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Level With Me, Thomas Grip

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Level With Me is a series of interviews with game developers about their games, work process, and design philosophy. At the end of each interview, they design part of a small first person game. You can play this game at the very end of the series.

Thomas Grip is creative director of Frictional Games, based in Helsingborg, Sweden. They're known mostly for the Penumbra (a first person horror game series) and Amnesia (another first person horror game series), and they're currently working on another first person horror game called SOMA (a first person horror game). Astute readers may sense a pattern.

Robert Yang: So you work at home, over in Sweden, right?

Thomas Grip: Yes. I've always worked at home. I started game development as a hobby 15 years ago, then I did a thesis project, then the Penumbra tech demo... I've never worked in an office environment. I can only imagine what it's like. The worst part is the social cost; you don't meet people regularly, and interactions are very central to working and development. It's hard to chit-chat when you type. You sort of miss out on that. So when I meet people at GDC, I get all worked up and stuff...

RY: Yeah, you do...

TG: [laughs] It's so rare for me, to meet people engaged in my own field. It's intense every time.

RY: There aren't any indie meetups around there? I thought there was Nordic Game and all that.

TG: We've always been pretty poor. A lot of indies say, "oh, we have to go to GDC," but we never travel anywhere unless it's absolutely necessary -- I go to Stockholm because our publisher is in Stockholm. GDC is fun, but we want to save the money. Same thing with office space, that's something a lot of start-ups do. Once you get an office, that's a flat cost and you can't really reduce it, you're locked into a lease. But if you work from home, you have to pay your rent anyway... I think it saved us. That's my main advice I guess: don't get an office, don't go to GDC, it's not worth it.

The thing that's missing about working from home is -- the other day, an artist asked me, "where should I place this building?" and I had to go into the map editor and take a screenshot and draw on it, and that worked well enough... but in in a normal office environment, you can just point on their screen, "there." we can't do that! That's annoying, but overall, I think we're less distracted.

There's also discussion stuff... well, me and Jens, we used to meet-up, but he moved out far outside of a small city that's far outside of another small city. We usually met up in a park, looking like a couple of drug dealers, to sign some papers or have some conversations. When you meet people in-person, I think it's easy to fool each other into believing something is a good idea. It's a social thing -- "oh this is a great idea!" You both get excited until you start implementing it and realizing it wasn't a good idea. But if you talk online, more at a distance, then you think about it as you type and think, "this doesn't make sense." You want to waste words less with typing.

RY: Distance is interesting. I think Phil Fish said something about how it's impossible to make a game out of anger, because it takes so long to make games. Would you ever want something to feel more raw and immediate?

TG: For me, it's less about being immediate. It's more how everyone working on a project should be lined-up on the same frequency. Everyone should feel connected and make their own design decisions, and everyone should have a part. When we started working on Penumbra, we were just 3 people. We had very few design documents, and 2 pieces of concept art.

RY: Eh, you don't need concept art...

TG: Well, now that we're 10 people, the need for concept art is really big. It's much harder to get everyone into the same vibe. Again, maybe that's where an office would be better, it's easier to become part of our "hive mind"...

RY: But I thought Amnesia sold like 2 million copies? Can't you --

TG: A million and a half is a very high estimate, especially if you factor in Humble Bundle sales, a lot of redundant sales there. Yes, now we can travel a bit more. But now we all have families so... it's hard for me to travel somewhere, even when I do have the money, it seems wasteful. We still don't travel more than we need to. Now we're spending all this money in the new game, with outsourcing and stuff...

RY: Do you still do a lot of programming?

TG: Our time budget is much better with this project, so when I have a crazy idea I can just try to make it. Like the database dialogue system that Valve used for Left 4 Dead? I thought it was so cool and I had to implement our own version of it. I spent two weeks just on that, because I'm my own boss and I can do whatever I want! [laughs] But in the end, it didn't work...

RY: I tried to make my own version of that too. Then I realized it was more about the data, and not the code or the system, and that's more a writing problem.

