Monday, 30 May 2016

Frictional Merchandise Is Finally Out!

For a long time we have been thinking about doing merchandise, but we never really felt that we had the time nor the proper partner. But recently we managed to free up some time and locate a nice partner in the form of Gametee. And after a few months of setup and work, the goodies are finally here!

First out is a t-shirt and a hoodie with Amnesia print:

Order them here:

Our plan is not to stop here but the goal is get our merchandise related to our other titles.

Let us know the in comments what you would be more interested in!

Thursday, 24 March 2016

SOMA - 6 Months Later

It is now a bit over 6 months since SOMA was released, so it feels like it's time for an update on how everything has gone so far.

The total number of sales, across all platforms, is currently at a bit over 250 000 units. This is pretty good; it'll only take 20k - 30k more until we've earned back our entire investment in the project. Given that the daily sales are still solid (about 125 units a day) and we have regular boosts from various sale events, this is bound to happen well before this year is over.

While this is a good result for us, it's by no means earth shattering. For instance, Firewatch (which has quite a few elements in common with SOMA) sold over 500k in just a month, so there's obviously room for SOMA to sell a lot more. It might seem weird, but this is actually very encouraging for us. SOMA was a really ambitious project which took 5 years to develop, used a load of external help and had a big chunk of money spent on a live action series and so forth, making it a very costly affair. Yet SOMA is well on the way to becoming profitable after just 6 months, despite not being a runaway success. This makes us a lot less worried about making another game of similar scope.

Still, it's interesting to ponder what kept the game from selling even more. One stand-out thing that we've identified is that the game falls between two genres: horror and sci-fi. What this means is that the game might feel a bit too sci-fi for someone looking for a pure horror experience and vice-versa. While we think the mix works very well for the game, it seems quite possible that this has put off potential buyers. I'll discuss this in more depth later on.

User created custom stories was (and still is) a big part of the Amnesia community. So far almost 450 Amnesia finished mods have been released. This is despite the game's mod support being far from good. So with SOMA we wanted to make sure we allowed even better mod support, so we would hopefully get as many mods made as we did for Amnesia.

Unfortunately the modding community around SOMA hasn't really taken off. So far only 5 custom stories (2 on moddb and 3 on steam workshop) have been released, and while it's amazing that people spend time making mods for SOMA at all, we expected that there would've been a few more. Just about everything in the game is controlled via script and modding allows you to replace any file, making it much more powerful than in Amnesia. Because of this, we'd hoped to see people do really crazy things with mods, but apart from Wuss Mode and a location tracking Omnitool there isn't much out there. Both of these are very cool modifications, but considering that the game could have been changed into an RTS or a racer, we'd hoped to see more experimental stuff.

It feels worthwhile to discuss why modding hasn't been as successful as it was with Amnesia. The first and most obvious answer is that SOMA is simply not as popular as the mega-hit Amnesia: TDD. Secondly when we released Amnesia there weren't many other similar horror games around, and as a result many of Amnesia's mods got played by popular streamers. This gave people a huge incentive for completing their mods. Thirdly, both the level creation and scripting is a bit harder in SOMA, making it more of a hassle for people to get things up and running. And finally, you can quickly create gameplay in Amnesia by just placing a few basic items, whereas SOMA requires more setup and lacks easily reusable elements. All of these issues combined probably explains why fewer mods are being released compared to Amnesia.

But we haven't given up on modding. Far from it. There are lots of interesting things in the works coming from the community (for instance, a very fitting SCP inspired custom story) and we're discussing what we could do to give people more incentive to create and finish more mods.

I think the most surprising part of the player response is the depth in which SOMA's story and subject matters have been discussed. For instance, there have been really interesting discussions as to whether the game's (semi-)antagonist, WAU, is evil or not. Patrick Klepek at Kotaku wrote up a nice summary on this that can be found here. While WAU was designed to not be really evil, it was very surprising to see some people seeing it as the good force in the game's world. It made us look at the story in ways we'd never thought about ourselves.

Another interesting discussion has been the coin-flip 'controversy'. For instance, here is a long discussion that brings up various sides to the argument. This was another thing that we didn't figure would be very controversial, but ended up spawning tons of intelligent arguments. It's been a great deal of fun to see discussions like this. There's one aspect of the game that we've only seen mentioned once, though, which we thought would be a much bigger issue. What that is we'll leave as an exercise for the reader to figure out.

