By Kyle Holmer. This is LOAD FILE where we will freely admit, we can’t always tell the difference between man and machine. The week, Kyle takes the 20,000 league plunge in ‘Soma’, developed and published by Frictional Games for the Playstation 4 and PC.
If it wasn’t obvious from my review of Until Dawn, I can be a real sucker for a good horror game. My love of the genre started early; I spent a good portion of my childhood religiously playing the first Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, endlessly enamored with the feeling of unease that those games evoked. After some time, however, that fervor turned to distaste and eventually I, along with most other gamers, left the genre behind. The majority of horror releases in the mid aughts were just repackaged versions of older games and aside from a few rare exceptions like Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space, I had mostly checked out.
And then in 2010, Amnesia: The Dark Descent came out, and for the first time in very very long time gamers all over the world were given a game that was so pants-shittingly terrifying that there was finally a reason to care about the genre again. The developers at Frictional Games are masters of horror; their knowledge of the genre allowed them to craft a product that was so unbelievably frightening that finishing Amnesia became a rite of passage within many gaming circles.
Flash forward to 2015, and Frictional has finally released their follow up: Soma. The developers have taken all of the best elements of Amnesia and injected them into a near future science fiction story set at the bottom of the ocean. Although the setting and mythology have changed, with Soma, Frictional has proven once again that they know exactly what they’re doing.
LIKE ‘BIOSHOCK’ WITHOUT THE AYN RAND
The game opens in the present day with the revelation that the protagonist, Simon Jarrett, is suffering from an ongoing brain hemorrhage as a result of a recent car accident. With all available doctors telling him that the injury will likely lead to his death, he seeks out some alternate forms of medication; namely meeting a medical student in the back of an abandoned office space to have his brain scanned. Simon then suddenly awakes in an underwater research facility that’s mysteriously populated with decrepit robots who are convinced they’re human beings. As is the case with most horror games, the player will then slowly uncover how Simon ended up there and the exact nature of this research facility, but explaining anything beyond the initial premise would likely spoil the experience.
As interesting as the the story is, it still hits the familiar beats of the genre: throwing a main character into an unexpected and dangerous environment and tasking the player with getting them through to the other side. Soma manages to stand apart from other horror games by regularly providing moments of introspection. Over the course of the game, the player is confronted with some pretty lofty questions regarding the relationship between human and machine and the nature of empathy, without ever overtly forcing the player to engage in these philosophical exercises. These ideas are organically presented through the narrative, by way of natural progression, without ever feeling out of place or heavy handed. Much like many other great science fiction stories, Soma can be regularly surprising, not just in the narrative’s unexpected twists, but also in that it asks the player to mentally engage with the story.
WITH ALL THESE ROBOTS AROUND, THIS PLACE SHOULDN’T BE SO DAMN FILTHY
The gameplay is remarkably similar to Amnesia with its inclusion of technological devices appropriate for a science fiction setting. The player will traverse this underwater facility, moving from station to station as the narrative requires (occasionally walking the actual ocean floor), with the occasional break for some light puzzle solving, conversation moments, and (the most frequent of the three) avoiding terrifying corrupted robots. The story eventually explains the nature of both the aggressive and docile robots, but the player has limited ways in which they can engage with them. At various points while exploring the research station, monstrous robots will appear and the player will have to take every step to avoid them, as there is no direct way to attack. There are a handful of different “aggressors”, all of which require a different strategy of avoidance, which does a lot to break up the pace of the game. One of the more ingenious types requires that the player never make eye contact with them, so you’ll have to attempt to maneuver around while staring at the floor or ceiling.
What Soma lacks in mechanical complexity it more than makes up for in mood. As we’re dealing with the developers of Amnesia, the lighting and sound presentation is some of the best in the medium. The player is limited to simple object interaction and basic movement (with the ability to peek around corners, although that’s largely unnecessary), but the sheer sense of terror Soma is able to evoke through its settings is astounding. There haven’t been too many science fiction horror games, but Soma not only succeeds at telling a compelling science fiction story, it’s legitimately one of the most terrifying games I’ve played since Amnesia.
‘SOMA’ OR: URINATE AND HIDE SIMULATOR 2015
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since The Dark Descent was released. Time has seemingly done nothing to diminish its importance, as it still manages to cultivate such a strong and passionate conversation. And yet despite that impact, in the time since its release, we’ve only been given a handful of truly effective horror games. There’s been a recent renaissance in the horror genre, sure, but there still hasn’t been a single product that can come close to competing with Amnesia. With Soma, Frictional has finally returned to the plate and given us its first worthy successor. While it doesn’t consistently hit the same heights as Amnesia, Soma definitively proves that Frictional are at the top of their game, and most importantly, that there really isn’t anything better than a damn good horror game.