Ten years ago, Frictional Games made their first foyer into the horror genre when they released Penumbra: Overture; they’ve been iterating and refining that formula ever since. The Penumbra series didn’t break any sales records, but it carved out a comfortable niche for the company of first-person horror games heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (their in-house engine, the HPL Engine, is even named after him). But the company achieved widespread fame in 2010 after the release of the Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Even though it was little more than a polished iteration on the Penumbra series, it was released at just the right time to become an internet sensation, leading to the creation of YouTube videos reacting to its many jump scare, and helping kickstart the Let’s Play genre. But when I played Amnesia in 2010, and the Penumbra games soon after, the jump scares that had made them so popular weren’t what drew me to the series. Instead, I was drawn in by, well, everything else. The Amnesia and Penumbra games are dripping with originality, atmosphere and mastery of design. Yes, their horror is effective and well-crafted, especially considering the budgets they were produced with, but they are packed with genuinely good writing coupled with carefully-considered puzzle design. With the exception of Penumbra: Overture, their very first game, Frictional’s games do not have combat, which would ordinarily invite cries of having “not enough mechanics” from the self-proclaimed hardcore gamers who deem any game that doesn’t meet a minimum quota of murder a “walking simulator”. But Frictional’s games avoid this criticism by basically being 3D adventure games. With a precious few exceptions, I’ve never been able to get into adventure games, however, so it took Frictional’s meticulous design sensibilities to get me to even play the games. I loved their approach to puzzle design in Penumbra and Amnesia, but in 2015, they released Soma, a game that championed their design philosophy with even greater confidence, even boldly rejecting the jump scare horror mechanics that made Amnesia a bestseller. I genuinely loved the Amnesia and Penumbra games, but Soma has become one of my all-time favorites because of how it approaches the idea of an adventure game, seeing its puzzles not as arbitrary problems to be solved, but as extensions of the setting.
Soma’s basic plot is too deviously complicated to give a quick summary of, but, in short, the player spends most of the game navigating a decaying, underwater research station. They restore power to different areas, reroute around cave-ins, fix electrical problems, and, of course, avoid being killed by the horrific creatures that roam the station. Soma’s excellent writing and voice acting would normally make it the kind of game that I play for the story, and use guide to get through any of the trickier puzzles. However, I found those puzzles to be some of the most engaging parts of the game, largely because of how they were framed. I struggled to explain what distinguished Soma’s puzzles from that of other adventure games, which is largely what prevented me from writing about the game in the past, until Frictional posted an article about this exact design idea in an excellent blog post. It doesn’t talk about puzzles directly, it instead talks about narrative choices, but I think the fact that they frame their gameplay decisions as such is part of what makes their approach to puzzles so much more engaging. Narrative choices in most games, much like puzzles in classic adventure games, are very removed from the game’s core mechanics and verbs. In Mass Effect, if the player is going to make a decision, they are pulled out of the game’s normal controls and into a conversation system, which gives them a list of options to pick from. Given how difficult simulating conversation has proven, this is probably necessary, but it does make the choices feel very explicit and very, to borrow Frictional’s term, digital. Analog choices, as they define them, are choices that use the game’s existing mechanics set instead. They use the example of Spec Ops: The Line’s approach to choices, which eschew the menu-based choices of dialog trees in favor of using the game’s existing mechanics, namely, shooting. Applying this philosophy to narrative choice is incredibly valuable, but Frictional also applies this philosophy to every mechanical and puzzle decision the player makes. The puzzle equivalent of the “press button to make decision” narrative choice is something like the puzzle panels in The Witness, where the player clicks on a panel in the world, and their controls are rebound to those of the specific puzzle they are solving (though the game’s best puzzles subvert this). Soma, however, never changes the player’s controls. They are always given the same set of verbs and controls to solve every problem the game presents them with. Frictional builds out these basic first-person controls with a physics and control system that feels fresh even when played today, despite being pioneered almost a decade ago in Penumbra. If a player wants to turn a wheel, they click and hold on it, then rotate their mouse in a circle, mimicking the player character’s physical actions. If they want to open a door, they click and pull back on the mouse. Complex physics interactions aren’t treated as a novelty, they’re simply how the player interacts with the world. Pulling out electrical cables, throwing switches, moving components around, all become a natural part of the player’s toolkit. The result is a world that the player models complexly, where every item could be potentially useful and could interact with others in interesting ways.
This combination of dozens of small interactions lets the player engage with the world in a way that feels satisfying on a very low level. The puzzles themselves are rarely complicated, which would ordinarily make the game feel rote and boring, but because of the physicality and complexity of every interaction, I found incredibly engaging. Oddly enough, the activity it reminded me of most was building a desktop PC. While PC construction occasionally requires nightmarish Google trips into arcane manuals and ancient forums, I usually know exactly what I need to do, and I just need to find out exactly how to do it. Traditional adventure games go for an “Aha!” moment, where you figure out the solution with a great deal of work, and execute easily, but Soma, Amnesia and Penumbra rarely obscure the solution, and instead present the player with the mechanically satisfying task of executing it. Difficulty and challenge aren’t really important to these games the same way they are to the vast majority of other video games. In a previous piece, I grouped Soma under this genre of “will and wits” that I had invented, with an emphasis on a very procedural form of procedural problem solving in a poorly-maintained environment. However, as I’ve been replaying both Soma and Near Death (another game I group in that genre), I’ve noticed that while both games have failstates, they don’t dictate the majority of the player’s actions. Usually, the player is processing an environment, looking for objects to solve problems, and then solving them, with little in between. This creates a satisfying loop of activity that the designer can subvert when necessary to keep the player on their toes, aware of their environment in a more detailed way than most games ask for. Doom might ask you to be aware of the positions and projectiles of a dozen or so demons, but Near Death and Soma ask you to be aware of all the objects, switches, lights, and loose panels in a room. It takes the awareness that games often demand and shrinks the scope. Soma is probably one of the most influential games for me as a designer (hell, I even made a HTML pretty heavily based on it), because it shows how to encourage players to engage with spaces on a scale that feels both more manageable and more intricate. Games still struggle with making systems other than combat interesting, complex and marketable, but I think Frictional Games and its contemporaries have carved out a design niche where we can engage with spaces more cerebrally, and create problems that require procedural, logical thinking, grounded in the setting, instead of arbitrary challenges for their own sake.