It's also been great to see all of the real-world connections people have made with SOMA. Here's an article that goes through a few of them.

By far the most surprising reaction we've had yet has got to be one guy mailing us saying that the game inspired him to fly to the US and propose to his girlfriend. We've always seen SOMA as a rather bleak game, and it was really interesting to see how some people actually found it uplifting and inspiring.

In all, we couldn't really have hoped for a better response. People report still thinking about the game months afterwards, and that it's made them think deeply about subjects they haven't considered before. This was what we were after when we started the game all those years ago, and it's incredibly satisfying to see that we managed to reach that goal.

I mentioned above that a problem with SOMA is that it lies between two genres. Not only has this probably led to lost sales, it's also most likely the reason why SOMA cannibalized the Amnesia sales. The moment that SOMA came out, sales of Amnesia: The Dark Descent went down too, and has stayed down ever since. We saw the same happening when we released Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, but since SOMA is in many ways quite different from Amnesia, we thought it wouldn't happen this time. But it did, and the reason seems to be that people lump both titles under a "Current Horror From Frictional Games" label.

In order to combat this issue we're thinking about differentiating the games we make a bit more. So if we make another sci-fi game, we'll probably tone down the horror elements and make the sci-fi narrative more prominent.  The reverse would be true if we made a new horror game. The idea is that this'll not only let us reach a new and wider audience, but also minimize the risk that people will mix up our games, and instead they'll see them as separate entities. With SOMA it feels we've made it clear that Frictional Games is not just about pure horror, and we want to take advantage of that and diversify the experiences we craft.

Related to the above is our new internal development strategy. For the first time in company history we're now developing two games at the same time. This will require non-trivial changes in how we manage the team, but in the end we're very sure it'll be worth it all. By having two projects going at the same time, we can release games at much higher frequency. In turn, this let us be more experimental as we don't have to rely as much on each new game being a big money generator. We're still in the early phases of this transition, but it's shaping up really well so far.

This also means we might do some recruitment in the near future. Watch this space for more news on that!

Thursday, 10 March 2016

GDC 2016 Lecture Resources

On tuesday next week I will be giving a lecture named "SOMA - Crafting Existential Dread" at GDC. This post will serve as a repository for more in-depth information on the information presented in that talk. I will also try and write a text version of the talk some time after GDC and if/when I do so, I will put a link to that here. Now for some info:

Heavy Rain
An overview of the failings and successes of Heavy Rain which spawned a lot of design thinking,

Self, Presence and StorytellingLink:
This essay goes over some basics of what presence means and how to achieve it in a game. Many of the concepts and rules presented in here was a foundational part of SOMA.

The Scene Approach
A description of the scene approach which was intended to be a cornerstone of SOMA, but ended up not working.

Puzzles, What Are They Good For?
Here I describe the reasoning behind using puzzles in SOMA, instead of the more open-ended Scene Approach.

4 Layers
An in-depth description of the 4-layers design approach that proved to be a crucial element of SOMA's design.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Thoughts on Until Dawn and Interactive Movies

Before starting Until Dawn my hopes for the game weren't very high. I thought it was going to be a half-baked and campy interactive movie filled with unlikable characters and cheap jump scares. However, it turned out a lot better than I could have imagined and it now stands as one of my favorite horror games ever. Sure, the game can get really campy at times, and it has its fair share of jump scares. But it also features a clever script, an excellent setting, amazing atmosphere and (to my surprise) also managed to be extremely tense and scary at times.

The game knows that it is a B-movie horror, but it takes that at heart and instead of hiding behind satire it's determined to be the best B-movie possible. This works a lot better than I'd expected it to and the result is an engaging ride that channels other (in my opinion) great B-horror like The Descent, Saw, Dog Soldiers and Evil Dead. It takes itself just seriously enough for you to overlook the sillier aspects yet still feel emotionally invested in the fates of the characters.

