Interview with Thomas Grip, creator of the Lovecraftian games “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” and “SOMA”

The following interview is by Joe Litobarski of UncaringCosmos.com.

From SOMA

From SOMA – click to enlarge

Frictional Games aren’t exactly subtle when it comes to their debt to H.P. Lovecraft. Their 2007 horror game Penumbra: Overture has the main character, Philip, piecing together clues from the journal of his dead father, Howard, before heading off on an expedition to the frozen Arctic. Even the engine running the game – the HPL Engine – is a nod to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

The independent Swedish-based developers are probably best known for their 2010 hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent – one of the most critically-acclaimed horror games of recent years. Curious to know more about the influence of Lovecraft on Penumbra, Amnesia and on their upcoming game SOMA, I got in touch with Frictional Games’ co-founder and Creative Director, Thomas Grip.

Joe Litobarski: I think it’s fair to say you’re a bit of an H.P. Lovecraft fan?

Thomas Grip: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. I’m a big fan!

Joe Litobarski: How were you first introduced to his stories?

Actually, I remember hearing about Lovecraft for the first time and I thought he was some sort of romance novelist; some sort of Danielle Steel thing. I heard someone say: “Oh, I bought a lot of Lovecraft books” and I thought – “Shit, Lovecraft?” – and I pictured these books with a hunky guy holding a girl. But then I actually read them and it just clicked with me.

I just loved the whole thing, you know with the protagonists sending out notes between one another, and it’s shrouded in mystery, and the ancient gods – all of it just clicked with me. And it’s been something that I think has been very pronounced in my games since.

In fact, when I made my first actual horror game, I totally changed the entire story to make it more Lovecraftian because I was so into it. Fiend was the game.

Joe Litobarski: I remember Fiend! That was in 2001. So, you’ve been making Lovecraft games for almost fifteen years. What is it about Lovecraft that appeals to you?

Thomas Grip: There’s a faux documentary style to it. I think most of his novels are in first person – it’s been a long time since I read one, but I think most are in first person and made up of a set of documents, or diary notes, or something like that. And I don’t know why, but I find that really appealing. I’m also a big fan of “found footage” films. They can be really crappy films, but if they’re found footage I’ll like it. So, that was a great appeal to me.

Then I also loved this whole mythos thing behind Lovecraft and how vague it was. So, you could sort of glimpse into things, and it got very confusing and contradictory. I really loved that feeling of something beyond, you know?

Being an incredible fanboy, I had to buy the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but that ruined it for me because they had timelines and stuff like that. And I know I had mixed up the Elder Things with the Old Ones. No, not the Old Ones, but the… what’s it called? The big things with the claws and trumpets on their head and things like that?

Joe Litobarski: The Great Race?

Thomas Grip: Yes, the Great Race, exactly! So, I had mixed up those two. And that was great, because the statements were contradictory and you had this sort of great mind imagery. But then when it was all pulled together it sort of lost this thing for me a bit.

So, I think that Lovecraft was most appealing to me when I first started reading it. And then it was cool because I didn’t have a proper internet connection at the time, so I borrowed it from the library. It was a total mystery because nobody I knew had heard about him so it was just me exploring these things, and that sense of the unknown was just awesome.

So, I don’t think that the stories themselves have inspired me, but just my first encounter with Lovecraft when he was really new. That sort of excitement is something that I think has spilled out in all my work, and is something that has been greatly influential in everything I’ve done since.

Joe Litobarski: Are there any other weird fiction authors you admire?

Thomas Grip: I’ve not read that much old weird fiction. I mean, I’ve read Bloch and stuff like that. I’ve mostly been concentrating on the mythos authors, like, shit… I’m so bad with names. Robert Bloch and the Conan guy…

Joe Litobarski: Robert E. Howard?

Thomas Grip: Yes, Robert E. Howard. So, those guys. But one author that’s from the school of “New Weird”, China Miéville, is one of my favourite authors ever. I’ve read everything from him, and I really love his work. And he has actually gone on to inspire stuff in SOMA. Not directly, but from a sort of ambient sort of thing.

Joe Litobarski: Any particular stories of his? Or just a general sense of weirdness?

Thomas Grip: Not just his weirdness, but also the seriousness to the weirdness. I mean, he takes stuff seriously, and I think you can say Lovecraft does the same thing too. Miéville has one book – shit, me and names – which is about the squid being stolen in London…

Joe Litobarski: Kraken?

