It's been the subject of fairly hot debate recently about what the adventure game needs to do to be relevant these days. Some, like Telltale, have taken a "if it aint broke..." approach, and revisited the early '90s formula that we all loved.
But, perhaps as the Sam n' Max episodes have illustrated, that's only going to satisfy a specific niche of gamers for a while. Eventually, the novelty and nostalgia starts to wane and we start to wonder where else the genre could be going - and how developers can use all the new technology available to them.
Perhaps that's where Penumbra Overture comes in. Designed by a four man team going by the name of Frictional Games, it throws out practically every well-worn adventure gaming convention and aims to take it to a new place. Part first person adventure, part survival horror, it uses physics to define the gameplay, and earlypreview code certainly suggested that the game has plenty of promise.
In the run-up to the game's release, we caught up with the Frictional Team, comprising of Thomas Grip (programmer/ project lead), Jens Nilsson (sound engineer and level scripter), Anton Adamse (graphics) and TJ Jubert (writing).
Eurogamer: In today's environment of massive development studios, Frictional Games is a bit of a throwback to the way things used to be before gaming got all corporate on us. Tell us about the team that worked on Penumbra Overture and who does what.
Thomas Grip: The core group has consisted of three people: me doing most of the programming, Jens doing all the sounds and level scripting, and Anton doing most of the art. In addition to this, we have input from several other people. Emil has been responsible for some of the maps, models and textures, TJ wrote all text and story, Mikko produced all music, Luis helped us with sound coding, and Edward is working on Mac and Linux ports.
Eurogamer: Where are you making Penumbra Overture?
Thomas Grip: We do not have an office, so all work is done in our bedrooms and living rooms. My computer is right next to the TV, so working has been harder when my girlfriend insists on watching "Top model" or something while I'm working. All communications are done via phone or the Internet, I have the nasty habit of harassing Jens concerning some silly idea when ever he is eating.
Jens Nilsson: That's true and it's quite annoying! I have not had this many gourmet meals ruined on my stove in years as I have during the last 6 months. But seriously; even though we have not had an office, work has gone very good. We are all used to working from home and have built up a good work morale over the years.
Eurogamer: Critics are forever proclaiming that the adventure scene is 'dead', and publishers don't appear to be that keen on releasing too many of them these days, either. Do you feel that the team's approach can revitalise the genre or is it simply the case that gamers have moved on? Why will Penumbra make any difference?
Thomas Grip: First of all, let's be clear: we do not want to call Penumbra a point n' click game, but rather a first person survival horror game. Our focus has not been on reinventing, rather just to make a fresh and interesting game experience. And so far, the feedback from previews hint that we might be on the right track.
Jens Nilsson: For gamers that want to play a survival horror game on the PC, I think Penumbra will serve that purpose quite well. It has some nice additions that you don't see in the genre, such as the first person viewpoint and physics. On a PC this should work quite well given the popularity of just that: physics and first person.
As Thomas says, we didn't have any intentions of doing an adventure game or reinventing that genre, our original idea was to create a first person survival horror game with less violence and more puzzles. Granted, survival horror is, in itself, an adventure genre, but Penumbra being described as an 'adventure game' is something created by the people who have played, talked and written about the game, as opposed to anything we've said.
Eurogamer: What inspired the game's storyline, and what aspects do you feel will pull gamers into the narrative?
TJ Jubert: The storyline was originally very much inspired by Lovecraft's work. It was great to draw on that wealth of content, and the way he created an atmosphere. However, during production, I think we've really managed to bring a personal, and unique edge to the game world.
One innovative story telling technique that we're quite proud of is the environment itself. While we do use more established mechanisms like dialogues, and readable notes, in Penumbra Overture the game world itself is a character in the story. While more traditional adventure games often solely relied upon text, we have, for the first time, introduced detailed, involving, FPS style locations. Exploring these can express just as much information as any diary entry ever could.
As far as garnering player empathy goes, just let it be said that we've put a great deal of effort into crafting our characters, and we have one particular 'companion' who we think will really engage players on an emotional, and intellectual basis.
Thomas Grip: We have put a lot of work into giving rich detail into the world and almost every part of the game has some kind of history and purpose. Actually, even the save system is a part of the story...
Eurogamer: Penumbra Overture is set over three episodes. How have the three games been structured? How open to change are you, and do you have the basic plotlines for all three games already nailed down?
TJ Jubert: Yes, the basic plotline for Penumbra Overture is complete, and will run seamlessly from episode to episode.
However, I think we all know that video game narratives have their own graphical and technical limitations. With Penumbra, we're trying to remedy this somewhat by really observing the basic rules that film, and literature, take for granted. That means giving our narrative a beginning, middle, and end. It means properly characterising the game's inhabitants, and giving every side plot a proper story arc. I think that this allows us far more freedom to craft an enticing experience, which successfully spans all three episodes. This said, a great deal of care has gone into ensuring Penumbra doesn't fall foul of its episodic nature - I promise, each episode is a self-contained, and rewarding chunk of the overarching narrative.
