Don’t Grind me Bro

I recently finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent. If you haven’t heard about it, I think Yahtzee pretty much covers it.

It’s probably one of the most effectively scariest games of all time. It’s quite ingenious. And perhaps the most important thing to note is that it achieves all of this because it dares to actually leave out a lot. Out of curiosity, I started Penumbra, the previous game by Frictional, the studio behind Amnesia. You can clearly tell how they slowly evolved the idea of Amnesia by gradually taking away concepts that don’t add to their cause. The cause of scaring the living shit out of the player. This is also reflected in a recent talk they gave at GDC Europe 2011.

Compared to Penumbra, Amnesia feels much more complete and streamlined in general. There are lots of details that contribute to this. In this post I want to focus on two.

First: Combat

The first being the most obvious one: combat. There is none in Amnesia. Many people notice that about the game and love it because of this. Combat lies at the center of pretty much every game nowadays. But you might recall that it wasn’t always the case. Over time, video games just gradually drifted into a understanding combat as the standard go-to activity to center around. There is nothing wrong about having combat per se. But it becomes a problem when it’s used as a default activity without considering the consequences. So most horror games nowadays have combat even though this actually completely undermines what they are trying to achieve. Scary things are more scary if there is nothing you can do about them. It should be a no-brainer.

No Guns

No guns should make you feel more secure.. wait, I mean scared! Ok, it’s a bad example.

Of course, combat in horror games is often somewhat limited by ammunition and so on. But the Frictional guys realized that this doesn’t actually work so well either. Combat is what I would call “magnetic”. You can’t just have a little bit of combat. Because then, the players will complain about how limited the combat is. You have to decide if your game is ABOUT combat or not.

Second: Game Mechanics

The other big thing they left out is much more subtle and controversial. They left out what game designers have been worshiping ever since the the title “game designer” was invented. They left out game mechanics.

Now that needs some explanation. Because clearly, they haven’t left out EVERY game mechanic. But they abandoned the idea that all important aspects of the game need to be represented as game mechanics.

*** SPOILER ALERT *** – I will be discussing something that can seriously spoil the game for you. It’s not even a story detail but something more fundamental. So if you haven’t played it and you really want to explore it for yourself, you might want to quit now, play the game and return later.

What I’m talking about insanity. Frictional wanted to discourages players to hide from enemies in dark places all the time. After all, this wasn’t a stealth game. The idea was to keep players constantly on their toes. So there should be no “comfortable” place to stay. They came up with the idea that the player loses sanity when they are in the dark. So staying in the light makes you visible to enemies. Staying in the dark makes you go slowly insane. The problem was how to represent insanity. The knee-jerk reaction would be to have some game mechanic behind this. For example, Sanity could be like some sort of a health meter. Lose too much and you go game over.

But Frictional found this very difficult to balance. Instead they ended up removing almost all consequences to insanity. All insanity does in the game now is to introduce a whole symphony of various, distracting effects. The image warps, creepy sound effects come in, insects crawl on the screen. They are all highly undesirable so they achieve the goal of discouraging players to stay in the darkness. But they don’t have enough consequences for players to start min-maxing or “grinding” the principle. So players won’t lose if they just so happen to run out of oil for their lamp. But it will still feel intense.

In fact, they found out that it felt EVEN MORE intense. Thomas Grip gave a marvelous example in the Q&A session of the talk to make the point even clearer. Think of how you would create a romance game. You would usually create some sort of meter to measure how much the other loves you. Perhaps it would be “heart points” or something. Every decision would make you win or lose heart points. But this would lead to the players not paying attention to how THEY feel about the decisions. They would simply try to figure out which one is worth most heart points. A romance game without a heart points mechanic would allow players to forget about “grinding” that system and focus on actually role-playing the romance part.


You’re doing it rong. Galgun has both, heart points AND combat. Romance fail.

It occurred to me that this was basically the argument against Gamification but applied back on games. If having badges and achievements encourages mindless grinding and prevents people from enjoying an activity for what it’s worth, similar systems within actual games should also be questioned. Is “good” and “evil” something that needs to be represented by a number? Or can we just let the players decide how good / evil they feel depending on their actions? Is “charisma” something that needs to be mathematically determined in the character stats or can we just let players act out a scene and determine that way how charismatic they really are?

This realization is something that goes well with my own thoughts about challenge in games. Of course, you could put this off as simply a form of Cognitive Dissonance. And it might actually explain it at least partially. But working on TRAUMA I realized that there is a weird in-between category of gameplay. One that isn’t as focused on causality as game mechanics are. But one that is still clearly interactive unlike cut-scenes. It is a form of gameplay that derives it’s meaning from the players themselves instead of external reward structures. I feel like this is exactly where we will find the potential for expressive video games in the future. I’m looking forward to explore this idea in the future myself. And I’m looking forward to see what Frictional does next.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

2 responses to “Don’t Grind me Bro”

  1. Roundup of Unusual Size: KOTAKUUUUU! *shakes fists* « Dire Critic

    [...] A provocative analysis of Amnesia that should merit your consideration. [...]

  2. Shorlan

    You make some very interesting points on how removing what is typically a very explicit indicator and replacing it with an implicating effect creates a more powerful involvement in the outcome of the game.

    While I agree that this immersion definitely does occur, I think that you neglected to point out the what is causing other games to feel so objectified and less involving in comparison to Amnesia. Here’s my opinion: the presence of an interface is allowing the player’s mind to correlate actions with responses, and formulate what event has to occur to advance the bar. This allows the player to visually grasp the game mechanics at work behind the game.

    The presence of the explicit interface is providing the player with a solid number. This allows the player’s mind to understand that the indicator bar is simply a translation of the game mechanics, and a correlation is drawn where action X affects the indicator by Y amount. For example, kill a mob, and the xp bar fills up.

    Since our current reference of our surroundings is without any such indicators, wouldn’t you say that the game is abstracting itself to a more life-like simulation by hiding indicators of game mechanics? So when you remove some of the interfaces representing health: the player has only some implied cues for their life bar, yet the game mechanic surrounding the life bar still exists, and the player can still draw some hazy conclusions of how much health they have. Perhaps it’s the uncertainty that implied interfaces provide which causes players to get so immersed in to the events transpiring in the game.
    Amnesia is a great example for how immersive a game can become, and I really enjoyed reading this article. Keep up the good work!


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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