This game. This fucking game. I should have known, from the moment I found out SOMA was developed by Frictional Games, playing this was going to be a rigorous trial for my nerves. Seriously, I partially blame you, Penumbra (Frictional’s début series), for me being so skittish in real life. I don’t like jump scares. In fact, I hate them with a passion that is almost holy in nature. I can go on at length about how jump scares don’t constitute as actually scaring somebody but nobody has the time to read an article about that, believe me.
Take SOMA, then, whose frenzied monsters sound like screeching, early 2000s dial-up internet and are big hulking robotic monstrosities hell bent on the mass murder of every human they come across, and you’ve officially got something to be startled by. Notice I said startled. *Startled*.
Post-startled rambling aside, SOMA is a science fiction survival horror game, made by the same company who brought you Amnesia: The Dark Descent with roughly five years of development time under its belt. It takes place in an underwater research facility known as PATHOS-2, where you play as the unfortunate protagonist Simon, a survivor of a horrific car accident who, after agreeing to take part in a neurological experiment, wakes up in this fresh hell with no clue how he got there. A somewhat cliché set up, but no less effective for it.
Prior to the game’s release, Thomas Grip of Frictional Games declared that the player would “encounter a number of strange creatures, each an embodiment of an aspect of our themes.” In short, these creatures – the facility’s machinery – have become anthropomorphic, taking on the characteristics of humans.
Despite the occasional jump scare, which may or may not be caused by the machinery I mentioned earlier (that pesky underwater environment does come with the occasional creak and groan), SOMA does utilise a few elements of psychological horror, focusing primarily on solving puzzles and exploring. As with it’s predecessors, the player will spend time in the game digging through various notes and audio tapes in order to build on atmosphere and uncover PATHOS-2’s secrets. Very little combat is involved, with SOMA forcing you to focus on using the environment to your advantage and stealthily trick your way past enemies.
A mix of Bioshock and Outlast, SOMA is engaging and thoughtful, with impressive writing and visuals. It’s nowhere near as scary as Amnesia was, but it still manages to provide a heavy atmosphere of dread, where even in the quiet parts of the game, absent of enemies, you can never truly find it in yourself to relax completely. The first enemy I encountered in SOMA ended up being truly memorable, though whether it was intended to be this way or was more of a result of my desperately ferreting around the small area I was stuck in, trying to claw my way up the walls and broken ladders to get out of harm’s way, I really couldn’t say.
Another thing I want to compliment Frictional Games on for SOMA is the pacing. The game never felt like it was building towards some kind of shocking climax, filled with exclamations of “I never saw that coming!”. It was a slow build, focusing on a very raw and powerful subject matter that forced you to think about the horrors occurring in PATHOS-2 and how they mirror some of the real issues in our society, primarily the use of euthanasia and creation of artificial intelligence.
While not necessarily scary in a deep, foreboding I’m-not-going-to-sleep-tonight sense, playing through this game was still an eerie, thought-provoking experience and well worth the time invested into it. SOMA’s highlights, rather than enemy encounters, ended up being the quieter moments where exploration and narrative took priority.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows under the sea with this new title, unfortunately. Some sore points in SOMA would have to include the cringe-worthy voice acting, the lack of any real direction in-game which can lead to getting lost at times (it’s freaking huge lab), and enemy AI becoming predictable after a while and thus losing effectiveness in its threat. Despite all this, the game is a solid, provocative instalment in Frictional Games’ horror library, and well worth playing through for it’s loaded subject matter that will really leave you thinking for the next few days.
What defines who we are and how we act? How can we be identical biologically but with no two people being exactly alike in nature and thought? Is it the unproven existence or concept of a soul? Our brain? Could the essence of who we are be transferred into an entity outside of our bodies and remain wholly intact, preserving who we are? What makes us human?
Thanks for the frayed nerves and existential crisis, SOMA.