Until Dawn is not without its faults of course, but it does a lot of things incredibly well. I have grown quite tired of the interactive movie format over the years. Playing through over three seasons of Telltale games have made the experience feel samey, and I am always frustrated with how little I get to actually play, explore and shape the narrative. Until Dawn far from reinvents the interactive movie genre, in fact it's fascinating how alike all of these games are, but it changes just enough to make the experience feel fresh again. This is where I think things get really interesting, because while the changes aren't anything major, they have a huge impact on the end experience. 

Now it's time to take a closer look at the inner workings of Until Dawn, and to do so we have to enter spoiler territory. I will try to stay away from larger reveals, but it will still be enough to ruin a lot of the fun. Until Dawn relies a lot on uncertainty, so if you haven't played the game (which I really recommend you do) and want the best possible experience, go and play it before reading more of this essay.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let's start with the things that Until Dawn does really well:

Multiple Deaths System
First up is the most prominent and possibly the most effective feature of the game: any character can die at any time. Well, to be fair, in practice they can't - but it sure feels like it. Some characters can be killed pretty early on in the story while some can't die until the very end. The trick is that the first time you play it you can never be sure. Whenever things start to get dangerous for a character you always feel that there's a chance that a bad choice or a missed quick time event can lead to their death. And since Until Dawn saves after every important choice, there is no going back. Any death is basically permanent.

Heavy Rain did a similar thing a couple of years back, but Until Dawn takes it to next level. The main reason for this is that death feels like a possibility from almost the start through to the bitter end. In Heavy Rain the scenes that feel like life-or-death-moments are pretty spread out, but in Until Dawn they permeate the entire experience. Early on in the game, most of these turn out to be the characters playing pranks on one another, but because of how it all is setup you can never be sure.

The game also helps to build up this tension by very explicitly telling the player what's at stake. It also uses a lot of filmic tricks, such as showing us, through the eyes of the monster, how the characters are being stalked. Normally I don't like this sort of thing in games as it lessens the feel of it being "my story", but here it works really well. It points out that the characters are now in danger, and together with the game's initial warnings, it makes it very clear that you have to be on alert. 

The final aspect that I think makes this work so much better here than in Heavy Rain is that Until Dawn is a proper horror game. The tension and uncertainty built from knowing that any character might perish goes hand-in-hand with the the game's thick atmosphere. Both of these constantly reinforce one another and do a great job of making you feel vulnerable and under constant threat. A great way to test this is to simply replay the game. Once you know a certain section poses no actual danger for a character, much of the tension dissipates and the scene goes from scary to feeling tame. It's like turning off the music in a horror movie - without all necessary elements in place the effect is lost.

This system is not only a way of making the game scary, it's also a great way of keeping the narrative going. There's almost never any chance of getting stuck and thereby having to repeat the same section over and over. This makes sure that frustration is kept to a minimum, letting players be focused on becoming immersed in the narrative. If players become stuck trying figure out how to progress, immersion is quickly decreased, and lot of the horror along with it.

By not having a game over screen, you also get rid of the feeling of having seen the worst the game has to offer. In Until Dawn it is almost the opposite; once you have seen a character meet a horrible death, you know anyone can be next. Normally the death scene is a relief for the player, but here it raises the stakes instead.

Finally, by letting it be possible for every character to die, you earn your outcome in a way that you usually don't do in interactive movies. Normally, because branches tend to quickly collapse, your choices are more about pondering the decision, and less about the outcome. But in Until Dawn, your choice will determine who lives and dies, which gives you a much more palpable feel to your decisions.

It is pretty clear that this kind of system is close to optimal for a horror game. So why doesn't every horror game use it? The most obvious answer is that not every game is able to support a large cast of playable (and killable) characters, but there's another reason that's much more difficult to get around. In a fully playable game, the number of places where the player can die skyrockets, and it becomes really hard to make sure that each one is satisfactory from a narrative perspective.

Until Dawn gets around this by relying a lot on "successful failures". For instance, if you fail at a quick time event when a character jumps across a chasm, the game can show a clip of the character fumbling and just barely making it across. So you get feedback for failing the challenge, but your character didn't die and the narrative can continue along the same path. In a fully playable game, this is simply not possible. If the player fails at a jump the mechanics says they will fall down. It isn't possible to give the player any help (e.g. a push in the right direction) to make sure they complete it, either. There are simply too many ways to perform an action, and besides it would quickly become glaringly obvious. This means that not only does a fully playable game have to deal with many more possible deaths, it's also a lot less predictable how they will unfold.

