Frictional Games is known for their survival horror adventure games Penumbra Collection or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But with psychological sci-fi horror SOMA they might just have created their magnum opus. A fitting end for our Halloween special gaming week.
(Sweden 2015, developer/publisher: Frictional Games, platforms: PC, PS4)
After a car crash, Simon Jarrett suffers severe brain damage and has to go under treatment, which leads to an experiment that soon transports him to another place and time where and when human and machine DNA fuse together to create frightening results.
Survival horror in the real world
A good adventure game doesn’t necessarily have to be full of inventory-based puzzles, and a survival horror game doesn’t have to involve frantic running to and fro with jumpscares. Even if their former titles all had these trademarks, SOMA is quite different, even if it shares the same DNA, i.e. to immerse the player in a world he or she is afraid to stay in, but fascinated to leave.
The reason why so many adventure games or survival horror titles fail is because they tell too much, try too much, relying more on exposition and less on exploration. SOMA tells just enough about the background story of its main protagonist as it’s necessary. The first 30 minutes or so show how Simon copes with his brain illness, being in the real world, talking on the phone, looking at people on a subway. But when he finally gets into an undersea world, a nightmarish vision of the future, things start to fall apart, while the expectations and preconceptions of the player are turned upside down.
Human relationships and identities
It’s not only the main character who is easy to relate to. The various staff members of the undersea facilities are just as memorable, even if it’s difficult to keep track of them all and they’re not as fully fleshed out as in other adventure games. What is also quite difficult is to find all the various recordings, logbooks or even objects (and dead people) the player can touch and which give him flashbacks of past events or conversations. But unlike the never ending and simply boring parts of texts in STASIS, these never outstay their welcome, while the additional voice acting definitely makes these discoveries livelier. Even if the game is quite linear in its story progression and puzzle solving, there are always optional rooms or areas to explore, which make the surroundings more attractive and realistic.
What is also quite realistic and touching is the interaction between Simon and Catherine who seems to be the only survivor and guides him through the various research facilities. Just like in the Bioshock games, a relationship is formed that delivers quite a few memorable lines later on in the game. The main topics of the game are human identity, computer A.I., life, death and self-awareness. While these have been touched upon in various movies like Blade Runner or in books from Asimov, games have usually shied away from them. Even a sci-fi adventure game like STASIS simply relied on the same old and often clichéd ideas of science vs. reason or humanitarian ideals.
Under the sea horrors and wonders
SOMA is quite unique in that it brings the subject matter of life and death, science and morality together in both a subtle manner (as in optional surveys about the science project one can fill in which function as moral indicators but don’t have an impact on the story outcome) or in a more emotional one. Moral ambiguity also becomes a concern in specific scenes when the player has to decide who dies or continues to live. Whereas in other games, this could easily have been a cheap way to evoke emotions, it works perfectly in the context of plot and character development. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that even the ending of the game is thought-provoking and satisfying, something that can’t be said about most adventure, survival horror or even former Frictional Games titles.
The writing is generally very good, the pacing is almost perfect, and the atmosphere is as gripping as the twists and turns the plot takes. Frictional Games already knew how to create tension and evoke fear in the player with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the atmosphere is very different here. First it seems as if something is lost in translation or rather deep under sea with enemy encounters only barely visible. However, walking through the ocean, through deep sea stations with often limited sight doesn’t make this any less frightening. People with claustrophobia definitely shouldn’t apply. There’s always a sense of wonder but also unsettling foreboding when entering a new area. Unfortunately, some locales look rather similar, and there are a few scenes, as when traveling in a ship, when one doesn’t see anything outside, begging the question if this was done due to hardware or engine limitations.
Creepy and scary experience
In a survival horror game, the question is always how subtle it is or if it relies on jumpscares. For the most part, SOMA does a very good job of playing with its audience’s fear of claustrophobia, of not knowing what’s behind the next corner. But it takes some time until it gets really terrifying, especially in the second half, with great setpieces. It’s also less about evading enemies than the Penumbra series or Amnesia: The Dark Descent were concerned with, featuring far fewer encounters. Unfortunately it’s here where the game also gets frustrating and falls back on cheap runaway tactics.
