It's been five years since the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and a lot has changed
in the games industry since. The indie horror game grew to be a mainstream hit, and was
arguably the first of many scary YouTuber-reaction games that would soon follow. Since then,
the market has been saturated by hundreds of first-person horror games chasing its success,
with few achieving the same exposure. We've seen Slender Men, video tours through psychiatric
hospitals, and even close encounters with Ridley Scott's perfect organism. Now, more
than half a decade later, we get SOMA.
SOMA is a first-person survival horror game developed by Frictional Games, the fine folks
who brought you the Penumbra series and the aforementioned Amnesia, the latter of which
made a lot of money and allowed Frictional to vastly increase the scale and production
value of their latest project. Like it's predecessors, SOMA is sprinkled with objects to throw around,
audio diaries, environmental storytelling, and some seriously messed up enemies from
whom your only defense is to run and hide rather than fight back... but that's kind
of where the similarities end.
The game trades the gothic Brennenburg castle for PATHOS-2, a derelict research station
at the bottom of the Atlantic, and swaps cosmic Lovecraftian horror for crushing existential
dread, channeling inspiration from such authors as Philip K. Dick. It attempts to merge the
better aspects of its predecessors with new mechanics of its own and a radically different
And while the story and presentation made for one of the most haunting gaming experiences
I've had in some time, it felt bogged down by the survival-horror tropes carried over
from previous Frictional titles. On their own they aren't all bad, but the all-too-familiar
experience of running and hiding from invincible, horribly disfigured enemies isn't as compatible
with the narrative as you might imagine.
After a brief prologue, you awaken in the darkened innards of Upsilon A, one of the
handful of stations that comprise PATHOS-2, most of which act as self-contained hub worlds
with a number of non-linear objectives to be completed before moving on to the next
station. Designing environments that invoke fear and tension is par-for-the-course for
Frictional, and the mix of sights and sounds form a rich atmosphere that is equal parts
beautiful and eerie. The sound design is particularly fantastic - which shouldn't come as a surprise.
The pleasing clicks and tones make machines and puzzles feel wonderfully tactile, while
screechy, ugly sounds help punctuate the game's most uncomfortable moments. Meanwhile, the
moody lighting and short draw-distance of the ocean invoke vulnerability in a way that
fits naturally with the environment, while the utilitarian interiors of the stations
are claustrophobic by design.
And contained within those narrow, decrepit halls of PATHOS-2 is a visceral existential
nightmare that touches on the darkest corners of the human condition, exposing the most
terrifying aspects of consciousness, identity, and mortality, all without feeling pretentious
or bloated. The game touches on a lot of different ideas, but never bites off more than it can
chew, thanks to some smart presentation and the use human consciousness as a central theme
that keeps the story focused. More often than not, the game chooses to convey its ideas
through show rather than tell, presenting players morally grey choices, poignant micro-narratives,
and environmental-storytelling in spades. I found myself obsessively searching every
nook and cranny of the facility, immersing my own mind deep within the game's introspective
themes. Themes that keep you up at night pondering disturbing metaphysical questions about what
it means to be human. ARE we actually conscious, self-aware beings or are we simply wired to
feel as though we are? Does such a distinction even exist? It's smart stuff, and it's difficult
to describe in greater detail without spoiling portions of the plot. The narrative is designed
to scare you, but it's also designed to make you think.
Unfortunately, this is also where I feel SOMA's writing conflicts with its gameplay, and by
extension the medium of its message. The monster encounters that have become a staple of Frictional's
works aren't necessarily bad here, I just felt I had already been there, done that.
They feel like a token-inclusion rather than an essential part of the overall experience.