TG: Yes. In the end, it was very hard to get that across... the writer wrote every dialogue snippet to be very long. But with this dialogue system, you shouldn't think about it like that. Instead, you should think about it more like these... words... just floating around! And depending on the situation, they float down and combine into something wonderful? But he said, "no, I can't work like that!" We kept collapsing the system more and more, until we had enough and decided to just go with a script. We moved on. Perhaps we could've gotten something working if we spent 2 more years on it.

I designed the first editor for Penumbra. But then we hired a tools programmer and I never made another tool again! It's fun to hire people. And now we've hired a graphics tech programmer, and I haven't touched any of that since then. It's a little tragic. I loved doing that stuff, I used to be good at it, and now I'm just going to be this sad bloke without any skills... you feel like you're living a lie when you're doing design, like you're not really doing anything. Well, no, I *did* do the GUI system [for SOMA] about half a year ago...

RY: I think knowing how to design AND how to implement is very useful. Like, when you were designing some of the systems for Amnesia, you wrote about how some of it was hard to balance, so you knew where to simplify the design...

TG: It's like the dialogue system I tried to do... you shouldn't get too hung up on the system doing everything. In Amnesia [The Dark Descent], we started with a complex sanity system where you lost sanity points for seeing horrible things or for being in the dark for too long, and it would go up if you made progress and lit your lantern with oil. That was very hard to balance; some players end up having 100 tinderboxes and some have none. It was because we hand-placed a lot of these items, and sometimes it was the difference between a player being insane for the rest of the game. Then we realized we shouldn't make the sanity system into a competitive mechanic, meaning we should make it more of an ambient feature.

We built-in reset points for this system -- in the game, there are these oil barrels, and they will either give you a lot of lantern oil or a little oil, whatever will refill you to a certain amount. The algorithmic complexity stays the same, but the overall holistic complexity is so much smaller. You always think you need a more competitive mechanic, but we found that a lot of players would roleplay it very well. Most players immediately start trying to figure it out -- "oh, 20% sanity means the visions start, but if I'm between 30% and 50% then I can optimize" -- but then what if this insanity is different from their idea of insanity? That's like a sci-fi book punishing you for imagining the wrong shape of spaceship. I think it breaks a lot of imagination that comes from games. As long as the system doesn't "test them" in a competitive manner, it keeps the fantasy intact.

You don't always need a technical solution. It's the same with stealth mechanics. Supposedly a better stealth game always needs better AI. But what about a sneaking game that's noncompetitive? It could all be in the player's head, it might be hard to imagine. You never die from Amnesia's insanity mechanic. It never really punishes you.

RY: This is reminding me of... I tried to play your old game "Fiend," back from 2001.

TG: [laughs] Tried!

RY: So I watched a Portuguese Let's Play video of Fiend, and I was struck by how a lot of your interests are the same still: Lovecraft horror, real-time lighting... but it had a huge focus on combat and inventory management that you don't really do anymore.

TG: Last year I saw my friend Johan Peitz for the first time in 15 years, and he said, "so you're still making the same games?" Yes, I guess I've been trying to refine my kind of Resident Evil / Silent Hill inspired take on survival horror for 15 years.

RY: Why horror? What's so great about horror?

TG: When I was young, I would read ghost stories at the library. I wanted to make the "best worst" experience, something so scary that some people wouldn't be able to play it. After that, I also made a game called Unbirth, which had a kind of David Lynch style... people always deeply probe his movies, trying to find meaning in it, but I don't think that's the point. I think he just throws something in to create a certain mood. That's what I was trying to do.

But now with Amnesia, I've started to view horror a bit differently. It started to dawn on me that horror is a way to think about subjects that you normally don't want to confront. When someone watches a horror film, you can just throw anything at them and they're much more keen on accepting it and seeing what happens. Maybe it's like stand-up comedy too, you can laugh at something normally taboo and take it. Horror does the same thing. And with [SOMA], I wanted to probe the depths of our theme, and I just found more and more horror! Am I a depraved person? At the bottom of some very important things is some very horrific stuff. Mortality, morality? Horror territory. Psychologists have these tests to see how moral you are -- do you push one person in front of a train to save five people? You see things like this a lot in Lovecraft or Clive Barker.

