Everyone loves a good horror game, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent found its way into setting the yardstick for trouser-soiling terror in recent years with its blend of running from monsters, solving puzzles and grappling with psychological questions. Before Amnesia, Frictional Games made their name with Penumbra, which followed similar lines.
Is it a surprise, then, that their latest game follows the same design ethos? Probably not. But they’re a studio that really seems as concerned with exploring complex philosophical themes as they are with writing games about running and hiding from seven-foot tall shrieking raisins with legs. Although you’ll be doing that as well.
A brief primer, then, for those of you who (like me) are new to the world of Friction Games’ horror titles: You’re not armed, so there’s no fighting back against the enemies you’ll face. There are long exposition sections where you’ll unravel the mystery around you without having to worry about terrifying gribblies at all (but until you work out the metanarrative ‘beats’ that the writers use, you’ll still expect a monster to jump out at you all the time anyway). There are puzzles to solve, some barely signposted and others more obvious, and if you let it, the game will have you asking some fundamental questions about what it is to be human.
Robot characters make up much of the storytelling, and it’s hard to really go into detail about the setting and feel of the game without ruining some important aspect of the story. Suffice to say, when our dear Felix passed me this review copy it was with the strict instructions to not read anything about the game before playing it – sound advice I would heartily pass on to anyone thinking about picking it up. Which is a shame, as I have to now try to review it. Suffice to say, without ruining it too much, there’s a ‘Bioshock meets Alien Isolation’ feel to the thing. The Bioshock connection appears in philosophical questioning as much as setting, and Alien Isolation manifests not just in constantly running from un-killable foes but also in the sense of futility that is sort of the point.
Including a Phillip K. Dick quote at the very start of your game is pretty brash, and really says a lot about where you think you’re going. In the case of SOMA, though, it’s extremely fitting. PKD was interested in what makes a person a person, and how much you can take away while still maintaining the essence of humanity, and SOMA takes that basic question and actually explores it, not just uses it as a loose crutch to hang a game on.
You have to hand it to them. They’re interested in digging in to their philosophical subject matter. But the horror elements, the monsters that show up from time to time to punch you a bit and then disappear… well, they felt a little forced, if I’m honest. As if making horror games is what they do, and if there were no monsters, it wouldn’t be ‘a game’. This reminded me a lot of Bioshock. As I mentioned in my Bioshock 2 review all those years ago, sometimes it feels like the game gets in the way of the narrative, and nowhere is this as true as SOMA. Just as the story is getting interesting, just as you’re agog to learn more, there’s a 20-minute long sequence of dodging around an infirmary, slowly creeping from room to room and hiding by the wheelie-bins while a giant death mutant looks for you. All to open the door to the elevator.
I mean, I get it. Without the beasts the game would feel safe and the looming threat of death would be removed. And when you’re running for the exit, and you know that a monster is literally right behind you, and you can hear your character’s heart beating and the screen is fracturing electronically to signify the proximity of imminent death… well, it gets the blood pumping. But when it takes you ten minutes to progress a couple of rooms, it can feel a little tedious and unnecessary. Still, the puzzles are clever and satisfying to solve, as I believe they were in Amnesia as well if Seebaruk’s Amnesia review is anything to go by.
It really is incredibly difficult to really discuss SOMA’s defining ideas without ruining the game. That’s why I’ve used the first word of each of the first six paragraphs of this review to hide a spoiler. [You have been warned. Also, minor spoilers inbound from here]. It’s the times when this plot device are really brought home – times like the one where you need to switch off a person’s life support in order to progress, but it’s okay because they’re comatose anyway and your progress is more important. Times like when you fool a person into thinking he’s talking to an old friend, only to get what you want out of his mind and then cast him into oblivion… it’s these times when the true horror of SOMA comes to life. Not the lumpy bogeymen who chase you around the map, not the faulty lights that flash on and off. The moments when you question your own humanity. When you take the only path open to you, the path of inhumanity, and justify it to yourself. Perhaps the ultimate moment of horror comes when my spoiler is first visually confirmed, in a nondescript bathroom. No monsters around, no jump scares, not even a surprise, if truth be told. Just coldness and the despair of loss.
They’re good at telling stories, these Frictional guys. They’re good at building tension, and at using audio cues to stimulate fear. But in the end, I was put off by the inconvenient monsters. When fear is replaced by impatience, something is lost. This is something that Alien Isolation had very occasionally, and that completely ruined the 1999 PC game Aliens vs. Predator. When the monsters become a nuisance, and you’re more worried about them for holding up your progress into the main plot than really terrifying you, it’s hard to stay really scared.
We also put together a SOMA graphics analysis video for each graphics option. So take a look to see how it might run for you.