In terms of story flexibility, while we already know where we're going, and where our lead character, Philip, will end up - certain parts of how he gets there are intentionally left open. The atmosphere, and plot aren't going to change, but the beauty of the episodic structure is that we can really take onboard player feedback. While the likes of Half-Life 2 and Sin seem to have stalled somewhat, and Sam & Max is released too quickly to take advantage, our six monthly schedule means that if players enjoy a particular character, location, or pretty much anything else, we can put more emphasis on it next time around.
Eurogamer: Presumably it's a huge disadvantage that Frictional Games only has four people working for it. But what about the advantages of working within a small team, and how you can convince people that you're capable of producing an impressive game with such limited resources?
Anton Adamse: Let's put it like this. If a huge production studio with 200 employees is going to do a game, they have to do something that they are 100 per cent sure will sell a lot to please their investors. Therefore, in nine out of ten cases they do something that has been done successfully before. Doing something unexpected or taking gameplay to a new level is considered a big risk, and when you put a multi-million dollar budget on a project, you don't want to take risks. When you are a small independent studio, you don't have to listen to the men in suits telling you what to do. Instead you can do something innovative.
Jens Nilsson: One of the really positive aspects of being such a small studio is the time you save in organisational tasks. As much as we are limited by what we can do and what we can afford, big projects have to battle the problems with getting 50 to 100 minds in the right direction, co-ordinate the workflow, communication and so on. We are a small united group, we have our areas of expertise, we communicate as the need requires and, in general, stride along towards our end goal, the finished game.
Lowered expectations is something we can't do much about, maybe the price of the game is a counter measure, but as it's an episode and therefore shorter in length. Then again, there have been full price releases that has been shorter in length than Penumbra: Overture.
In the end, we believe that as you can enjoy film and music regardless of the budget behind their creation. It should also be possible to enjoy games regardless of budget and size of the studios that creates them in the same way.
Thomas Grip: Also we work like crazy, trying to fit in 10 normal days of work into one week. So in that sense we actually have double the team size! Jokes aside, we are really sacrificing a lot to make this game, we have basically lived and breathed it for the last six months.
Eurogamer: Regarding the technology behind the game, some of it is actually pretty impressive. Tell us the thinking behind putting physics in Penumbra.
Anton Adamse: A problem with physics in most games is the fact that everything feels very metallic and light weighted. You don't get the feeling that different things are heavier than others and have different materials. We are trying to make the physics feel more like in the real world. It's hard to see on the trailers, but if you play the game, you get a whole different feeling when lifting something by pulling your mouse. Just a simple thing like opening a door: In Penumbra you actually have to slide the mouse like grabbing the door handle and open it. Especially when you don't know what's behind that door, it gives the player a very more realistic feeling.
Thomas Grip: We have spent a lot of time testing the physics system to make it as natural and simple as possible. Our goal has been to use as few controls as possible and at the same time giving the player great freedom when manipulating objects.
Eurogamer: What has been the greatest design challenge so far?
Thomas Grip: The hardest thing has been to try and convince the player that one should not try and kill the enemies using melee. The second we gave our play testers some kind of weapon-like thing (even if it was just a puny hammer that was referred to as a "tool") they wanted to use it to kill the creatures. We had to put a lot of effort into explaining to the player that he/she was not some kind of action hero and would be killed fairly quickly if they engaged in hand to hand combat.
Eurogamer: What are your expectations for the eventual release of the game?
Thomas Grip: The game is not like other survival horrors games, since combat is something best to be avoided, making it a rather different experience. Hopefully this will make the game really creepy and different from other horror games but that same time it is a bit risky. We really hope that players can embrace the play-style and get immersed in the game. We also hope that people will find the story interesting and will be looking forward for the next episodes. Since the success of the trilogy will depend a lot on how well received the first instalment is. We have all worked really hard to make sure the game is as solid as possible and really hope people will like it and look forward to the two other episodes.
Eurogamer: Do you think that Steam and other digital distribution methods will make it easier for independent developers?
Thomas Grip: Yeah sure, since it could bring more of the sales back to the developer, meaning that it's possible for teams with niche games to survive. Also the simple format (no box, etc) makes it less costly to launch a game and more innovative and "risky" games can be made. On the downside, the large online distributors are starting to get a lot of companies wanting their games there, which makes it hard for smaller companies to be heard.
Eurogamer: Finally, the preview build has gone down pretty well so far - how much has the game moved on since that code? Have you addressed the comments about the combat? What elements of the game you are most proud of?
Thomas Grip: There have been tons of improvements since the preview code. We have put a lot of focus into making the combat more interesting and also making the player keener on avoiding it. Our main design goal was for the gameplay not to rely on violence so we have been working hard on making the options for melee combat more interesting. The enemy AI has been updated and we have put a lot of work into having good enemy placement on the maps.
The thing I am most proud of is that we have actually managed to complete the project, keeping our main design goals intact. There as been all sorts of problems during the development and because of our very limited schedule and staff there where times where I thought we had to cut down on the initial design. That never happened though; instead we have actually expanded upon our initial vision and created more than we set out to do at first. This is something that really feels nice to have managed to do and the end production is something we all are very proud of.
Penumbra Overture is coming to the PC later this Spring. Check back soon for a full review.