Side note: I wrote about this as a potential death system over six years ago. One of my suggestions was to have a Cube-like setup, which is pretty much exactly what Until Dawn does, and it worked much better than I'd expected it to.

Ability To Plan
The ability to make plans is part of what it means to be human, and there are good reasons to think it's one of the biggest reasons for us developing a consciousness (more info here). When we plan we get to flex our most advanced mental muscle: the ability to simulate future outcomes. Thus allowing us to make plans is an vital part of human expression.

Most games allow planning in some form. And not just any sort of planning, but meaningful planning where you can weigh your current data, plot a future course of actions, execute on those actions and then feel like you get a measurable outcome in the end. In Super Mario Bros you need to plan what path to take and how to avoid upcoming obstacles. In an RPG you need to consider how you spend your money and experience points to build up your character to suit your style of play and that character's effectiveness. There are tons of examples like this in games, and most games feature it in one form or another. Allowing for good planning is a one of the core features that make a game feel engaging.

However, in interactive movies, it's all about reacting to the events that unfold. There's not really any planning involved. You sort of live in the moment, and don't have much say in what happens next. For most of the time, the playable characters do what they feel like and let you occasionally take control to react to dangerous events or to make a tough decision for them. Sure, sometimes you can makes up plans to support certain characters so that they'll side with you later on. But all of that is pretty fuzzy, and mostly it won't be very useful to you. It is often hard to get a sense of what you near future possibilities will be at all. You might plan to do A, B and then C, only to have the game take control after action A and do something completely different. This means that, for the most part, it's impossible to plan ahead; in fact if you plan too much you will most likely be disappointed. It is often best to just go along with the flow. I think this lack of an ability to plan is one of the key reasons why many people feel that interactive movies are not proper games.

Side note: I think that the inability to plan and over reliance on reactive play is also why many people feel walking simulators aren't proper games. It is often stated that it depends on fail-states and the like, but I do not think that holds up. I will get back to this a bit more at the end of this essay.

Until Dawn shares the basics of this problem too, but because of the way certain things are designed it's possible to do a certain level of planning. This is something that I can't recall seeing in another interactive movie style of game, and it made the experience a lot more engaging to me.

The first thing that allows this are the totems. These are items that when picked up give you a brief glimpse of a possible future happening. Sometimes they show you how a character dies and sometimes they give you hints on important choices to make. For instance, in one totem you see that giving a certain character a flare gun gave you a good outcome. Now you know that you need to find a flare gun somewhere and make sure that a specific character gets it. It's not much, but what it does is that it forces you to guess how scenes might unfold, and you try to match up the current events with the totem visions you have seen. This forecasting gives the game a certain sense of strategy and forces you to consider current events more carefully. It's not a major game changer, but it's enough to give that extra sense of engagement.

What I found to be even more effective in allowing me to plan was in guessing plot-points which became a crucial part of the decision making. The most prominent of these was figuring out who was behind the torment of the other characters. I theorized quite early on who it was, and could then make a bunch of choices based around that. Connected to this is the fact that this is probably the only game I have played where it turned out to be beneficial to be a skeptic. I suspected that the movements of a spirit board was due to someone messing with it, which (together with a couple of other pieces of evidence) then led me to believe that certain ghost appearances couldn't be real either. All of these conclusions turned out to be true and allowed me to make much better decisions. In the end, the whole revelation is a bit implausible and very Scooby Doo-like. But it went quite nicely with the B-horror tone of the story and more than any other interactive movie I've played it made me feel that my understanding of the story mattered.

This doesn't mean that Until Dawn does planning perfectly - far from it. But it does show that smaller design changes can make a world of difference. It's also very important to note that a big reason why all this works is because of the Multiple Deaths System. Without having the very clear feedback of seeing your characters die or survive, and the tension that comes along with that, the features I've mentioned would have lost a lot of their impact.

Other Good Stuff
Those previous two points are what I feel are the major elements that make Until Dawn stand out from the crowd. But the good stuff doesn't end there. There are a lot of other interesting design choices that have a big influence on the experience.

