What follows are some thoughts on where I want videogames to evolve. At the same time it is also a sort of explanation of the core design goals for Frictional Games. It is not meant to describe how to do things, instead it as attempt to describe how we want our videogame experiences to be like.
When reading a good book, I get drawn into its world and feel part of the events that unfold. Yet the happenings are just figments of my imagination. There is a one way feed of information and I have no choice of where to focus; the writer is my guide and points out details to explore and choses what path to take. Still I feel immersed in the environments and close to the characters, evoking powerful emotions inside me. To be part of this journey through engrossing and enriching worlds is one of the major enjoyments for me when reading books. When a piece of fiction really hooks me, it is an awesome experience and I truly feel like I am inside the fictional world.
Still, I am not there, the environment does not kick back, only existing as a stream of prefabricated perception that I tap into. When making a video game, we can take a step further and create something that in a sense is truly there. Something that I can see through my own eyes, letting me decide where and how to explore. This is extremely potent stuff and something that requires attention. The opportunity to create alternative realties lie at our fingertips, yet it seems to be that the chance is not taken. Instead of focusing on world building and emotions, the realities inside videogames are wrapped in abstract rule systems where the environmental experience is secondary to the core rules and competitive elements.
Some games do touch upon this kind of creation of realities, but is almost always bogged down by game rules that destroy the "living in a world"-experience in some manner. For example, I thought that the first part of Bioshock (and some later parts) where you could just go around and explore the locations where amazing. Sometimes I truly felt part of the great underground city. Sadly, most of the game was filled competitive combat sections, spoiling much of the experience for me. Other games, like The Void, have an intriguing premise and imaginative environments, but holds me back with very punishing gameplay making it very hard for me to immerse myself in the game's world. Many adventure game also suffer from this and include, many times obscure, puzzles that halt progress and pulls me out of the game's world.
Of course videogames with very game-like rule sets are not bad, they can be very rewarding and should not cease to exist. I love solving puzzle and trying to overcome unforgiving platform sections. But sometimes, I just want to be immersed in another world, explore and be part of an engaging experience. However, almost always when I try a game where I think I will get this, I am put inside a competition with me against a the computer/designer. This does not mean that all challenge should be removed, as encountering obstacles can be helpful for immersion in the world, but it should not be the focus when making an alternative reality. It is also worth noting that I am not after being spoon fed a story, but a videogame where engaging (let it be sad, fun, disturbing, etc) experience in a fictional realm is the main goal.
Sadly, these kind of games are few, to the point of not really existing. Instead, almost all videogames have as a core goal to challenge the player, and to be something that is meant to be beaten. I would like to see more games where the main goal is to make the player live an experience, to engage the player in a world and to evoke a wide range of emotions. I would like to start a game and be taken to another world, where I can focus on being immersed in an alternate reality instead of worrying about headshots, experience points or the solution to a sliding puzzle.
To make the player become part of a fictional world has been a goal for us at Frictional Games since we started working on Penumbra and it is still our main goal when creating Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We know we still have a lot left to learn and are stuck in many traditional game conventions. But we make sure to try out new things, noticing what works and what doesn't as we go along. Hopefully this will take us increasingly closer to the goal of making an experience that is not played but lived.