Frictional Games, the Swedish studio behind the Penumbra and Amnesia series, have been busy working on a new title lately, called SOMA. So far they've only shown some cryptic teaser videos publicly, but at gamescom we were fortunate to get a private preview of a version that falls somewhere between alpha and beta with Creative Director Thomas Grip.
In SOMA, players control Simon, who wakes up in an underwater facility. It looks a bit like a space station that is falling apart and being overgrown by some kind of combined organical/mechanical matter. The graphics are breathtakingly beautiful and very realistic, creating a dreamlike, somewhat eerie atmosphere that invites the player to explore – cautiously.
Simon doesn't have amnesia, but he doesn't understand why he's there either. By exploring the environment, you’ll slowly unravel details about what is going on, though in a slightly different way than gamers are used to. Frictional thinks that the whole idea of learning backstory solely through diary entries or audio logs is becoming a bit boring and hard to believe, so in the world of SOMA, characters have implants in their brains that upon death automatically record everything for ten seconds. This is where Simon gets most of his information: by accessing these so-called 'placements' in the dead bodies he discovers. The insights provided are limited by their short duration, however, as the developers want players to feel like they are playing the story rather than merely learning about stuff that happened some time ago. Why not let players experience firsthand what they might otherwise only read or hear about?
Don’t expect any narrative hand-holding or clear answers, as SOMA is a philosophically-themed game about consciousness. The developers were inspired by the way different individuals process the same information differently. Two people in the same room, smelling the same smells, hearing the same sounds, and seeing the same objects will experience the room in different ways, and you can never be sure what someone else is thinking, even when confronted with the same information as you. Multiply that exponentially under unusual circumstances, where reality begins to blend into nightmare. It’s unclear as yet exactly how this focus on individual human consciousness will play out, but one thing is certainly clear: SOMA aims to make you think.
Simon is constantly surrounded by the sounds of the facility, groaning and creaking under the pressure from the water, which creates both the uneasy feeling of being watched (you can never be sure if that noise around the corner comes from a couple of iron beams grating against each other or a person) and an imminent sense of danger of something giving way and the station being flooded. In some areas, the world is beautiful with little fish, turtles and crabs (sparsely) populating the ocean floor. Refracted, filtered light adds to the dreamlike atmosphere. But other areas are downright scary, and you must be constantly on your toes about whether a given location is really safe to enter. Fortunately, Simon is not alone, as there are robot-like creatures that can help him open doors. These have their own AI and are usually harmless or friendly, but they are also capable of turning against Simon by refusing to do anything for him or even attack him. There's also Cath, who for much of the game will just be someone you hear on your intercom and can help you in the background, though you will meet her in person at some point.
In order to proceed, you must solve puzzles required to fix machines, open doors, call a marine zeppelin and the like. As with Amnesia, many objects can be picked up and thrown away for no other reason than to make the world more tangible and believable. If you don’t have an immediate need for an object to overcome an obstacle, you can't put it in an inventory, as there isn’t one here.
As we’ve come to expect from Frictional, SOMA is definitely not a traditional point-and-click, as this free-roaming, keyboard (or gamepad)-controlled 3D adventure also contains some monsters. Since you can't fight them, the only way to deal with them is to avoid them. There are flashes of static and light when a monster is near, so you have time to hide or run to another corridor. As long as it doesn’t see you, it won't follow. Should it catch you, however, it's not simply game over, nor will you need to restart the level. Instead, the path you were taking through this mostly non-linear game will narrow, with certain previously accessible areas now closed off. However, it may also involve other areas that were previously inaccessible opening up, giving players incentive to replay the game, though the developers are still tweaking this feature to find the right balance. Along with increasing tension, capture is meant to be a penalty for not being careful enough and will hinder your intended progress a bit, but not make it impossible to continue.
Although the demo consisted of only a few short glimpses of a handful of environments (Thomas took great care not to spoil anything of the story or puzzles), I was intrigued by what I saw, and am looking forward to exploring more of this beautiful but dangerous world and the way consciousness fits into it all.
SOMA should be out sometime halfway through 2015 on PC and PS4.