First, exploration bits feels much better than in other interactive movie games. Often when you're given control over your character, the pacing often gets messed up. But in Until Dawn it just makes the game feel more like Resident Evil without the combat. One contributing factor is that that there're a lot of clues and totems for the player to find. These provide a nice sense of the sort of "item looting" common in survival horror games, and since all the things you can find are a part of the narrative, it never feels out of place either. The other factor is that you never know when you'll encounter danger, so walking down a murky hallway can be incredibly tense. Combined, these two elements make these exploration segments very engaging and make them feel part of the overall narrative.

Second, knowledge of the game's lore can help you survive situations, meaning that you're rewarded for paying more attention to it. For instance, there's one moment where knowing that monsters can't see you if you stand still is crucial when making a choice. And in another, remembering that monsters can imitate the voices of their prey will help you avoid walking into a trap.

Third, each of the characters has meters that go up and down as you make choices. At first it feels like unnecessary fluff, but it actually helps you get a bit more "ownership" over the characters. It's sort of an extension of the "Clementine will remember this"-line from the Walking Dead, giving an indicator that your actions have consequences. But more than that I think it's a way to see that your character changes depending on how you play. And then, the effect is similar to how you get more attached to your character in X-COM as they level up.

Fourth, it constantly varies its environments. This is what I like to call the Super Mario way of location progression. It has long been a common thing in games to let the player linearly progress through various environments. You start up in the forest, then go to the swamps, then to the mountains and finally you arrive at the castle. Super Mario doesn't work like that. Instead it constantly swaps between the environments, keeping the locations fresh. I think this is a really good design principle that far too few games use. Until Dawn does it well, both by having a lot of different locations near each other, and by switching character perspectives throughout the experience. This means that normally kind-of-dull environments, like the mines, always feel fresh and interesting to be in.

Again it's important to note here how much the Multiple Death system plays into all of these things. For instance, much of the dread that makes the exploration and clue hunting engaging comes from the knowledge that any choice could be a crucial one. The same is true for the second and third points too. And the varied environments rely heavily on there being multiple characters to play.

The Not So Good Stuff
Now that I have gone over the good things, it's time to briefly cover some of the not-so-good things in Until Dawn
  • The game often doesn't support a bunch of actions that it should have been possible to perform. For instance, there are doors here and there that it should have been possible to at least try to open. And far worse, at one point the characters turn away from a gate they could easily have jumped over. (You climb far more difficult things throughout the game). 
  • A few of the choices in the game can lead to unfair dead-ends. For instance, one character is bound to die pretty early on if you haven't made a few specific choices earlier in the game. The big problem here is not that it felt a bit unfair, but that you can't see any reason why it happens. If you can just get a sense of what went wrong, you can learn from your mistakes and do better later. But when that's not possible, your sense of being able to plan is decreased, which is a shame when the game builds that up so nicely in other places.
  • The settings in Until Dawn look great, but I always felt that I was unable to properly explore them. One reason for this was the locked camera angles which focus more on making the shot look nice than on providing a good play space. Another reason is that many set pieces are simply not possible to explore. The game just decides that the characters wants to do something else instead and has them leave the area. The game is excellent at building mood in many ways, but I felt annoyed at how the game seemed to constantly hinder me from taking it all in properly.
  • It is very uncertain when the control over your character will end. The best is when a dangerous encounter happens or you reach another character. In these cases the control method switch (from full analog to quick time events or dialog) and the break in control feels natural. But on many occasions the game starts a cutscene when you don't expect it to. For instance, after going down some stairs, the game suddenly decides that your character should go into a home cinema room despite there being lots of other places to explore. From a design point of view I can understand why this happens - you need to make sure that certain plot events trigger properly. But as a player these things deprive me of my agency and some of the immersion is lost.
There are a few more of these things, and what they all have in common is that they are typical of, or even sometimes inherent to, the format of interactive movies. I really liked Until Dawn, but I can't help feeling unsatisfied by this style of games. Despite having gone over all the the things that Until Dawn does right, it still feels like there's something fundamental missing to it all. Most of the story is told through cutscenes, and for much of the game you are more of an observer than an active participant. I want interactive stories that I can play from start to end, not just a little now-and-then.

