Two hours into SOMA, I could not get rid of a nagging voice in the back of my head that I’d seen all of this before. The darkened metallic hallways full of blood stains and flickering lights of Alien and Dead Space, the suffocating underwater setting and crazed denizens of BioShock, the renegade AI of just about every science fiction movie ever. It was good, but I hadn’t really been scared yet, the story hadn’t taken off, and everything felt very familiar. I was a little worried.
Why? Well, SOMA is the first game in five years from Frictional Games, who previously released Amnesia: The Dark Descent, arguably the scariest game ever made. My own review of the game called it “nightmarishly, unrelentingly scary.” It popularized the idea – such that it’s now commonplace in the horror genre – of the defenseless player, stripping all combat from the game and leaving players deeply vulnerable. I was excited to see how SOMA planned to one-up the scares of its spiritual predecessor. After two hours, the tentative answer was that it didn’t.
Now that I’ve finished the game, surprisingly the answer is that it never does. But now I know that it was never determined to. There are certainly terrifying moments in SOMA that recall the frantic, heart-racing hide-and-seek sequences of Amnesia, but there are also long stretches of near-calm where different kinds of fear set in: fear of slow death in a hopeless situation, alone at the bottom of the ocean; fear of navigating impossible ethical conundrums; fear of being forced to define where your consciousness ends and your soul begins.
In other words, SOMA sails in headier waters than Amnesia and its razor sharp but ultimately shallow haunted house scares. First and foremost, there is a story to tell here, and it is a horror game only because the story being told goes to dark places. This is not Amnesia 3 (assuming you count The Chinese Room’s spin-off A Machine for Pigs). It is a more ambitious game – and incredibly, a more successful one. SOMA may owe a huge debt to its predecessor, but it is very much its own triumph of storytelling and immersion.
You play as Simon Jarrett, who wakes up in a futuristic facility of some sort with no clue as to how he got there. This isn’t a case of – ahem – amnesia, since Simon knows who he is, but he doesn’t know where he is or why he’s there. You’ll soon discover that he is miles underwater in the Pathos-II research outpost, and as one might expect, something has gone horribly wrong. Everyone seems to be dead or missing, and the halls are full of gruesome corpses, insane robots, and a strangely bulbous, almost organic mechanical overgrowth.
Something horrible has happened on the surface as well, and it is very possible that the people on Pathos-II may be the only remaining humans alive – if, indeed, the voices and distant figures you have been hearing and seeing are human. Of course, not everything is roses and sunshine inside Pathos-II, and it is up to you to survive, discover just how screwed you are, and try to protect the last few humans from total extinction – at least, if doing so turns out to be the right thing to do.
What follows is a narrative that slowly unpeels the layers of the situation, each more quietly horrifying than the next. What at first seems like just another decent entry in a long line of dark, abandoned “space-station” horror games carves out a strong identity for itself. This is a story that is less interested in monsters and villains than in the ethical and philosophical questions that great sci-fi can illuminate: what makes us human? Our body? Our mind? Is it better to live in blissful ignorance or miserable understanding? The greatness of SOMA is apparent in the ways that these questions seep into the gameplay rather than simply occupying cutscenes (of which there are none in the game). You are not just told the themes, you embody them. Crucially, you see everything Simon sees in real-time from the moment the game begins to the moment it ends, some nine or ten hours later. His discoveries are your discoveries, his actions are your actions, and his choices are yours too.
The game is played entirely in first-person using standard WASD and mouse controls (though gamepad support is also quite good). As in Frictional’s previous games, there is a focus on the physicality of the world. You don’t just hit a button to grab items off of a desk, you hold down a button to grab the handle of a drawer and move the mouse/thumbstick to pull the drawer open, peeking inside for notes or other inventory items. You don’t just hit a button to open a door, you have to struggle to turn a rusted valve to equalize pressure, then pull down a T-bar switch to deactivate the locks, and finally grab the door handle and drag it open. Everything that isn’t nailed down can be picked up, rotated, or thrown and pushed around, from coffee cups on a desk to severed limbs. Active computers can be used to pull up emails, maps, and other utilities, some of which are necessary for progression and some of which serve to fill out the narrative or simply add atmosphere.
The general flow of SOMA is as such: reach a new part of Pathos-II, receive an objective from Catherine (one of the survivors and your primary contact via intercom) such as retrieving parts to repair a vehicle, and explore that particular station’s dark corridors, watching out for the homicidal machine creatures that roam the halls. You aren’t always in danger – in fact, there is a surprising amount of downtime when there are no immediate threats, and while the game is not void of jump scares it rarely springs enemies on you without warning. Usually the game signals danger by letting you see an enemy in the distance first, or hear them a few rooms over. Your vision also starts to distort (similar to the insanity effects in Amnesia) when enemies are near, letting you know that you need to watch your step.Continued on the next page...