The Amnesia series needs no introduction. In addition to democratizing FPS horror with a defenseless protagonist, the Frictional Games studio has never ceased to renew itself with each new game. The Bunker, the latest Amnesia, is obviously no exception, if not the best of the series in terms of gameplay. To mark the release of this interactive gem, I was lucky enough to be able to ask Fredrik Olsson, the studio’s Creative Lead, a few questions.
The genesis of The Bunker
The Bunker was born above all out of a sense of frustration on the part of the studio: “Personally, I have a deep nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of games. I remember a time when games didn’t hold your hand every step of the way. In my opinion, what really sets games apart from other forms of media is their unique ability to challenge and reward the players who invest themselves in them. I remember playing games in my youth and how they forced me to work hard to progress. They didn’t just guide me along a predetermined path; on the contrary, they required me to think creatively and act strategically, which made every step of progress extremely satisfying“. The idea for The Bunker thus became a response to this feeling: “Unfortunately, I have the impression that this type of game is much rarer these days. I often find myself quickly losing interest in a game if I feel that the only challenge is deciphering what the developers want me to do in order to progress. I think The Bunker is the result of these frustrations and a sincere attempt to create a game that trusts the player’s ability to be more experimental in their quest.“
The game design
For those unfamiliar with the studio’s games, they are akin to a genre known as immersive simulator. These are games that take place in a fairly open space, offering players a great deal of freedom of approach, while relying on their creativity. Although these are horror games that take place in a very restricted environment, Frictional Games intends to convey this feeling of freedom and interactivity, thanks to a specific game engine. One of its key features is the ability to interact with virtually any element of the setting. “I think the physics of our engine is a key element that makes our games so immersive. The feeling of actually being in this world is all the stronger when you can interact with it. Even if each interaction isn’t really necessary to progress.” Although this engine was already present in their previous games, its use is much more advanced in The Bunker, offering players a real sandbox gameplay: Break elements of the scenery, create barricades to prevent the enemy from passing, create a line of flames using a gas can… Freedom thus becomes a means of experimentation.
But it doesn’t stop there. Fredrik explains that the game rests on two central pillars: freedom and decision-making “Players are constantly faced with decisions, ranging from high-level strategic choices to split-second actions. Even the seemingly simple act of deciding whether or not to put on your flashlight carries weight in this game. I think all those decisions are really what make the game so immersive.” Indeed, the game’s flashlight is dynamo-powered and therefore recharges manually; but more importantly, noisily. In this Amnesia, every one of our actions can become a danger to ourselves, not least because of the noise: breaking a door, stepping on a floor, turning a rusty valve… So we have to constantly weigh up the benefit/risk balance before taking action.
Because she’s the game’s great heroine, Fredrik has gone into great depth about how The Bunker’s beast has been staged to terrify us. What’s more, he explains how, ultimately, she’s hidden from us: “I think there’s a golden rule when it comes to making something stay scary over time, and that’s ‘show as little as possible‘. No matter how terrifying a monster’s design, prolonged exposure tends to diminish its impact. The way the monster affects the bunker lighting is something that worked very well for us. The fact that the lights flicker more as they get closer to the monster is something we wanted as a signal to the player that the monster is getting closer, and it also helped camouflage the monster. With the screen blurring effect when you’re looking directly at the monster, most players get the impression that they haven’t really seen it.” The Bunker has thus brilliantly followed the path of previous Amnesias, which already blurred the protagonist’s view if he looked too closely at his enemy.
However, unlike previous games, this time we’re dealing with a permanent threat. In other words, in addition to being invulnerable, it will follow us throughout our exploration of the map: “The real horror of our monster lies in its dynamic reactivity to the player’s slightest movements. Even when the monster is in the walls, you can clearly hear it react when you shoot the flashlight, when you run or when you move a physical object. This really gives the impression that the monster depends on your own actions and puts weight and pressure on everything you do. You could say that the scary nature of the monster is channeled through your own decisions and actions.” This configuration of the threat makes it terrifying. Unlike previous games where, once the threat has passed, you can take a breath and move on, here there’s never any real pause. The only moment of respite is in the game’s central hub, where players can plan their next action. But then again, Fredrik gives an explanation for the implementation of this system: “In horror and tension-based games, the ultimate goal is to instill a real sense of consequence and danger. Otherwise, players wouldn’t fear the prospect of failure. In Amnesia: The Bunker, we’ve chosen to link this sense of danger to a hub-based save system. This means that every time you venture outside the save room, your entire progress, since your last save, is at stake.“
The studio’s future
It’s safe to say that The Bunker is the culmination of the studio’s concept, which has always revolved around the immersive sim. With this game, where freedom and creativity are golden, we’re dealing with an engaging gameplay, whose simple objectives give us plenty of time to experiment, at our own pace. And yet, when asked if they consider The Bunker’s interactivity to have been pushed to the limit, the studio responds: “The interactivity in The Bunker is a big step towards what we’re aiming for in our future projects, but I honestly only see it as a start. (…) The Bunker was a very confined experience that focused mainly on gameplay, and we now want to take it even further, while incorporating an even stronger emphasis on story and theme. (…) We’re now focusing a lot on what we call “narrative immersion”. We want our future games to be even more immersive, which means giving players a lot of autonomy and freedom. For us, this means taking our already established and proven formulas and styles and building on them, rather than inventing the wheel again and again”. Listening to these answers, it’s hard not to be excited about what the studio will soon have to offer us. We know from Creative Director Thomas Grip’s Twitter that the studio is currently working on a game set in a sci-fi universe. And I don’t know about you, but I for one can’t help dreaming of a game in a universe similar to that of SOMA, which would also use gameplay similar to The Bunker. But for now, we’ll have to wait and see.
Thank you very much for reading. I’d also like to thank Fredrik Olsson and Frictional Games once again for agreeing to answer a few questions. If you’re interested in the studio’s game design, I’d like to invite you to follow the Twitter accounts of @LosFreddos and @ThomasGrip, who regularly share studio-related finds and news. What’s more, if you want to know more about the studio’s physics engine, here’s a very interesting article by Scriltarl on the subject. Finally, I’ve put together a video about the horrific walking simulator genre on my channel. If you liked the article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or share it, and see you next time on Point’n Think 🙂