There aren’t many developers that are willing to explore tough philosophical questions with their games, and even fewer that are able to build an entire world around the answers they find. This is what SOMA is, more or less. It’s an incomplete answer to the question of what might happen if we separated human consciousness from the human body.
At first glance, this game appears to be the worst possible outcome that could come from our desire to “cure” mortality. It is that, and even though the premise has been explored numerous times before in various movies, books, video games, etc., the answer Frictional has for us may be the most unnerving one yet.
SOMA takes place in Pathos-2, a sprawling underwater complex nestled on the ocean floor that’s been designed to keep our species going. What’s left of humanity resides here along with a handful of undesirables who might find its grimy, abandoned look charming. It’s the kind of setting where you might expect to see a Big Daddy come strolling around a corner with a Little Sister in toe.
Pathos-2 doesn’t have any of the personality of Rapture, and it shouldn’t. It’s emphasis is on function over style, so while the views are undeniably extraordinary, it’s never as awe-inspiring as one might expect an underwater supercomplex to be.
There is a history here that makes Pathos-2 an interesting place to explore, if only to seek out any hidden clues that might shed some light on what happened there — and more specifically, what happened to the fish, and are they still edible or would it be safer to just eat around the bits that weren’t originally a part of the fish?
The story has been the heart and soul of SOMA since its unveiling, when Frictional’s creative director Thomas Grip described it as the sort of horror game that would “chill you to your core, and confront you with questions about your very existence.”
And if it’s not chilling your core or toying with your sense of self, that’s probably because it’s busy testing your morality with impossible decisions in order to make you feel like a monster just before it locks you in a room with a legitimate monster to see how long you can last.
It sounds cruel, but I’ll take that over another horror game starring Slender Man, zombies, or the cast of Chuck E. Cheese’s (no offense, Scott). As much as I enjoyed those games, they do leave me with a craving for something a bit more substantial.
Frictional is uniquely skilled at crafting games that leave me satisfied, even when I’m not the one with the controller. There’s a simplicity to the way they’re designed that makes them exceedingly easy to understand. Amnesia was peppered with scavenger hunts, clever puzzles, chase sequences, and a few deadly games of hide and seek.
Amnesia was a simple game that had mastered the delicate art of balancing of visceral terror with slow-burn horror. I’ve already gone into great detail why it will be remembered for many years to come. In my defense, that was before SOMA took that formula and made it so much better.
SOMA has these things too, and they’ve been changed for the better. The puzzles don’t feel as forced now that they’ve been woven into the world in a more natural way, and finding what you need to move the story forward isn’t frustrating so long as you’ve been paying attention.
This rule also applies to the monster encounters, where an awareness of one’s surroundings can often mean life or death. I would’ve died a lot more than I did had I not taken a minute to look around every once in a while to scout hiding places and escape routes.
Between the gradual realization of what’s going on and the horrifying reality that is existing in the bleak world of SOMA, you might not notice the occasional bad line reading, wonky AI pathing — I once escaped a sure death after my pursuer got stuck on a wall — or a room that looks unfinished compared to the others.
They’re largely insignificant flaws that shouldn’t take away from the experience, except when they do. The “problem” is a meh line reading has a tendency to stand out when there’s writing this good, and a lack of detail in an environment can be jarring when the rest of the game looks so good.
The massive attention horror games are enjoying right now has come at a cost. Many developers have sacrificed narrative depth in order to appeal to a wider audience, including the millions of people who watch Let’s Plays on YouTube or lifestreams on Twitch.
Grand ideas, taboo subject matter and intelligent conversations have taken a backseat to graphical prowess, simple mechanics and shallow frights. I don’t mind it. Many of the genre’s biggest success stories have employed classic haunted house scare tactics, and I think we can all agree that haunted houses are great up to a point.
The Final Word: Frictional Games set out to build a game that lingers in your thoughts long after you’ve set down the controller when most developers are content with amusing YouTube and Twitch audiences with gimmicks and jump scares, and in doing so, they made one of the best psychological horror games since Silent Hill 2.