Interactive Movies And Beyond
I feel I have a weird relationship with interactive movies. As I mentioned earlier, after playing through a bunch of Telltale games I've grown a bit bit tired of the format. But despite that they keep pulling me back. I ended up liking Until Dawn a lot more than I expected. Shortly after I also gave Life Is Strange a go and while it wasn't as good as Until Dawn, I liked it quite a bit too.

So why do I like them? I think there are three major reasons:
  • They have a proper setup that defines who you are and why you are there. I am so sick of games, and it's especially common among horror games, that just throw me into an environment and expect me to care without giving me a reason to do so. Interactive movies (well most of them at least) work hard to provide intrigue and mystery from the get-go, properly setting me up to enjoy the rest of the story.
  • The main focus is on telling a story. I don't mean this just by them being very linear and movie-like, but more that just about every choice is made in accordance to intended narrative. For instance, Until Dawn has collectibles but puts a lot of effort into making sure that they are connected to story. This creates worlds that feel more "real" and are easier to become lost in.
  • They lack the fluff that that is so common in other games. The uninspired shoot-out sections that are obviously just there to make the game longer, extensive weapon upgrading, narrative-wise meaningless collectibles, filler mini-games and so forth. Interactive movies aim at giving you a specific experience and make sure that all of the game's aspects help fulfill that goal.
When other much more gameplay-focused games try to do storytelling it often just gets in the way. I always get annoyed by action games that start with overly long expositions, and just want them to get to the point. In fact, in other games it feels like the more overt storytelling actually gets in the way of the narrative the game is "supposed" to be telling.

It might seem like I'm heading towards the good old "gameplay vs story" discussion here, but the point I'm getting at is a bit different. I don't think that gameplay is something inherently opposite of story. In fact, in the way I see story many of the classically super-gameplay-focused games like Super Mario have a ton of story in them. As you board an airship dodging cannonballs while trying to get one of Bowser's sons, a very rich narrative is created.

Instead, the problem lies in controlling the player's mental model of the game. That is how they perceive the game's virtual world to work, and what aspects that become most important in shaping how decisions are made and emotions evoked. When you want to focus on story you have to cut back on a lot of useful gameplay methods. The biggest issue is that you need to make sure that players do not end up optimizing for best possible progression, but act according to the intended narrative. There are also a bunch of things to consider in order to keep players immersed in the world. (For more information check out this essay). In the end it all comes down to storytelling games getting less gameplay per buck, as you can't rely on a fun and addictive gameplay system being core of the experience.

We found this out when creating SOMA. It's the one of our games that has got the most praise for its story, but it's also perceived as the one lacking the most in the gameplay department. Recently it occurred to me that one of the major things that make people feel the game lacks gameplay is because most choices are made as reactions. This even includes many of the puzzles, which have been designed with the focus to be streamlined and coherent with the narrative. This makes the game lack that proper feeling of being able to meaningfully plan ahead. So despite there being lots of things to do in SOMA, it feels like something is missing gameplay-wise.

The problem here is that we simply cannot increase the gameplay in any trivial manner. That would cause a whole bunch of other, worse, issues. So the way forward is to find other ways in which to increase the sense of "playability". And here I think there are at least two vital things that can be learned from Until Dawn:
  • To find ways to, in a story-focused fashion, ramp up the tension and sense of accomplishment. The Multiple Deaths System in Until Dawn does a fantastic job at this.
  • To allow players to make plans based upon how the narrative unfolds. The player should not just react to events as they occur but be able use tactics and long term planning in a way that feels meaningful.
How to do this in a gameplay-focused experience is far from straightforward. You can't just make a game with multiple characters and call it a day; most likely the effect of the Multiple Deaths System will need to work in a quite different manner. But what I find encouraging is that if we simply focus on increasing the ability to plan, it will allow us to view the problem from different, and probably much more fruitful angles. I feel there is something very much worth exploring here, and it will be interesting to see what can come out of it.

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Voices of SOMA

SOMA has been a long journey. For roughly five years I’ve worked on Simon, Catherine, and the others who in some way inhabits the world of SOMA. The game has changed a lot over the years, not just in gameplay and plot, but in tone as well. I think one of the most grounding and solidifying aspects of creating the characters for SOMA has been giving them an actual actor’s voice.