Don't get me wrong, being trapped in the same room as some of these creatures is still a
very frightening experience, but being caught felt more like an annoyance than a horrific
moment... and that's a shame, because you can tell the team made a real effort to make
these encounters feel fresh and memorable. The physical appearance and mannerisms of
each monster are intimidating -- I especially like how low their draw-distance is, often
rendering them tall, ominous silhouettes down dimly hallways, leaving only their tortured
sounds and your own imagination to fill in the gaps. Additionally, many of them have
unique abilities that attempt to subvert your expectations, and some of them do this quite
well. But at the end of the day, the mechanics behind most of these encounters remain woefully
transparent: move slowly, stay quiet, throw objects as distractions, and run away if they
spot you, preferably putting as many doors between them and yourself as you can while
you flee. If you've ever played a Frictional game before, you already know exactly what
you're getting into.
The mechanics of these confrontations have also changed from previous games. Most enemies
don't actually kill you in one hit: they knock you unconscious for a few moments, leaving
you stumbling around with blurry, color-separated vision, offering you a second chance to hide
and heal before getting a game over. I assume this was implemented to avoid frustrating
players, but ultimately I felt it made getting struck even more of a nuisance, as the onscreen
effects are far more disorienting than they need to be, particularly
the color-shifting. I understand the effects are significant to the story, but they impeded
my enjoyment of the game so much that I eventually turned them off for good. Despite the lengths
made to improve them, monster encounters only make up a small portion of the overall game.
They occur sparingly -- presumably to prevent them from becoming monotonous... but personally
this only made me perceive them as an interruption to the story, serving to halt the pacing of
the narrative rather than compliment it. Each type of monster generally only appears a few
times before being swept away to make room for the next. Their connection to the game's
story is interesting and no-doubt disturbing, but overall I felt their effect was overshadowed
by that of the narrative.
Even the physics engine feels more downplayed than in previous titles, and many of the systems
that were an integral part of the tension in previous games are absent altogether. The
puzzles are unique and do a better job cooperating with the narrative, but given this is a futuristic
research center, there's a lot more pressing buttons and clicking on computer screens than
lever-pulling. There are no box staircases to construct or wardrobes to hide in -- which
is also strange, because there are metal storage lockers all over the station. There's no reason
why these couldn't have been enlarged and used as places for the player to hide, or
why some tables and cabinets couldn't have been used to block doorways. Giving the player
as many or more options as they had in previous games would probably make the gameplay a little
more interesting. One thing Amnesia did very well was use it's cumbersome wooden doors
and slow-turning valves to instill panic and desperation in the player; few experiences
are as scary as knowing a grunt is right on your tail, and realizing the door you're trying
to go through opens a different direction than what you expect, or is blocked by debris.
It's an experience I felt repeatedly while playing Amnesia, but rarely if ever encountered
during my time with SOMA, where opening a door is almost always a simple button-press
away. Here the physics engine feels more like an occasional mode of interaction rather than
an integral part of the game.
Strangely enough - much like it's characters - SOMA can sometimes feel as if it's having
an identity crisis of its own. It presents intelligent, slow-burning philosophical ideas
that feel at odds with run-of-the-mill survival-horror gameplay. At the same time, I realize that
a lot of the game's mainstream appeal comes from being a survival-horror game and incorporating
elements that popularized Penumbra and Amnesia. A strong case could be made for the game to
have been more like a traditional adventure game with the monster encounters stripped
out altogether, but I also understand that this could turn away many potential players,
particularly let's-players and streamers looking for exciting "scary-game" material, which
translates into more exposure, and more players who are likely to take the plunge and experience
the game for themselves. To this end, perhaps it's best that Frictional stuck to what they
knew and made SOMA into the survival-horror game it is; the story and themes are some
of the most interesting and evocative I've experienced in a game, and I'm glad it's
receiving the attention it deserves. I'm also glad there's a live-action miniseries based
on the game being released, as it will be interesting to see how the story and themes
present in the game are conveyed through an alternate medium.
If anything I've said about the game's story interests you, I would recommend giving it
a shot, though if you're not already a fan of the genre, you should probably wait for
a price drop first. The themes and questions it explores are well worth experiencing on
your own, even if you have to run into a few boogeymen along the way. Subtlety and substance
are SOMA's best assets, and it's the writing - not the creatures - that will keep you up
at night well after your visit to PATHOS-2 is over.