Thomas Grip: Yes, Kraken! Which I didn’t like because he just went all crazy and he didn’t really take time to take his stuff seriously – he just went full-speed ahead. So, I didn’t like that, but I like The City & the City, because it’s just awesome. It’s the most weird, strange premise ever, but it works! It totally works in his novel, and he totally sells it.

Joe Litobarski: Let’s back up a bit. You find the idea of Lovecraft’s mythos intriguing, but does that extend to your own work? Do you think of your games as occupying their own mythos?

Thomas Grip: The Penumbra games share a mythos, and the Amnesia games – Dark Descent, Justine and A Machine for Pigs. So, Justine has some characters recurring from Dark Descent, it’s some fan service, in a way; while A Machine for Pigs just borrows some aspects, it has orbs and that’s it. And I just feel that’s the level I like to keep things.

Joe Litobarski: What about SOMA?

Thomas Grip: SOMA is building up a pretty vast universe now. It’s probably the most complete universe we have yet. What I like about the SOMA universe, and what’s more interesting about it than the previous games, is that in both Penumbra and Amnesia at least part of the universe was the story, in that you explore notes and learn about the environment you’re in and so forth, and from that comes the storytelling, whereas in SOMA we focus a lot more on an active narrative.

So, even if you just skip all notes and don’t really worry about any backstory at all, you can go through SOMA and have a pretty decent storytelling experience. Of course, you’re going to lose out on some things, but compared to how we had it in Amnesia and Penumbra, it’s going to be really decent.

It’s more like the story is set in the universe and the universe is more like background. Which is also something I like in China Miéville’s novels, in that you have an exciting tale and it’s just set in this weird universe where stuff pops up and might never be mentioned again.

I just loved in Perdido Street Station where they have these gigantic bones in one of the areas of the city and it’s never mentioned again. It’s just that they have some weird magical interference happen at the place, but that’s it. Where are they from? I don’t know, but they’re awesome! I just love that stuff.

Lovecraft sprinkles that stuff all over the place, and I like that we can do that too. And what I like about SOMA is that it’s okay that we keep this vague. Even if the background is more detailed, we can just leave out a lot of the details and it doesn’t really matter for the story itself.

Joe Litobarski: You said you appreciate that China Miéville takes his weirdness seriously. Let’s talk about YouTube for a bit, because Amnesia was a huge hit on YouTube and helped launch the careers of popular YouTubers like PewDiePie. Does it bother you that YouTubers take a somewhat less serious approach to your games?

Thomas Grip: I haven’t really got anything against it. I think there’s some really fun stuff, and I also think that there is room for players to take this stance. Because if the game was so strict that you couldn’t make it into a comedy by acting a little bit like PewDiePie then I don’t think it would have depth enough in order for players to really immerse themselves and be scared by it.

You’d have a sort of roller coaster ride; something like F.E.A.R. where it’s just a lot of shooting and then you have this Alma section where she shows up and then it’s J-Horror for a few minutes. You don’t see PewDiePie making a lot of videos around that, because there’s nothing to work with here. And, at the same time, I don’t think it’s very successful horror either.

I mean, F.E.A.R. has its moments of course, but on any deeper level I don’t think F.E.A.R. is good horror at all. So, I think being able to not take it seriously is something that might be a crucial ingredient.

Joe Litobarski: It also feels like a lot of YouTubers are using comedy as a way to cope with the horror. PewDiePie and others aren’t making fun of games like Amnesia they are genuinely scared and they’re shrieking in the dark and enjoying the horror experience, but they’re using comedy as a way to play those games.

Thomas Grip: Yes, yes, totally! It’s a defence mechanism for humans. I mean, otherwise they’re going to be like a Lovecraft protagonist and just go insane. It’s a way of dealing with it.

You also see it from reactions. For instance, there’s a good one when IGN plays Alien: Isolation and they get killed. They all crack a big smile after the alien has killed them, and they’ve just seen the alien’s inner mouth come and chop off their face or its tail go through their stomach, and afterwards they are like: “Ha ha!” They have a big grin on their faces! You cannot not do something like that. So, I think it’s very ingrained.

