Penumbra: Overture began life as a tech demo, but has now transformed into a fully fledged survival horror title for the PC. Pro-G caught up with the game's lead programmer, Thomas Grip, and delved deeper into its development.
Pro-G: How did Penumbra go from a tech demo to a fully-fledged game?
Thomas Grip: When we released the Penumbra tech demo for free on the Internet we where about to give up on it and start working on something else. But a week after the release of the game we received huge amounts of attention and many players where mad at the bad ending (which we really just slapped together in the last minute) and wanted more. This made us think over our decision to abandon the game and we decided to make a full version instead.
As we started on the full version we sent out mails (snail-mail and email) to a lot of publishers but we got very few replies and no offers. We kept on working with the game and once we had some nice screenshots we released them together with an announcement that we where working on a full version and in need of a publisher. This is when Lexicon contacted us and we decided on forming a partnership with them.
Pro-G: Can you fill us in on the game's story and the setup for the first episode?
TG: The game starts with the protagonist, Philip, getting a letter from his late father giving him instructions to find a book and burn it. Philip, who has never known his father, cannot bring himself to destroying the last and only legacy he has and decides to examine it instead. Reading the book he starts finding clues that all seem to point to a place on Greenland. Days go by and Philip can't get this place off his mind and finally he decides to go there.
Arriving at Greenland, Philip heads out in to the snowy wastelands and after a few hours he is caught in a blizzard. By blind luck Philip stumbles upon a metal hatch and manages to get shelter. Now it is up to the player to find out what's going on.
Pro-G: Do you know now where the story will go in later episodes, or is this something that will evolve as development progresses?
TG: We have the base story done for all three episodes; this is important since the episode are very much connected. However, finer details for the next two episodes are being worked upon now and might change depending on what kind of player feedback we get after the first episode is released. Feedback between releases is something nice with episodes and we plan to take full advantage of it.
Pro-G: For a game of this type to succeed a lot depends on the quality of the story. With no direct character conversations how have you ensured that the player becomes sucked into the Penumbra universe?
'In Penumbra: Overture the environment is very dynamic allowing the player to do pretty much as they please.'
TG: While the game does not have spoken dialogs there will be spoken monologues in the game. There will also be various notes to pick up which give you information on various characters that have been and are in the game world. Added to this are the detailed environments that tell a story as well; examining the various locations tells of past events. All this should combine into a very immersive experience and we are putting a lot of effort into making an exciting and interesting story. A British writer is doing all the text and helping out with the story and narrative.
Pro-G: Survival horror games of recent times have mainly all been third person or fixed camera adventures. What are the reasons for using a first-person perspective in Penumbra?
TG: The main reason is that we believe the immersion is greater when seen from a first-person perspective. Also, the physical interaction system, which really is the core of the game, would be hard to do using a third-person perspective.
Pro-G: The way the player interacts with the environments in the game sounds quite unique. E.g. a pushing movement with the mouse will push an in-game object. How open is this interaction system for the player to explore?
TG: As mentioned, the interaction system is really the core of the game. Most of the game objects are simulated using physics and instead of just clicking on objects to interact you use mouse movements to pull and push objects. For example, when opening a door you can determine how fast and how much you want to open it, enabling you to just peek into the next room. This gives the player a great deal of freedom to the interaction.
Pro-G: How strong a role will the physics have in determining how the game is played?
TG: The system is the base of many puzzles which enables the player to solve them in many ways. As an example, let's say the player needs to get hold of something high on a shelf that can not be reached. This problem can be solved in various ways: one could stack some boxes until the item is within reach, throw an object to knock the item down or perhaps throw a stick of dynamite, destroying the shelf.
Pro-G: Much has been made of the cutting edge 3D graphic technologies used in Penumbra, but how is this any different from lots of other impressive looking survival horror titles?
TG: As you say, there are many other horror games with similar graphic technologies, using dynamic shadows and lightning. The big differences between us and those games is not the technology itself but rather how it is used. In many games most of the world is static, so the dynamic environments that the technology allows for is not really used. In Penumbra: Overture the environment is very dynamic allowing the player to do pretty much as they please.
Pro-G: Looking back at Frictional Games' previous titles, Penumbra is certainly a huge leap forward in visuals. How long has the game engine been in development and how much of a challenge has it been reach the point the game is at now?
TG: The engine started out when creating our previous game, Energetic, in December 2004. At first it was just a 2D engine but as work begun on the Penumbra tech demo in August 2005, 3D rendering was added to it. This means that it is possibly the only 3D engine that also has a 2D tile engine included!
To get the engine to its current state has really been a huge effort. When I started working on it in 2004 I had never touched any OpenGL code (which is the lowlevel rendersystem it uses) and when moving it into the third dimension I had never really coded any lowlevel 3D stuff myself. What helped a lot in the design of the engine was that I had been using various 3D engines for the past 3 years and that taught me a lot about what was needed and what kind of structure to use. Also the internet is such an awesome information resource and I do not think it would have been possible to create the engine without that information available.
Pro-G: Give us one reason why gamers should be looking forward to Penumbra: Overture when it's released in 2007?
TG: Because it is a fresh and new experience and there is really no other game like it on the market. So if you are looking for an exciting and immersive experience, be sure to check out Penumbra: Overture when it is released next year.