Face the horrors hidden in the depths of sea and mind in SOMA, the latest sci-fi horror title from Frictional Games. With Amnesia, Penumbra, and 5 years in the making backing it up, what can we expect in their most story-driven game yet?
Food is scarce, there’s no one to ask for help, and no way to call outside. Trapped inside PATHOS-II, you have no choice but to explore every isolated corner of the underwater facility, looking for a way (and reason) to keep living.
You are not alone, though; the place is inhabited by robots trying to prove themselves humans, and creatures no longer resembling one. Difficult choices await you, and every single one has immediate and everlasting consequences; your role fluctuates between that of explorer and executioner – for many times you’ll be asked to end a life to progress the game.
“…ok? And how do I play Bleakness Simulator?”
The drama ends here, promise. In SOMA, you put the helmet of a fist-person viewer – which describes about well the extent of your abilities: you have no attacking options, so encounters with the twisted beasts that reside PATHOS-II put your life in the hands of your stealth and puzzle solving skills.
Solving puzzles is how you’ll reach deeper areas of the facility, and this is when the choice factor kicks in – decisions like unplugging people from the machines keeping them alive because you need the electricity are commonplace, and questions like “Is it worth it” or “Is that really someone?” dwell in your head well after making your call.
Contrary to Amnesia, this time Frictional tried a less intrusive and more consistent approach. Puzzles are well cemented in the game’s narrative, and while the dialogue… let’s say goes as far to the teenage angst corner as asking “Are we really alive?” out loud (and with the respective voice acting), the game is mostly long speech-free, and the few written dialogues are optional.
Even then, Frictional thinks of SOMA as their “most story-heavy game”, and is proud that “a major part of the story comes from simply playing the game”. Some written records regarding the game’s lore are found in their website, as display of their resolve to keep exposition at bait.
Setting up the brood
SOMA’s atmosphere is extremely dark and unsettling. You traverse the big laboratories and corridors of PATHOS-II, as well as the bridges and roof-less rooms of its once populated, now submerged ruins. Light sources are few, and there’s a sort of flesh-like substance covering some segments.
The sound department deserves special recognition: SOMA’s sound director talks about the mutiple experiments that led to the final soundtrack, and about the unorthodox, yet effective ways of bringing a horror experience set in an underwater complex to “breathe and life”.
Different techniques were used for two styles of setting (the underwater and non-underwater segments), and many tricks were borrowed from classic horror film directors. Recordings of footsteps were done in different-sized locations to emulate variations of size of in-game rooms, and “hydrophones” along contact microphones were used to get the underwater sounds right.
These complicated recording sessions (and the equally complicated audio processing ones that followed) paid off for the sound team which, going for a serious reality grounded experience, is “extremely happy with the end result”, made up of over 18000 SFX (yes, not voice-overs or music, just near 20k sound effects).
SOMA makes you doubt yourself and the things around you. Would a human do what you need to advance? Isn’t killing other beings for your own good what humans have done since always? The game is more than happy to drop these and more questions on us.
What Frictional Games went for deserves more mention. Not only are they trying to revive a genre flooded with jump-scares, instead opting for questioning the player and evoking conscious, rather than just visceral responses; but they did their homework in film history and bothered to replicate old techniques for the sake of realism and immersion. If there is one often overlooked but astoundingly relevant factor in horror, it’s the sound.
All we are left with is an excellent horror game… and the possibility of it going even farther if the playerbase is interested enough. The devs released the engines from their previous games and actually incentive players to try and mod the game; if they will do the same with SOMA we have yet to see, but it won’t be because of lack of enthusiasm from fans.