Joe Litobarski: You’ve written in the past about the problem of player death in horror games. After the initial shock of having died, the player then has to re-do that section of the game, possibly multiple times. And that kills the atmosphere.

Thomas Grip: Oh, yes, this is a pet peeve. Yes, repetition has dire consequences for how the horror builds up. The best example is in Penumbra, where we had a chase sequence where this big worm comes chasing you. We found that fifty percent of the players hated it and fifty percent loved it. We started asking around: “What’s the difference between these two groups?”

It turned out that the players that died more than two times loathed it, whereas the other players found it really exciting and engaging. So, the idea is obviously that having too much death is a bad thing. It’s something that we’re thinking about in our current game, SOMA. Where is the sweet spot? How much repetition of the same section do we want? How much can we have before it gets annoying?

The whole thing that you’re aiming for, however you choose to do your death sequences, is that you want the player to have a certain mind model when they play the game. How do they perceive the monsters?

Alien: Isolation is another good example. You have a sense in Alien: Isolation that, after a few deaths, the horror is just not there. So, when you play for the first time, the alien is an unknown being which can do pretty much anything. There’s a vent? Oh, it might come through it! I mean, you don’t know. It’s walking there! Can it hear me? And the only way you have of protecting yourself is using your fictional knowledge. What have I heard in audio logs? What do I know about this alien creature? And you use your imagination to the fullest degree in order to plan your next move, and that makes you frightened.

But then, after you die or see the alien a few times, you learn its patterns. It is no longer an unknowable creature, but becomes a game system that you’re playing against. And slowly, slowly the horror just stops being very horrific in the game.

What they do is that they rely a lot on just systemic horror. Alien: Isolation could have been made with just the mechanics, they didn’t have to have the alien. It could have just been a cylinder running around – which they probably play-tested – and it still would have been able to produce a sense of tension, just because you have the save stations, etc.

Most of the tension doesn’t come from the atmosphere, it comes from the play systems. And I think you’re moving away a bit from proper horror when you do it systemically like that. It’s not bad, it’s just that I feel like it’s not that very interesting. It’s like making a horror movie where it’s just jump scares. Where you just have this sort of build-up with music, everything goes silent and then WAARGH! A loud sound! I mean, you always jump from that.

What you want is that horror should emerge from the imagination, and if you get constantly hung-up on systems then you’re going to lose what I think is interesting with horror.

Joe Litobarski: Speaking of Alien, the trailers and concept art from SOMA have a real H.R. Giger feel, especially his set designs from the Alien films. Was that a conscious influence?

Thomas Grip: Not that much, actually. It’s less Giger-ish in the final game than in the screenshots. We’ve sort of toned it a bit down. We have a certain presence in the game that we wanted to feel alien. I’m a big fan of Giger, and the Giger style just felt like it fit for that sort of thing, so we built upon it. Then that has evolved; the Giger style is a little bit more pushed into the background, even though we have, especially towards the end, some Giger-ish moments.

It’s actually more Giger-ish with the SOMA story and gameplay. Giger has this sense of the biomechanical, and what we’re aiming for is very connected to that sort of feel; where man and machine meet, which is our exploration of consciousness that we want to be in the game. So, Giger is inspirational from that standpoint.

But the Alien movies themselves are not that big an inspiration. We tried not to do Aliens, for instance, when designing our architecture. So the artists knew: “Do not do it like Aliens“. The designs are great in Aliens, but it’s been done to death at this point so we wanted to do something a bit different.

Joe Litobarski: Is SOMA still influenced by Lovecraft?

Thomas Grip: I’d like to say that it’s post-Lovecraft. While I still love Lovecraft and I would like to see more Lovecraftian stuff, one thing I’m slightly annoyed by is that the general perception of Lovecraft is about old gods returning to Earth. That’s not my take away from Lovecraft, even if that’s part of the story element. What’s interesting in that story element is the sort of “smallness”, because Lovecraft was inspired by the science at the time.

People did not think that the galaxy was that huge when Lovecraft was born. It was a few hundred thousand stars. Then we found out, with Hubble, there were other galaxies and the universe expanded from being at least knowably large to fantastically large. And our cosmic horizon – how far we can see – that’s just because of the speed of light. It’s even larger!

So, it just went through this huge expansion and I really think that shows up. That’s what I found interesting and that’s the sort of feeling I want to provoke. What’s most interesting to me is that feeling of smallness.

