Sayed: Is there anything you want to tell us about SOMA?
Thomas Grip: I think I covered a lot of ground already, so not that much to add. Can just say that SOMA is by far our most ambitious project ever and we have put effort and thought into its various aspects in a way we have done for none of our other games. The active storytelling, the thematics, the handling of creatures, etc. This is stuff we have really wanted to get right, and worked on many iteration to get our vision fulfilled.
Finally, the game is (apart from some recently revised bits) basically in a finished state now and we will spend all our remaining time just polishing. For all our previous games, we have had close to no polish time at all, and just released them soon after all the needed assets and features were in. I think this long polish period will make a big difference in how SOMA feels and plays compared to our other games.