SOMA (Video Game)

SOMA Face LogoDeveloped by Frictional Games

Available digitally on PC and PS4

Rated M for Mature


I can’t remember the last time a game gave me nightmares. As an individual of robust imagination, it isn’t difficult for something to come along that shocks me into a state of obsessive contemplation that persists into my slumber. Most things simply don’t, lacking the depths and ideation necessary to really work itself into my subconscious. Perhaps SOMA had a leg up; the concept of our continued identity in the face of ever more convincing replication (and beyond that, the importance of individual identity) has been on my mind since I realized some years ago that I will indeed die. It is morbidly serendipitous that this game happened to be released around the time I suffered a major injury, as it gave me the opportunity to simultaneously explore the topic and make some much needed medical bill cash.

So, of course, as fate would have it, the folks at Frictional explicitly asked reviewers to not discuss the specifics of the plot. I will respect this wish, relegating the specifics to a further editorial. So know that every review you read that reveals any of the plot specifics was written by an unscrupulous poopy butt who should probably check themselves, because in the eyes of decent society they have most certainly wrecked themselves.

If you aren’t already familiar with the name “Frictional Games”, then you are almost certainly familiar with their star title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Seeking to break the trend of action horror that titles like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space had made standard, Amnesia created a staggering following for a new kind of often imitated horror. It revolutionized horror gaming, and lifted the studio into horror sainthood. Fan of the title or not, it would take almost an intentional level of ironic disdain to harbor genuine dislike for Amnesia. As someone who does not enjoy Amnesia style “hide-and-seek” simulators (and even more abhors the legions of jump scare clones), I still respect the expertly crafted narrative, world, and vision.

SOMA_maintenance

After contracting a pseudo sequel to The Chinese Room, people have been waiting with equal parts anticipation and apprehension for what Frictional would deliver next. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs received mixed reviews. It failed to innovate on the original title, and though the unique setting offered a lot to the narrative, it still fell short in a lot of fans’ eyes to the expectations they had for a follow up to one of the most influential indie horror games of all time. People often forget the clunky yet endearingly innovative Penumbra series, so understandably most fans question if lightning will strike twice with the long awaited SOMA.

Mechanically, very little sets SOMA apart from its contemporaries. Taking place in the underwater complex of Pathos-II, levels are split between cramped interior item hunts and sprawling underwater traversal. The juxtaposition between the two varies the tone, switching the pace up even more than the typical safe zone vs monster zone dynamic. Gameplay consists entirely of searching for key objects while avoiding the occasional monster, with puzzles providing just enough of a brain stretch to keep you engaged. It is a basic formula, simple enough that anyone familiar with these kinds of games shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out what to do. I only got stuck once, and it was when I missed a key object on the desk behind me.

SOMA_base

While it all works, there’s nothing new here gameplay wise. You still have to avert your gaze and cower in a corner to avoid the malicious machines of Pathos-II, but gone are hiding spots like cabinets or dressers. It is a streamlined version of the formula, where accidentally tripping over an unavoidable bucket won’t alert every eldritch horror within the base of your exact coordinates. The basics stealth rules still apply, requiring you to stick to the shadows and weigh the risk and reward of making noise for extra speed. The unique addition to SOMA is that enemies are varied, and not all have access to all of their senses. Blind, deaf, and even ploddingly slow foes will serve as roadblocks, giving incentive to a bit of trial and error experimentation. The most interesting of these foes was a walking ball of light that detected you when you looked at it, requiring some creative camera gymnastics to get by. The game still falls victim to the bullshit “monster just won’t leave the doorway” design, but it functions well enough to provide the experience fans want.

With the legions of mindless carbon copies out there, it can be easy to forget that these games can have a story. While most titles treat the story as a vehicle for the protagonist to be forced to sneak through a house of horrors, SOMA goes the opposite direction. Without the narrative, SOMA would not exist. Every piece of the title is intricately woven and tied back into the central plot. It doesn’t feel like a hand waved plot device has flipped all the robots’ switches to murder mode, and it winds up being a hell of a lot more compelling than “some virus made people go bonkers.”

While I cannot talk about the specifics of the plot, the game asks the general question of what it means to be alive. This goes beyond the typical “right to die” debate of the terminally ill (though that is a huge factor) and into the realm of what it means to be yourself. Salvation in SOMA is a bleak and abstract prospect, requiring enough sacrifice that to many it might not seem worth it. As far as I can tell, there is only one ending, which serves as both the “good” and “bad” ending. There are several branching choices you make along the way, which affect how you experience the world. You won’t get a different ending or renegade points for killing a hapless robot, but it will influence how you as a player feel.

Soma_Ocean

It all comes together in an incredibly thought provoking and accessible package. There are a few head scratch moments, and it is saddening to see the various forum posts from irate fans who “didn’t get it.” It is a complex story, but not an impenetrable one. The narrative burden is significantly lightened by the addition of a companion character, who for much of the game serves to propose questions/answers about the narrative themes. Spend some time in the world, and it should be apparent what is going on. Even if you fail to grasp the various motivations of the characters or the nature of the WAU, you should be able to figure it out well enough to make the choices the game asks of you.

It is unfortunate that SOMA didn’t innovate more. As it stands, it is a near perfect example of the popular stealth-horror genre. It goes above and beyond in setting and story, crafting an unforgettably haunting experience. Gameplay wise, it’s just nothing new. It is a bit unreasonable to expect everything that Frictional does to revolutionize the genre, but Amnesia shook the horror gaming landscape. Five years later, the genre deserves another grand evolution. Many of us were looking at Frictional to deliver that. SOMA is a near perfect horror game that any fan of the genre should buy without hesitation. What it isn’t is the next Amnesia

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Ted Hentschke

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