Amnesia: Rebirth is releasing into a very different world than its predecessor, 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Developer Frictional Games’ first Amnesia–and, to an extent, The Chinese Room’s indirect sequel, 2013’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs–is the most noteworthy precursor (and perhaps even inspiration for) the streaming trend that saw content creators visually reacting to survival horror games in exaggerated ways. This trend popularized first-person, jump scare-focused horror games, such as Outlast, Five Nights At Freddy’s, and the playable teaser for Silent Hills.
However, this is not the legacy that Frictional Games wanted–the studio hoped mainstream audiences would gain a more introspective interpretation from The Dark Descent, and that they’d see a game that’s deeper than just a scary experience to react to. Conveying a deeper horror experience is something the team is now attempting to do with Amnesia: Rebirth, relying on the lessons they learned from developing 2015’s SOMA. The new Amnesia will take place in a brand-new setting for the franchise and explore a different kind of horror.
“We could have just gone, ‘Oh, let’s take this let’s play thing that started with Amnesia and run with that,'” Frictional Games creative director Thomas Grip told me in an interview. “But that doesn’t feel like what we wanted to do. There are a bunch of things that we thought that people liked with [The Dark Descent] and then there’s a bunch of stuff that we felt we could do better and there’s a bunch of stuff that we learned from SOMA and we also felt like we wanted to put all of that together.”
Grip went on to say that “getting back to Amnesia has not really been about appealing to let’s players,” citing that if the team had tried to capture the same magic as The Dark Descent and make “the next big thing on YouTube, [they] would have failed miserably.”
“So, when we started out with [The Dark Descent], one of the things we wanted to do was to have a certain thematic subject at its core,” Grip continued. “We wanted it to be about a human evil. It feels like that sort of got the back seat and the focus was instead on, ‘Oh, I’m so scared–the monster is coming!’ So we wanted to give that another shot–not the exact same subject matter, but make something where horror is not just on this very short-term time scale of just seeing a monster and being scared, but something that grows over time.”
With Rebirth, Frictional Games is exploring the theme of survival. The team also wants to distance Rebirth from survival games that primarily explore the act of surviving through optimization–finding the right tools to solve specific problems and overcome certain adversities in order to escape a precarious situation or transform it into an ideal one. “We wanted to get at the emotional core,” Grip said. “So we’ve had to add a few things and tweak a little bit about exactly what it is the player should care about. Why do they want to get out alive? Those sorts of questions have been the driving force of finding the thematic core and making the whole game work.”
It’s not just the theme that’s different for an Amnesia game. Rebirth will take place in the desert–a far cry from the oppressive, enclosed spaces of The Dark Descent’s castle-like setting. When I spoke with Frictional Games executive producer and creative lead Fredrik Olsson, he said, “If you look at SOMA and [The Dark Descent], I’d say [Rebirth] is the game that the studio has made that has the most variety in the environments. So, hopefully you’ll feel claustrophobic throughout the game but there might be other aspects explored outside the closed-in environments. The vastness of a desert could give you a different kind of horror.”
“Of course, it’s all how you frame it, but deserts are not intrinsically scary as opposed to a cave or spooky castle,” Grip added. According to him, early builds of Rebirth seemed to be set on the beach and even once the environment looked more desert-like, it wasn’t very scary. So Frictional Games is leaning into that, utilizing the occasional moments of beauty that a desert can provide to contrast against the horror of the story–creating an unnerving sense of dread that fluctuates but continues to steadily build.
Rebirth is not a complete departure from The Dark Descent, however. Though this sequel explores different themes and takes place in a very different setting, it has several direct narrative connections to its predecessor–“A lot more than A Machine for Pigs,” Olsson said. Grip added that, since Rebirth is not a direct sequel, you don’t have to have played The Dark Descent in order to enjoy this new game. However, long-time fans will likely pick up intriguing connections. “[Rebirth] takes place in a desert,” Grip said. “And, in The Dark Descent, there are in-game diaries of a dig in the Algerian desert. You’re going to visit some of those places that you heard about it in the dig. So for people who are into the lore and may be wondering, ‘What happened to that person,’ you’re going to be able to see what happened or see some clues as to what might have or might not have happened to that person. And then there are other aspects mentioned in The Dark Descent that are brought up in [Rebirth] as well.”
This story will be told in the present–another departure from The Dark Descent’s formula. Rebirth’s main narrative will be the player’s journey, unlike The Dark Descent, which told it’s story through text-based collectibles. “So there’s going to be a lot of backstory and lore to take in but the important story doesn’t happen in past tense, the important story happens in present tense,” Grip said. “I think that’s the important thing, and it’s something that we did in SOMA as well and I think that’s one of those narrative things that we’re bringing over. In [The Dark Descent], nothing happens, narrative-wise, in the present tense. You’re running around in a castle finding diary entries. But in Rebirth, there’s going to be a lot of things happening to the player character and you’re going to learn a lot of things just going around in the game.”
According to both Grip and Olsson, you’ll understand what’s going on just by playing through the game. That said, both assured me that collectible diary entries will be present for players looking to gain further insight into what transpired prior to the events of the campaign. “Players coming out of the game will have a different view of things if they have paid attention and sought out information throughout the game,” Olsson said. “Hopefully, [they] come out with a different view–again, without spoiling it–of how they would have acted or how they would perceive the player journey.”
With this narrative, Grip hopes Rebirth is remembered for being more than “your typical jump scare, spook-fest.” Frictional Games isn’t trying to be revolutionary in the types of scares it uses, but it does want to instill a type of fear into the player that they may not have experienced before. The team is aiming for a revelation similar to SOMA, a game that manages to capture the horrifying otherworldliness of a Lovecraftian story with a narrative about human consciousness. “Thinking about it, the strongest connection between Rebirth and SOMA is that we try to put players into a persona, into a situation, and we spend a lot of time just convincing them that [they] should take this situation that [they’re] in seriously,” Grip said. “In terms of when the strong impact is going to come, I think that’s going to be–similar to SOMA–mid-way through the game. That’s where [Rebirth] really grabs hold and really shows what it’s got.”
“Hopefully this is the thing you guys will write about our game one day,” Olsson said, laughing. “I don’t know many games that do a new take on what we’re doing and how we try to make the player’s actions–what they do in the game and how they do it–and actually tie that into the overall narrative. I think that is the thing that stands out and I’m a guy who likes to think of new things as often as I can, and I think this is the thing that brings the most joy and what will be fun to see when streamers play the game and react to this thing. It’s one of the key things–I can’t say what it is, again, I can’t spoil it. But it’s in that space between narrative and mechanics–that’s where I think we’re revolutionary.”
Amnesia: Rebirth is scheduled to release for Xbox One, PS4, and PC sometime in Fall 2020–Grip said the team will “hopefully soon-ish” announce a more precise date. “Next-gen is not something that we’re focusing on–the main release is going to be current-gen consoles,” he added. However, he also said that the idea of next-gen ports for Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 is still a possibility.
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