One thing that’s quite different is that enemies can suddenly come very close if they see the player for an elongated time. It’s reminiscent of Japanese horror, with skipping the distance and immediately attacking. Being touched is enough to be thrown back and also lose some part of sanity, i.e. the vision becomes blurry and walking more difficult, while running is almost out of the question. Fortunately, there are enough alien organisms the player can stick their hand into, serving as a health station. It’s maybe not the most original or logical idea, but at least it diminishes the frustration of constantly walking around with restricted sight.
Lost under the sea
There are quite a few scenes which prevent the game from being accessible to adventure gamers or non-gamers who don’t like unfair passages. Evading enemies is one thing, but losing one’s way on an underwater station or in the surrounding area, while being under pressure is quite another. Granted, this doesn’t happen very often, but the game could have done without these segments. It’s not a deal breaker and less of a problem than the enormous caverns and countless rooms in Amnesia, which also has to do with more signposts, clearly defined targets and easier puzzles. They might not be the most inventive ones, but they usually fit the world and story without ending up as contrived, e.g. carrying one cog or gear from one place to another just to start various machines, something that became quite a standard in the former titles.
Another interesting feature of the game is the omnitool, a device that enables the player to interact with consoles and doors, communicating with Catherine or giving access to formerly closed areas. The idea of upgrading it to reach them is interesting, but one shouldn’t expect an RPG, as the use of the tool is too linear. So anyone looking for an open world and interconnected locations might be disappointed, but at least backtracking is kept to a minimum. Loading times are also almost absent. Almost, because transitions from one scene or location to the next are smooth, even if covered up by some longer dialogues or blackness, but these usually belong to plot development and don’t annoy. More annoying are the very long loading times when one wants to continue or start a game in the first place.
What becomes more of a problem is walking around the environment without a map and sometimes no orientation, which is especially true for the outside sections. It’s annoying enough to move at a slow pace, but when nothing happens, one wishes that the developers would have made these walks shorter. There’s also a general lack of really distinguishable locations, especially in the first part of the game, with stations and underwater sections feeling almost identical. Fortunately, this changes, taking on an Alien H.R. Giger-esque turn, but also a more vivid representation of the dark abyss of undersea horror.
Seeing and hearing terrifying things
Aesthetically, the game does a good job of creating believable environments, although the graphics aren’t the best. Compared even to the old Bioshock, environment textures and character animations are disappointing (even on PC), although the latter part of the game partly makes up for it with more varied level design. However, the lighting effects are pretty good, while some of the underwater sections mirror the real counterpart perfectly. This is actually a game that could benefit from VR or Real 3D technology, considering that so many particles of the ocean floor float before the player’s eyes. It would of course also make the creepy atmosphere even more (unbearably) terrifying.
Speaking of terrifying, the sound design, as with so many Frictional Games titles, is great, adding with the right amount of silence, ambient music, distant and close noises like footsteps, screams or scraping against metal to the atmosphere. Special mention has to go to the voice acting which is so convincing and good, especially for an indie game, that it’s a joy to listen to every audio recording or characters one meets. Unlike a game like STASIS, the use of swear words or exaggerated emotions is kept to a minimum and only fits when appropriate.
That which bubbles in the dark is all scary and very good
Frictional Games’ SOMA is a perfect example of how to do survival horror, adventure game and mature storytelling right. Unlike a game like STASIS that only regurgitates the same old ideas and is too much influenced by well-known movies and games, this offers a thought-provoking, but never intrusive script. Unlike their own game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, character and plot development, especially the ending, are more satisfying.
Unfortunately, the gameplay at times prevents the title to fully realize its potential, with frustrating stealth sections and problematic orientation being relics from the developer’s past. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the next game only relies on exploration and character interaction, but with the same environmental storytelling, memorable setpieces and frightening atmosphere. A better graphics engine would also help to catapult the developer on top of AAA titles, as the sound design is perfect and the whole experience unlike anything the adventure or horror genre has provided in the past.
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