Horror is built on expectation. The thought that there is something dark and terrible could be lurking in the shadows is much more effective than actually seeing the monster.
Frictional Games’ infamous breakthrough hit, Amnesia: The Dark Descentstruggled a bit with this game with unseen expectations. Amnesia is still one of the scariest games in recent history, even five years later. But like any video game, the developers had to put the players in control: people who could move at their own pace, reload as many times as they wanted, and Amnesia polygonal stalkers from the shadows and into the light. The presumption of what could be gave way to the knowledge of what was.
Soma is also built on expectation. In particular, it defies assumptions about the kinds of stories horror games usually tell. It even defies Frictional’s own marketing as a strict sequel to The dark descentalthough the two have a lot in common. Soma is much more than just another horror game, but not in the way you might think.
Blood splatter and waterproof
Set in a submarine base 90 years in the future, Soma actually cuts a silhouette closer to Frictional’s earlier horror series, Part shadethan its gothic cousin Amnesia. Movies like The abyss, the thingand Alien they all come to mind as possible influences as protagonist Simon Jarrett is stranded, isolated and locked away with god-knows-what kind of horrors. Mechanical, biological or philosophical – take your pick, as they all rear their terrible heads during the 10 or so hours it takes to reach the end of the nightmare.
The “God knows what” component is important in more ways than one. As expected, this game is very, very dark. Tonally, yes, but also “I wish I had adjusted the gamma level when they told me it should be” dark. The dim lighting does a great job of hiding the not so great looking character models. But even if that weren’t the case, the monsters up close are still a more menacing sight than the crazed duck men who Amnesia. Obviously, there was criticism of that game’s box art.
The shadows also obscure other things, for example most of the identifying markings that would otherwise help you navigate the blood-streaked bulkheads of Somas underwater location. If your only method of dealing with alarmed enemies is to run and hide, getting into a dead end is a common nuisance.
In most other games, this tendency to run into walls can be frustrating. In Soma, however, it more often serves to increase tension. Besides, the death penalty isn’t really that punishing, meaning the twisted, twisting corridors are more likely to get worse during storylines than gory moments. Tracking down important items, crew logs, or even just the means to open the next airlock can be a chore in the circuitous hallways.
A more existential form of fear
It turns out you’re not the only one with 20,000 miles behind. Your business doesn’t just include the kind that kills, either. In another major departure from Amnesia, there’s quite a lot of dialogue this time. Jarrett has his trusty companion, a wearable AI based on one of the site’s former researchers, to trade accounts of how things got so dire. The story begins with a self-aware, all-consuming machine and goes far beyond traditional campfire stories.
Soma does a great job of using this story and the banter of the two characters to ease the tension between the more deadly encounters. Compare this with other games, Amnesia included, where mouth drying stress pervades every moment. It makes Soma an “easier” game to get through by lowering the “fraidy cats” barrier to entry. However, it is too improves also the stress of the game’s monstrous hide-and-seek, as you’re never quite sure where and when it’s safe. Again, expectations are key.
Soma presents one of the more thoughtful horror plots to come out of the Silent Hill city limits. A sentient machine cancer and his gang of delusional robots provide great fuel for nightmares, but excuses to scare the player are just the beginning. Soma travels along so many avenues of speculative sci-fi it’s hard to keep track of them all. That might be the point, actually.
The game doesn’t pull you in with every new clue and revelation. Some are hidden in audio logs. Some can be found in notes between chests of drawers. Even now, I’m not sure I’ve found answers to all the questions and accompanying questions Somas mysteries. At times, the game seems to acknowledge your discoveries by adding or changing later dialogues to reflect them.
In these moments Soma addresses topics such as the continuity of the human mind, the necessity of the body and the role of technology in our future as a species. It’s intoxicating stuff, and the exploration these conversations spark is rewarding enough. Finding these thought-provoking moments in the middle of a waking nightmare only helps raise the stakes.
Not so scary the fifth time
Together, the story and atmosphere make for a nice, creepy adventure. But what about the big shocked? Unfortunately – and surprisingly, given the game’s pedigree – this is true Soma shows that it has not improved compared to old techniques. The game’s best scare – the things that get your heart racing and your teeth sharpened – are still when the monsters not have you found.
When she doing you find, as likely will happen, your options are limited. You can crawl behind something or run away. Neither method is guaranteed to work. More choices for evasion, such as Amnesia‘s cupboards and barred doors, would have maintained the illusion of danger. Instead, you will probably just get caught.
But what is the consequence? Death isn’t really a punishment here. The first time or two you get stuck in a section, just pick up where you last fell. Your vision will be a little blurry and there will be a little less spring in your step until you reach the next healing station, but otherwise you’re not much worse for the wear. If you succumb again, there’s a flash of nasty sights and sounds before a nearby checkpoint loads and you do it all over again.
After half a dozen cycles through these catch-and-release fears, Somas fresh new horrors join the ranks of Amnesia box art bozos. Frictional uses a few nifty tricks to keep the fear fresh, such as an enemy that damages you when you look at it. But these are ointments where surgery is needed. While it’s hard to fault Frictional for failing to solve a common problem in the horror game genre, after five years we’d have expected a bit more progress.
A further break from the terror, at least on the PC version, are frequent crashes, freezes, and stutters (especially for Nvidia users). If anything, these would be hard to swallow, but nothing kills hard-won anxiety like an unexpected reboot. In any case, Frictional is aware of the problems.
Fortunately, the story is less affected by these technological hiccups. And that story is easy Somas biggest, most surprising draw. The fear and exploration cycles also complement each other well, even if the former doesn’t reach the heights of the latter. It may not be the balance you expected.
- A fascinating sci-fi story with real depth
- Dark and eerie atmosphere
- Uncover greater mysteries through exploration
- A powerful sense of fear (as long as you don’t die)
- It’s easy to get lost among dimly lit bulkheads
- Repeated dying dispels fear
- Frequent bugs and crashes
The ugly one
- Accidentally on purpose kill the tragic creatures you find at the station
Verdict: Buy it if you can handle the constant fear behind some of the best speculative sci-fi in games right now.