RY: I was playing a bit of Penumbra: Overture the other day, and I saw a lot of Lovecraft in it, how it throws a lot of exposition at you: you're a physicist and your dad did this and your mother did this... or in Amnesia, you're the assistant of a chemist with all these other 15th century chemists... there's a lot of dense setup.

TG: It's going to be even worse in [SOMA]. [laughs] (Actually in Amnesia, we cut a lot, that story is the "streamlined" version.) Lovecraft does that, huh? He'll mention one book in a library and then never again. Maybe that's the horror of normal life, that there's so much going on that we can never really understand it?

RY: Yeah, horror is "overwhelming." I see that in Amnesia's systems too: you have to manage your sanity and your health and your lantern oil, etc. I like how it only seems overwhelming, but it actually isn't. For example, [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] I didn't know monsters de-spawn after a while, sometimes right at the end of a patrol. I thought that was so clever and mysterious.

TG: Yes, it's not about these competitive mechanics about replaying sections over and over, and then restarting from a save point. We wanted to avoid that. We could've tweaked it better... like if you pick up an item and then hear a monster roar directly after, the trigger is so obvious -- but if you add a few seconds of delay to the roar, like 3-5 seconds, then people don't see the causal relationship.

RY: But is that really important? It's kind of fun or funny to know that it's a trigger, that the designer made a trap for us. We know it's a haunted house, it's not a real castle...

TG: Amnesia's level design doesn't make any logical sense, in the sense of an actual castle. Every area is only very loosely themed, designed more to make specific things happen. It's very much a haunted house. Maybe a better way would be pulling out a book, and then dropping the book, and a monster hearing it and growling? It's scripted, but also player-initiated, like the idol in Indiana Jones. Why didn't we have something like that?...

RY: [laughs] Maybe it's overengineering. But that book example reminds me of your concept of an "agreeable action outcome."

TG: Yes, and what's cool about my hypothesis is that -- players can agree with a lot of stuff. By that, I mean many games are too obsessed with simulating everything accurately. In film, you might have a clip of a spaceship firing something, and then a separate clip of something exploding. There's no real connection there; the viewer is making up the connection. But in games? No no no. We have to have a bullet with a virtual mass that travels along a trajectory that does X damage... and that's very different from other art. It can't just be random, but I think we do need to back away from everything having a virtual existence. The Path has a really great mechanic with this, where it tells you, "don't do anything, to interact." You let your avatar free, and maybe they start dancing with another child or something. It's an agreeable outcome. But the action is "do nothing!" That sort of thinking is interesting.

One thing that I'm trying to do with game narrative is to stay consistent, there should never be a time in-game where you think, "oh okay now it's puzzle-solving time." I started thinking in terms of virtual existence and what it means to be "truthful." Movies usually deceive you. A car explosion is actually a car composited on top of explosion footage, but in a game, the car has to truly blow-up. It's the same with narrative, that it has to be there? But maybe no. Maybe the player just has to feel as if there's a narrative, they can solve a puzzle that's very boring but we could wrap it in a narrative-like coating -- and if you ask the player what they're doing, they'll tell you, "I'm in the narrative right now" instead of "I'm solving a boring puzzle." At first, I thought it was too deceitful...

RY: But players want to be lied to, they want to be deceived.

TG: Yes, but some who play The Walking Dead -- they get upset. [SPOILER SPOILER] "That choice didn't matter, it's a lie, I thought it mattered!" There's a scene in Braveheart where you can see a car driving past, far off in the distance... wait, you're telling me this wasn't a 14th century battlefield? Oh my fucking god, I am deceived! No one does that, but supposedly we're supposed to care about that in games. There's a Danish writer (I forget the name) who argues that games are neither fictional nor real, they are "virtual", a middle ground. I think that's a good way of thinking about it. I think it's just the internet, or whoever's going to read and comment on this article, who can't let it go. [laughs] "Thomas Grip is going to ruin games!"

RY: I'd phrase it more like, "games are too continuous." Thirty Flights of Loving plays with that in a strong way.