Not exactly Fallout amount of dialog, but still pretty good

2013 - A Vertical Slice
Voices were first introduced as we were completing the “Vertical Slice” in February 2013. It was to be our first self-contained build that we could show off, test player reactions, and to allow ourselves to make a better judgment on our own work. For me this meant that I would head off to SIDE studios in London and record all the voices needed for about ten levels or so. At the time of the first recording, everything was still very much up in the air. I had written lines for the monsters inside Curie – even the WAU! It was just a mess and I’m glad we cut most of it out.
We haven’t really kept much at all of the material that we recorded during these sessions, but it did raise a very important question – what should Simon and Catherine sound like?

Simon and Catherine are by far the biggest and most complex roles Frictional Games have ever done. Neither Simon or Catherine fill any particular stereotypes found in games, which meant finding the right actors wasn’t going to be easy.

Our initial thought for Catherine was to use her background from Taipei and have her talk with a noticeable accent. In my book, accents are great. Not just because it’s nice to be diverse and inclusive, but because it distinguishes a character and gives them so much flavor. It’s very useful, especially for a game like SOMA where most of the characters don’t have visibly human features to make them stand out. However, what we found after trying a few accents on Catherine was that it actually didn’t work the way we wanted. Combining the voice with the non-expressive visuals made it a little cartoonish, reminding people of Amy Wong from Futurama, a character who is largely comedic. Catherine at this point was even more introverted and it didn’t fit at all that the player should find her amusing like that. Looking back I think we could have made it work, but that Catherine would have been a very different Catherine from what we ended up with. To minimize the risks of making an overtly funny character we decided to let the actress almost completely drop Catherine’s flavorful accent and instead move towards British RP.

Simon’s voice kind of had an opposite journey to Catherine as we ended up finding Jared Zeus right away. However, it wasn’t going to be quite as simple as that.

Jared had taped microphones on his head so it would sound awesome
when playing with headphones - appreciate it!

2014 - The GDC Build
The next recording was almost exactly a year later. This time we were looking at the first version of the game that we could show journalists, mainly at GDC, the game developer conference in San Francisco that same year. This was basically the same part of the game we recorded the year before, but with substantial rewrites, which meant going back to page one and doing it all over again.

A big change from my perspective was that it had been decided that we should try to find a tougher kind of Simon, and so we casted another actor to play that part. It caused some slight weirdness seeing how at the same time I had sort of gotten into the Jared Zeus rhythm and started to write him with that actor in mind. During the last year Simon, along with Catherine, had also become more relaxed. I wanted to adopt a little more comical absurdity than just pure angst. Not to go too deep into style, but basically the changes was meant to move away from the melodrama that is more effective when considering a character like Daniel in Amnesia and try to approach a style of horror with a little levity which would be more forgiving when doing proper conversations. Going with a tougher Simon kind of sidetracked that everyman feeling that I had written and this turned out to be a case of wronging a right.

While we were dealing with Simon’s voice, we still didn’t have a Catherine that we felt comfortable with either. The actress we had was great, but the voice simply didn’t gel with the character we wanted. As a side-note I would say that this is how most of these things work out. When choosing an actor for a part there’s very rarely any question of who is better or worse, it’s much more about the personifying qualities that the specific actor can provide. Auditions are not so much a proof of acting chops as much as it is a question of can we find an interesting take on this character that would serve the story. So it’s not the best actor, but the best suited one that you want.
Anyway, back to casting Catherine. All we knew was that the voice we had didn’t work the way we wanted. We did a regular casting round, but none of the voices really hit home – probably because we didn’t really know what to ask for either.
This was starting to look like a serious problem, we were missing one of the most important characters of the game. I went over all the auditions for Catherine again and again, and then I started to look outside of Catherine and dug into all the other roles we had been casting. That’s when I stumbled on Nell Mooney. Nell had been reading for the role of Alice Koster and there was just something about that voice that made sense to me. She had a warm, likable voice that made me think: if this person says or does something completely insane I might just still forgive and trust her. Which is kind of exactly what Catherine needed to be. Thankfully, Thomas agreed that we should give Nell a shot and we ended up casting her even though she hadn't read any of Catherine's lines. A really lucky break for us considering how incredibly well Nell would come to bring that character to life.

Chuck helps people getting into action mode!

