If you were a horror fan during the mid-late ’00s, you’d likely remember how dire the state of the genre had become. Resident Evil had gone the route of co-op action, Silent Hill was being outsourced to the west, and Alone in the Dark was just a complete and utter mess. There were a few gems such as Siren: Blood Curse, but they were few and far between. It was as if the industry forgot what horror was about, with even the most promising new franchises such as Dead Space shifting toward the direction of set-piece action. Fortunately, however, in 2010, a little indie game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent popped up on Steam; serving as the shot of adrenaline the genre so desperately needed.
While the push towards action never truly subsided in the AAA industry, the influence Frictional Games had throughout the independent scene was quite profound; inspiring an entire new generation of horror which is only just now being picked up on by the big publishers. 2014’s Alien Isolation is a great example of how a slow-burning horror not focused on high-octane action could not only be possible but also successful. I revel in the idea of a game that deliberately avoids combat, and instead delivers a balance of dread and curiosity; the ultimate combination for horror adventure. Amnesia did it so well that I needed no further convincing when I heard Frictional had a successor on the way: SOMA.
Going in, I literally knew nothing about SOMA as I had gone on a complete media blackout since the first screenshot appeared online. That is how much confidence I have in this team! I wanted to be surprised, so I’m glad I did, as what I discovered was genuinely unexpected. To ensure I don’t spoil anything, I’ll need to talk vaguely about some themes, but you should know first and foremost that this game is out to make you think as well as question what defines being human, or even alive for that matter. It’s also not a play on the classic, “should an artificial intelligence be considered alive?” trope – we have everything from Star Trek to Ex Machina to address that. This is a question of what defines us.
Set on Pathos-II (an underwater research facility) after a post-apocalyptic event, the protagonist finds themselves lost and confused, struggling to come to terms with reality. It is discovered that this facility was home to the last hope for humanity’s continuation, but everyone appears to be dead or missing; leaving the player totally isolated and disturbed by the presence of robots who genuinely believe they’re human beings. While not a horror in the conventional sense as I initially expected, SOMA does ask a lot of scary questions. If you could imagine a universe somewhere between Bioshock and Alien, but with no way to defend yourself other than to hide. Brace yourself for one hell of an adventure!
I recently panned Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, saying it failed as a video game (even though it’s not ‘bad’). When you break it all down though, these two games are very comparable mechanically, and I think there is a lesson to be learned here. Both games exclude combat, which is great in itself as this allows you to focus entirely on exploration. A lot of the time you’ll also be walking, investigating your surroundings and listening to audio logs; although the latter includes more puzzle solving. The big difference, however, is that SOMA understands there is a player on the other side and wants to talk to you personally. It wants to engage you and bring you into its world, not just tell a good story.
This game also wants you to think for yourself, so don’t expect waypoints, instructions, or any sort of hand-holding. For example, if you want to find where somewhere is on a map, you’ll need to locate a terminal which has access to a map. In fact, using the computer terminals around Pathos-II is something you’ll be doing a lot of, and for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes for information, other times for unlocking doors, calling transport, communication, etc. They’re frequently incorporated into the puzzle solving, too. There is nothing I like more than an adventure game that provides genuine exploration, as well as obstacles I can work to overcome. If only it wasn’t for the broken monsters…
I’ll say it outright: SOMA falls flat when it’s trying to be scary. So much about this game drags you into the world as if you were actually there, consuming you with dread as you contemplate the hopelessness of your situation. It didn’t need monsters to make you afraid, being trapped at the bottom of the ocean is terrifying. It’s not that the monsters aren’t compelling either, but unlike Amnesia, their integration doesn’t fit with this world. Every time I encountered one, it ripped the immersion from under me; serving as a reminder I was in a game, so I needed to abide by its restrictive rules to move forward. Like the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it’s how it was executed, not the idea itself.
On the other hand, atmosphere is something Frictional does very well, and SOMA is absolutely dripping with it. I also appreciate the existence of the monsters is a part of that, as well being as somewhat critical to the players’ perception of the world and what’s happening around them. There are some genuinely remarkable sights to experience at the bottom of the ocean; ideas that Bioshock touched on, but more comparable with the way Interstellar handled space exploration. You’re never sure what to expect when you cross between being under water and entering one of the derelict Pathos-II stations scattered along the ocean floor. The deeper you go, the more otherworldly everything gets.
Where SOMA also stands apart from other first-person adventure games – AKA ‘walking simulators’ – is the level of interactivity it facilitates. While you can break every component down to make it sound boring, this is still a game that engages you in much more than just walking. It might sound basic, but just having the ability to pick up and throw objects around within the environment, even if the majority of objects are non-essential, is a great way to ground the player. My only disappointment is with the one tool you carry around (the Omnitool). It’s suggested early on that it will be upgradable, but there is no true customisation; which is a shame, as it could’ve added a unique layer to the game.
Every facet of this game has a story to tell, and that’s what makes it so genuinely incredible despite its flaws. Not only is it visually compelling (both graphically and artistically), there is a lot to take in audibly too; fuelling that perfect mix of dread and curiosity I mentioned earlier. SOMA also uses a few tricks to expand its narrative such as using notes and photos you can pick up, repurposing codec information as terminal data, as well as connecting players emotionally with the departed via a special ability. Even so, my deepest connection with the world was a relationship with another survivor of Pathos-II – A wonderfully fleshed out character story that drives home the values of the game’s philosophy.
While SOMA is a far cry away from being scary in the conventional sense, it is one of the most chilling and thought provoking games I’ve ever played. Lately, I have been watching a lot of the original Twilight Zone – a series which often leaves me deep in thought. That is exactly how I felt about SOMA; after the implications of its near-flawless conclusion hit me like a tonne of bricks. I don’t want to say it’s a perfect game as the monsters simply don’t fit very well into the gameplay; not to mention a few other missed opportunities. But in saying all that, I can’t think of many narrative-driven games that have come this far. SOMA is a paragon example for any person who ever made a ‘walking simulator’ joke.