TG: We're not doing this right now, but I'm going to try to more -- to disrupt a situation, exactly like a movie does. "How did I get here?" Who gives a shit? You're here, deal with it.

RY: [laughs]

TG: So walk upstairs and have a drink. That's it. There's no causal relation between scenes to setup your "getting a drink" experience. The Last of Us [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] winter section just throws you into a hunting scene, or it throws you into that giraffe scene that everyone likes. There's no causal explanation as to why you're in that building, you just are.

RY: Yes, the cuts in The Last of Us were very smart.

TG: The game is at its best directly after a cut. And then it gets worse... I think when I have more time, I'd like to compare the time ratio of on-screen shooting in action movies vs. in action games. I'm guessing an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is like 40%, but games are probably more like 70%. Even in movies about shooting, they probably don't spend as much time on the shooting.

RY: I wish The Last of Us cut more. Maybe something like Tales of Tales' proposed "skip gameplay" button.

TG: But they don't cut more, and it's bad storytelling! I know some of it is about selling a game for $60 and making sure there's a decent amount of playtime, but really it's only because they feel like they have to do this. That'd be the worst Jackie Chan movie ever -- "we have to have a fist fight, we haven't had one for 5 minutes." Now it's okay if your game is about setting up all these gunfights, but then don't pretend it's part of some great story. Everything has to be "real"! This happened with Mass Effect, when everyone got upset about skipping the combat, because then that means you didn't earn the cutscene. "Earn every single story bit, you lazy bastard! Oh no, am I discussing my experience of Mass Effect with someone who didn't earn it?" Same with Dark Souls; people told me I had to earn it but I didn't have the time and I wasn't interested in the difficulty, I was interested more in all the player messages and unpredictability. Games are this artform where this is so important, and I think it's holding it back. Even Tale of Tales games have very strict coherence to them.

RY: What do you mean by that?

TG: Well, even in The Path, you can't just wander forever: you have to find the path, find the wolf, find A to get to B. There is progress. What about a game where you just wander, and things happen, and you make-up a causal relationship afterwards.

RY: Aren't players very sensitive to this? First they'll wander this way, then wander that way, then wander over there -- oh, okay, that triggers that -- and so on?

TG: Yes, you have to be careful. The way to beat a system is to replay it. The Path was replayable with multiple characters, but if there's a conscious decision to make it a one-time game, then all those tricks work. No replayability. Let's make unreplayable games, let's think of games as magic tricks. You can't tell the magician, "do the trick again!" Tricks are unrepeatable.

There's a card trick where there are 3 piles of cards. I say, "pick a pile." You pick a pile and I remove a pile. "Pick another pile." I discard another pile. The trick is that *I* decide whether to keep the pile you picked or to discard it: your input doesn't really matter, I'll just change my response to make sure the "correct pile" stays there in the end. If I did the trick again, you'd test my response and see through it. But if you aim for one really great experience, a lot of avenues open up to you.

RY: I wish games could be like that... but reviewers and players judge you on replayability, which is weird. "This book starts feeling predictable if you read it a third time."

TG: [laughs] "Three out of five." You can trace it back to early video games which are just about replayability, by design.

RY: There was no memory. Games had to be small and they had to loop.

TG: They didn't even have endings, really, it was just about getting a high score. It makes sense for Space Invaders, but less for something like a movie. Maybe I'll have white text on a black background, at the beginning of a game: "this game is meant to be played once." Just say it upfront. We'll be explicit.

RY: That's another thing I like about the Frictional games, it's very different from how I would do tutorials -- invisible, seamless, with no text -- but Penumbra or Amnesia are very explicit, and say upfront, "you should hide, there's a monster." A lot of prompting.

TG: What if there was a game that required you to read a novel before playing it? You'd be familiar with places and interactions. The novel could even end with a cliffhanger, and that's where the game begins. What if you had that much exposition, what could you do? I feel like the set of "all games that can be intuitively figured out" could be smaller than the set of "all games that need directions." People think notgames are niche, but no, it's the competitive games that are niche. Notgames work in a different possibility space. Then again, there's no good in having farmland in the ocean...