2014 - Building on What We Got
The next recording in October 2014 was meant to complement the stuff we already had. Unlike the jump between the first two recordings, this time it was important that we could get the same actors back to continue their roles. This is the first time we found some logistical problems with recording like this. Unsurprisingly, actors are people that do a lot of cool stuff and they can’t just sit around waiting for us to call them up again. It was really crushing to replace some awesome performances due to the fact that we couldn’t get the actors back that we needed. This meant that we would need to replace a lot of actors and record the old stuff again as well.

Since the last recording it had become apparent that the tougher Simon wasn’t really working the way we wanted, so it was decided that we were going make another round of auditions for that role. Thankfully, I was able to convince Thomas to go back Jared Zeus again.
Even though some of the minor roles still needed to be re-cast and re-recorded, we had our two main characters Simon and Catherine sorted out, which was a huge load off my mind.

Preparing a session of Simon (Jared) talking to Lindwall (Andrea Deck)

2015 - Beta and Pick-ups
I think it is safe to say that the time between October 2014 and February 2015 is when the game finally found its form. A tremendous amount of stuff had been rewritten and in a way this is when we recorded the game. It was a two week recording and it was a blast – probably the most fun I’ve had professionally. Every morning Jared and Nell would come in and record for four hours. They had by far the most lines and there was a lot to cover. After lunch we would continue with some of the smaller roles, since it’s not a good idea to kill the voice of an actor by keeping them for a full day. Having Jared and Nell consistently record every morning turned out to be great idea. I could kind of hear the whole game play out chronologically and I could see them react to my explanations of what was happening in the different scenes in a way that a player would pick up things. A game script isn’t very descriptive, so even though they most likely read through the lines before, it’s not really until I give them the context that they realize what is going on. So I could watch them react to the story as I was telling it. Kind of reminds me hosting pen-and-paper RPGs. And the great part about that was being able to do minor changes to the script so it fell more closely in line with what the actors were expressing. I think this is the time when I finally consciously started to express some of the emotional themes of the game, like hope and denial. It was when talking to Damien, our amazing director, that enabled me to slow down and not think like a content producer and instead discuss and work through the material in a sensible way.
We ended up doing one final round of recording late spring where we filled in some gaps in the story and did a new take on the enemies, but other than that I consider the February recording our definitive and by far the most important recording of the whole game. 

Wine helps Simon and Catherine cope with the horrors of SOMA

Closing thoughts 
I’m not completely sure why I wanted to write an article about the voices of SOMA – I didn't even tell you about all the fun stuff like how Akers' once had a voice as a monster and how we almost flew an actress from Iceland to record for an hour. I like to think this is me just paying a small tribute to all the amazing work I’ve seen from directors, sound engineers, producers, casting agents, and of course the multitude of actors who at some point acted out the lines that I put in front of them. Voice recording is an incredibly fun world to work with and I hope to see all of you again in future projects.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Hiring: Producer / Project Manager

Frictional is looking for a producer / project manager to employ full time.

First up, the two most basic requirements:
  • That you live in Sweden (preferably in Skåne) or can move here.
  • That you speak Swedish.
På grund av detta kommer resten av ansökan att vara på svenska.

Som producer / project manager på Frictional Games kommer du att få väldigt varierande uppgifter. De huvudsakliga sysslorna kommer att vara följande:
  • Sköta stor del av företagets planering och budget.
  • Att överse och förbättra företagets arbetsmetodik.
  • Göra planer för PR och sköta kontakter.
  • Ansvara för kontakten med butiker, förläggare, outsourcers och andra samarbetspartners. 
  • Följa upp och utvärdera diverse förslag från andra företag.
Egenskaper vi vill att du ska ha är:
  • Beredd på att jobba hemifrån. Frictional Games har inget kontor.
  • Tidigare erfarenhet att driva eller vara manager på ett IT-företag. Bakgrund inom spel är ett plus, men inte nödvändigt.
  • Inte rädd för att jobba med kalkylark och liknande.
  • God datorvana.
  • Förstår dig på grundläggande ekonomi.
  • Goda kunskaper i personaldynamik.
  • Självständig, inte rädd för att ta ansvar och god initativförmåga.
  • Inte rädd för att lära dig nya saker.
  • Tala flytande engelska.
Tycker du att detta låter som något för dig, skicka ett mejl till