And why I say “post-Lovecraft” is that, in terms of technology, we’re learning so much. We’re learning how our own mind works, so we have this sort of inner expansion as well. The mind has always been a mystery, but we still thought we were going to find some sort of core of consciousness; the habitat of the human soul, the homunculus inside the head somewhere. But that’s just been blown apart. It doesn’t work that way at all.

That’s something that I don’t think is explored enough in horror, and that’s something I want to explore now in SOMA. This inner expansion as well, so just as Lovecraft was inspired by the science happening at the time, so SOMA is also inspired to a certain extent by the science happening at the time – neurology, and machine-learning, and AI and whatnot.

Joe Litobarski: Given some of these technologies, I wonder if SOMA might be set a little bit in the future?

Thomas Grip: Yeah, it might be. [Laughs]

Joe Litobarski: How has it been growing from a team of three people on Penumbra to, I think, twelve people today?

Thomas Grip: Oh, we’re closing in on like fifteen, which is scary. It’s just insane.

Joe Litobarski: How does it feel to grow like that? Because, presumably, Penumbra was a very personal project. Is that feeling still there with a bigger team?

Thomas Grip: I think this is borderline what I can manage and keep my sanity at the same time. I can know everything that there is to know about the game. I can sort of give control to the art team, I can check with audio, I can still have control and it feels like you have that complete knowledge, which is great.

I don’t want to expand more; I think it won’t work. And I’m thinking also about – not going back on personnel, but perhaps the scope of SOMA is so big I feel that it might be on the edge of what we should be doing in order to get the best thing. It’s been very, very hard. That’s why it’s taken almost five years.

Then again, when someone says they played Fiend, I like hearing that much more than I like hearing anyone talking about Amnesia, even if I put a lot more blood and sweat into Amnesia. Fiend – for all its tons of flaws – pretty much everything was made by myself. And the Penumbra games were similar. Not as much as Fiend, but I even modelled maps in Penumbra, made 2D art, and all that sort of stuff. Now I’m not even working on engine stuff.

So, you’re definitely losing – it doesn’t sound right when I say it, but you’re losing a bit of personal affection for the project. Not in the way that I’m not proud of it or anything like that, but it’s just that being the sole one giving birth to Fiend, that’s a very nice feeling that you do not get in the same manner when you’re fifteen people.

Then again, you actually get to experience the game a little bit better, because there can be a map where a guy’s come up with new stuff that I haven’t seen yet. I’ve just given broad instructions on what they should be doing there, and then it’s really, really awesome just seeing that. And there have been other levels where I’ve been amazed by someone: “Shit, this is amazing!”

You don’t have those moments when you’re working on a game alone. There’s almost a greater sense of hatred towards the game. Not so much in Fiend, because I didn’t test it that much, but in the Penumbra games those were awful to play, really, really awful. I hated playing them at the end. It was painful going through the levels, and I think partly due to better design but also because we were a slightly larger team on Amnesia, it felt better going through them, so there’s less hate involved, and even more so for SOMA. I don’t have to try the levels so many times, and I haven’t had my hand in everything, so it’s better from that standpoint.

Joe Litobarski: Final question. Which is your favourite Lovecraftian horror story and why?

Thomas Grip: The Statement of Randolph Carter has got to be my favourite. And, actually, it’s based on a nightmare he had, and he wrote in a letter to someone about this nightmare and the retelling of the nightmare is even better!

It just condenses all of the good stuff with Lovecraft. That they’re digging through this tomb in the graveyard is just awesome! You can just picture them being amid the dead trees, with the fog on the ground, holding a lantern. Everything about it is just awesome. I mean, the story itself and the plot are not that great, but I just love the atmosphere in that one, and I think it’s a good introduction to Lovecraft. So, yeah, it’s got to be that one.

View Lovecraft eZine‘s list of Lovecraftian video games here!

SOMA is coming to PC and PS4 in 2015.

Joe Litobarski is a European political journalist and blogger. As a journalist, he has interviewed hundreds of politicians from across Europe, including prime ministers, government ministers and national MPs. He’s also a huge weird fiction fan, so he thought he’d try his hand at interviewing a few Lovecraftian authors, game developers and filmmakers for the Lovecraft eZine. His website is at uncaringcosmos.com

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