RY: Many would say all this in-game text breaks "immersion", but you gave a talk at GDC Europe 2012 / GDC 2013 about "presence", which you differentiate from immersion. Please explain.

TG: When you play a game, you are projecting yourself into it to a degree, which is to say that you are not actively thinking about yourself sitting at a computer. Say you're playing a horror game and you're running from a monster. Your focus is on the monster, so you are "immersed" in the game, but if you do not feel threatened by the monster then you are not necessarily "present." In this way, save systems break presence. If you meet the monster for the tenth time, you are still immersed and intent on fleeing from it, but now you are getting tired of the same monster animations -- you see the system and you are not really threatened by it anymore. Presence means treating the experience in the way that the fiction wants you to treat it. I had to use this word in this way because "immersion" was too general; it is very possible to be immersed in Super Meat Boy with its heavy repetition, but I wouldn't say we are present in the game's fiction.

RY: So can you be "present" in a system that you've figured out really well?

TG: It's harder. It is much harder to make a movie and then watch your own movie with a sense of disbelief.

RY: How would you apply this to Starseed Pilgrim? Most people are very sensitive about spoiling any of it, but Michael Brough argued the system is much less fragile than we think.

TG: There is no fictional world in Starseed Pilgrim.

RY: Yes there is!

TG: Well, not in the same way as, say, The Last of Us. There is no complex fictional belief that is important to maintain when placing the seeds. Knowing the seed's function does not diminish anything. Meanwhile, knowing how Amnesia's sanity system works -- is *bad*. In games like Starseed Pilgrim, the system is so close to its fictional element.

RY: So what do you want to add or change to this game?

TG: I understand it is about exploring a space, but I have no clue why I'm here?

RY: Should the player always have a clue?

TG: Not always, but I think if you don't have a clue, then it narrows the set of possible experiences. Maybe I'm at the lake because it's a nice lake, or maybe I'm waking up on an alien planet after a spaceship crash? Do I want to stay or to leave? Why am I pulling myself everywhere?

I'm thinking this guy is wounded, he's sliding on his belly. Maybe every time you pull yourself you hear "uuhhhhhh" --

RY: [unconvinced] Uh, okay...

TG: Maybe that would become too repetitive. Make it more like a belly scraping sound? He's also slowly dying on this planet, and needs to find his way home... Sometimes I feel like I'm a bad game designer because I always make the game about survival. I always think about the fiction, but others will think about it in more abstract terms like the goal or the mechanic -- or maybe you're some sort of strange creature who moves in that way? It should make a nice sound -- "Wwwffffssshhhh" --

RY: Can you be, uh, more specific?

TG: A swooshing sound. "Wfffssshhhh!" A tonal swooshing. "Shwunggggg." Maybe as you move, it plays some sort of tune, engaging you to try it out more. Also, when you fall into the lake, you don't fall under the lake. It's actually a portal to the Moon. Then on the Moon, you look through the periscope -- or telescope? -- to look at Mars, and teleport to Mars...

RY: [confused] Wait, how does this turn into the Moon?

TG: Keep the same underwater tunnel beneath the lake, except now it's not underwater. Add a warp speed effect, like in Star Trek. Then use the same warp tunnel effect when you are on the Moon and click on Mars. And Mars should be more reddish.

RY: And the ending stays the same? You walk down a hallway and it turns white?

TG: That's a bit boring. Perhaps at the end, you shoot yourself into space... and sort of drift away from all the planets. And then you watch the planets get smaller and smaller, in the blackness... and then the game ends.

RY: But how do you get shot into space?

TG: Instead of the white tunnel, there's now a broken warp tunnel, at the end of the Mars base. Normally, the warp tunnels gradually come to a stop and you slow down -- but this warp tunnel doesn't have an end, so you just go faster and faster and faster until you're launched into space, and the momentum is so strong that you keep going.

RY: Are there any stars in space, or is it just blackness?

TG: [pauses] Stars are nice.

RY: Thanks for your time.

This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

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