SOMA takes a horrifying precedent and blends it with an extremely plausible future, to delve deeply into musings on what it means to be alive. This isn’t the eldritch Lovecraftian horror that Frictional Games are famous for, though those elements are clear in its visual design, rather SOMA is horrifying because it is so intimate, a revelation of our own identities.
SOMA starts of as a normal day, grounding itself in daily routines and the comfort of the familiar. Before quickly juxtaposing this with the new horror that the protagonist, Simon finds himself in. The game makes fairly large leaps at times, sometimes bewilderingly so, leaving the characters emotional reactions to disappear into an Atlantic trench. For a story that relies deeply upon its characters reflections on their nature and circumstances, these visceral reactions are too often delayed. Simon’s moments of epiphany, which occur three times throughout the game, allowing you the player to follow the story, often occur long after the events have resolved. Whether this is because Simon is not the brightest person, or that some malfunction from his brain damage causes a delay is not clear. In these moments when he does realise his state, and actually contemplates the horror of his situation, his response is to quickly pursue his tasks with renewed vigor. At times Simon’s disengagement from his predicament left me feeling estranged from him in turn, though his later grasping at the tenuous hope that Catherine offers is believable, and the ending a natural consequence of his nebulous emotions. His frail grasp on his newfound reality makes his ultimate fate(s) tragic yet clear when viewed in the wake of Catherine’s insights. It isn’t a satisfying ending yet it is the most plausible one. The writers deliberately left such things ambiguous, which sadly doesn’t make for a compelling character study though it does leave players with the ability to decide some of the issues themselves.
Sadly, this does also extend to the other characters you encounter who are divested of essential things that make them human, they lack the emotional responses so necessary to elucidate the horror of the situation they find themselves in. Instead, there is a calm, resigned acceptance of their fate, which makes sense for a few but not for all the individuals you encounter.
Only the monsters ‘seem’ to acknowledge the horrifying position they are in, their thoughts delivered in muttered and distorted speech, with their rationality as decayed as their appearance. Which leaves one with an interesting question: if they are insane, can they be truly terrified?
“The privilege of being makes a strong case.” ~Catherine, in game dialogue
At approximately 10-12 hours of play, SOMA doesn’t have much time to work with. Since most of that is spent creeping as stealthily as one can about the environments. The pacing is slow, and with most of the story delivered through objects, diaries, and terminals scattered about the Pathos-II hubs it unfolds in dribs and drabs. This also means that those playing purely for horror and scares won’t find much to appeal. The horror is only apparent once one has truly explored the world, something the game actively hinders when attempting to escape from monsters that disrupt your search.
Hiding and avoiding monsters is the primary aspect of play. It’s something established in previous games by Frictional, such as the Amnesia series. Addressing the issue of exploration which is so essential to SOMA, a non-death mode was introduced, allowing you to explore freely, its implementation was widely debated, yet it did solve much of the issues around exploration and story.
Exploration is done via the first person perspective, which limits your awareness of surroundings that a 3rd person would have created. It works brilliantly, not only do you feel embodied when playing from this perspective which of course is important to the ontological themes of the game itself, but also allows the game to blur your vision at times, dependant on the stress that Simon himself is experiencing. The perspective is also in a way disorienting, keeping you guessing about Simon’s state. It’s not that other games haven’t used this perspective for good effect before but here the developer’s choice is clear and impactful upon the story itself, leading up to an awareness of yourself that is of pivotal importance in two particular scenes.
“If we could rebuild even a small part of ourselves, why wouldn’t we do that?” ~in game dialogue
The monsters, robotic or humanoid you are avoiding have various ways to navigate past and learning their behaviour is essential to successfully avoid them. Whether looking at them directly or stealthily creeping, or simply running as fast as you can to get away, slamming doors behind you to slow their pursuit. They aren’t particularly frightening or at least aren’t as frightening as you think, but when analysing the game’s story their existence is terrifying. It’s telling that the game eventually asks what the monster might be, whether it’s you (and your decisions in the game), the WAU or the beings themselves. The vague shadowy monsters often distorted your view as they near, or the monstrous ambiguity present in your decisions are what build a cerebral tension, rather than a release of epinephrine. In this, the game plays to its existential themes.
The environment which switches between the Atlantic seabed and the constructed environments of Pathos-II itself create variable stages of calm natural surroundings and the intensity of a decaying industrial complex. Pathos-II is aptly named for the tragedy that plays out within it’s hallways. It’s clear the complex was a height of international, scientific co-operation. From the English and simplified Chinese that dot the terminals and hallways, to the broad cast of characters of multiple nationalities that once inhabited it, to the hope embodied by Katherine and her calm discussions driving you forward. Yet even with this aid, that gives your movement forward impetus, the environments are linear. There is little leeway for exploration other than to find the pieces of story. Only when one is about to encounter a monster does the game shift to a labyrinthine pattern enabling one to dodge around and use obstacles to separate oneself from the figures that chase you, quickly changing these segments into games of hide and seek. They do create moments of needed tension, desperately dashing about rooms to uncover as much as possible. But the game is always ready to assure you that you are no Daedalus, and Icarus may just be a vain delusion.
The controls are immensely responsive, and focus purely on movement and observation. Stealth, and running are the two variations on your walking pace, and, as is standard for first person perspective, the mouse controls the direction you look. Whilst the mouse buttons offer contextualised interactions for solving the various short puzzles that you will encounter. These puzzles are fairly easy to solve, and are varied enough to increase engagement. They didn’t require too intense observation leaving you free to solve them, without a great deal of exploration.
The sound design is superb and is heavily contextualised. Walking across varied surfaces, will produce different tones, and even walking slower will lower the sound of your footsteps. Venturing out into the water, leads to sounds being distorted by the water, only returning to normal once you are back in the relative safety of the Pathos-II interiors. Pathos-II itself creaks and groans, the stress of metal reverberating through the speakers, as the pressure of water creates strange new stresses. These clues of your surrounding are alleviated by the comforting sounds of human voices, digitally preserved in various recordings, the emotions lending an analogue feel to the otherwise inhumane situation, and of course Catherine and Simon themselves, Simon’s fluctuating emotions traced with the stress of his situation against Catherine’s non-inflected, rational tones, that emulate her humanity. They are wonderful performances.
SOMA is an ambitious project. With its blend of philosophy and exploration tinged with horror it executes perfectly on its themes. The emotions it evokes both in its characters and in the player are well balanced. Moving from visions of the past with Amnesia, to a dystopian future lent much needed weight to the story, and expanded on the concept of what a post-humanist position might entail. SOMA is exceptional. It is certainly not to the taste of all, but if you are looking for an excellent interpretation of science fiction themes, and solutions for the future that lets you decide for yourself what the negative and positive consequences may be, you will be in good company with SOMA.
~8/10~ Cerebral Transcendence
Wonderful level design that shifts as needed
Atmospheric sound design
An intelligent narrative with thought-provoking moments
Narrative shifts are extremely abrupt with little build up
The horror is not outright scary (subtlety may be a pro for some)
Publisher: Frictional Games
Developer: Frictional Games
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
ESRB: M / PEGI: 16
Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.
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