My Thoughts On SOMA
Every so often a game comes along that I can’t stop thinking about. I’d been looking forward to Frictional Games’ SOMA for a while as the themes I noticed in the trailers instantly intrigued me. What I got was a more thought provoking experience than I even anticipated. I won’t be revealing any major spoilers here, but with the nature of what this game is, it’s difficult to talk about without revealing anything. I will be briefly mentioning the enemies later on as they are a major component to the experience. If you’re interested in playing the game then I would recommend doing so with the surprises still intact. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it may be a bit hit and miss if you have a preference for gameplay over story.
I feel like I’ve experienced something really special with SOMA. I think ‘experience’ sums it up better than just simply calling it a game. The story was incredibly dark and sombre, building up gradually throughout. When the ending credits suddenly appeared with that soft piano tune I felt a little melancholic, but in a good way obviously. There were some difficult choices during the experience that took me a while to consider; From what I can tell they have no direct consequence on the gameplay or story, but if they had it might have actually influenced the decisions I made. They serve their purpose in getting you to think more deeply about the theme. This is existential horror, getting you to question what it means to be human. It’s incredibly effective so long as you allow yourself to be fully emotionally engaged with the experience, which isn’t difficult to do because it’s so well put together.
What particularly stood out to me about SOMA is the level of detail in the environments. I don’t think at any point I noticed any repetition. Everything feels like it belongs, whether you are in or out of the water. The audio is also varied and incredibly creepy at times, although this is something that I’ve always found Frictional Games to be very good at. If there is one criticism I can make it’s that some of the dialogue is a bit cheesy and there is a lot of it, which can be distracting from the sense of atmosphere. The thoughts of the main character are probably crucial to the narrative however, as it gets you to connect with what it feels like to be them and from that arises a lot of questions about your situation. I found that I was able to care deeply for the characters and their outcome, making it all the harder to deal with some of the choices I had to make.
Some might argue that there is very little gameplay in SOMA (calling it a walking simulator), but the simplicity is actually what I like about these games. I love how you can directly manipulate the objects around you such as having to pull open a door, as opposed to just clicking a button to change its state. It feels more natural and helps to heighten my engagement with the world. It’s also easy to pick up and play, but has a lot of scope for allowing you to utilize the controls in many different ways: opening doors, pulling leavers, rotating things, throwing objects… etc… I find that games can feel less repetitive if they have simpler controls but more scenarios in which to use them, and SOMA has enough puzzles and enemies to keep you engaged. The puzzles were challenging enough to make you feel smart for solving them but not so difficult as to become frustrating and hold up the game. They were integrated into the story well, rarely feeling like filler or taking you away from the action. I don’t think the puzzles have to be particularly difficult anyway, as a part of the challenge in playing a horror game like this is figuring out what to do while under a lot of tension. I tend to panic and miss obvious clues when there is an enemy in the area for instance. Some horror games give you a sense of vulnerability by making the character slightly clumsy to control, but I find that with Frictional Games the awkward fumbling is usually due to my own inability to stay calm – I don’t usually struggle with pressing buttons, but if an enemy is running at me my nimbleness goes out the window. Like Amnesia that came before it, you can’t fight back in SOMA and instead have to sneak around. Arguably this style of gameplay is starting to become a little stale by now, but I do still think that more can be done with it such as improving the stealth mechanics. I do however, think it’s a shame that they’ve stuck with a basic inventory and no resource management; If I’m in danger I’m less likely to risk exploration unless I’m going to get something worthwhile out of it, although there is a lot of additional material to be found in relation to the story.
From moment to moment SOMA didn’t scare me as much as some other horror games, but overall it felt more disturbing. Horror usually suffers from this issue where it peaks and then you numb to it, but SOMA’s pacing felt different. At first I didn’t think the experience was going to be scary at all as I dealt with the first enemy encounter really easily and the setting is too far from the norm to affect me; Only the game got progressively more intense and never seemed peak out. I think this is in part due to the narrative throwing ever darker scenarios at you and also because of the variety of enemies. The tension I feel at the start of a horror game is due to not knowing what to expect from it; The worse part is usually the very first time I realize I’m not alone, but after a few encounters I adjust to it. In SOMA I had to go through the tension of a first encounter about five times in total, and each one has very different A.I. that you need to learn to evade. The most terrifying for me are always the ones that make the most discordant noises, of which there were plenty. On a downside however, some of the enemies towards the end were perhaps a little too difficult to figure out or stuck too closely to my location. I also think they’ve made a mistake by having no serious death penalty, but then again this also means you rarely have to deal with the frustration of repeating a section.
I noticed one criticism about how the type of scares in SOMA are similar to Amnesia, but I don’t fully agree. Amnesia plays with the ‘fear of the unknown’ and took a lot longer to build up. Quite often you don’t see what the enemies look like because you’re hidden in a wardrobe or behind a wall. SOMA on the other hand reveals the enemies fairly quickly. The second enemy does have a mechanic that could be compared to sanity in Amnesia; You can’t look at it because that will cause it to rush quickly to your location. However, I found that turning my camera to get a quick glimpse of it would jolt me more than not seeing it as I knew that I’d be safe otherwise – although it might unsettle some to hear it moving around them while staring at their feet. There are some enemies that are blind but have really good hearing so you end up in situations where you’re crouched rather close to them without being spotted. I noticed that even though there should have been no indication of me being there they would frequently pause right next to me, which created this tension of waiting and hoping they’ll turn around and leave. There is also an incredibly difficult enemy at the end, but making eye-contact with it will cause it to hesitate for a brief moment, which you can then use to start running. Unlike with Amnesia the enemies also remain in the environment so keeping track of them is important.
Of course, reviewing a horror game for how scary it is is difficult because it’s so subjective. There have been a few complaints of SOMA not delivering on scares, but I think it’s trying to offer something different to other horror experiences. I definitely got an uncomfortable, melancholic, secluded, claustrophobic sort of vibe from it. I also didn’t notice many jump scares in this – it’s more psychological -, although again I find it to be subjective so don’t take my word for it; I once showed my friend a trailer with the promise of there being no jump scares and he complained at me for misleading him.
Whether you prefer SOMA or Frictional Games’ older titles depends on what type of horror you prefer, but it still feels like a step up due to the level of detail and greater variety of enemy encounters. While in the moment it didn’t scare me too much, as a whole this horror experience is going to stick with me for a lot longer than many of the others I’ve played. Now I’m going to put something a little more light-hearted on…
One more thing to note, I played this on the Playstation 4. I don’t normally find horror games as effective on console due to the fact that I’m sat in a more relaxed position while playing, but I was forced to use a headset as I haven’t yet got it hooked up to any speakers. The rumble feedback on the controller was actually very effective with the theme of the game. The loading times did feel a bit lengthy though.