When the credits rolled on SOMA, my head fell into my hands. I felt relief that the harrowing journey was over, and was reeling at what my character had sacrificed along the way. SOMA is not just a horror game, it's a nightmarish commentary on the possible future of humanity.
SOMA is the latest scarefest from Swedish developer Frictional Games, the makers of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's out September 22 for the PlayStation 4 and PC. The game is set in an underwater station overrun by freakish robots, where players spend their time exploring and hiding while peeking around corners. (There's more to the story setup, but the developers have asked reviewers to keep it a surprise.) Like Amnesia, SOMA offers players no way to defeat enemies; the only solution is to pick your moment and start running. Like many games of this type, you spend much of your time piecing together what happened by reading notes from the dead, surveying the wreckage, and digging through a world left behind. (It may also have may favourite justification for why you're able to listen to people's idle conversations from months ago in a game.)
Horror fans are probably wondering how scary SOMA is. The answer: oh, yes. SOMA will make you shit your pants more than once, though its scares are just as often cerebral in nature -- thankfully, the game avoids cheap tactics like jump scares. It's not averse to punching you in the gut -- some moments rival even the water sequences from Amnesia — but SOMA doesn't just want to make you jump out of your skin -- it wants to get under it.
One reason SOMA's so effective is that it's a damn good looking game. Well, it actually looks horrible -- but that's on purpose. You know what I mean. Amnesia wasn't much to look at -- it was a boring-arse mansion -- but it didn't matter; players spent their time hiding in the dark and sprinting from Cthulhu monstrosities. You didn't have time to realise that, even by the standards of the day, it wasn't a graphical powerhouse. It's clear Frictional spent an enormous amount of effort improving the technical aspects of SOMA to more effectively freak people out.
H.R. Giger's influence is everywhere in SOMA. The Alien artist had a knack for unnatural fusions of man and machine, and after a few hours, I started to worry that an actual xenomorph might come screeching out of an air duct. Black goo drips from every metallic orifice, and water leaks into every room's corners, threatening to bring the place down. All the while, a cancerous growth slowly consumes everything around it, human or otherwise. SOMA infuses its setting with a sense of place to make the player feel isolated and alone. This is an underwater facility where things went very wrong, and the people who died here may be better off than you, the "survivor."
Amnesia was a game of cat and mouse -- you had to hide from the monsters, and you never quite knew when one was coming for you. SOMA doesn't mess with the formula. But whereas Amnesia slowly killed players for hiding in the dark, SOMA simplifies things. You're still crawling along the ground and peeking around corners, but now, it's far more about studying how creatures behave and exploiting their weaknesses. One enemy, for example, can only see the player if you're looking at them. So long as you're staring at the ground, the enemy can be right in front of you but you'll be invisible to it. It's unsettling to stand in the middle of a hallway while a carbuncled creature screams like a banshee... but stand your ground and you'll be OK.
While the player has no means of fighting back, they're not helpless. You're given a suit that is capable of communicating the distance between you and an enemy, which proves endlessly useful. The closer something is, the more distortion appears on-screen. If everything's clear, you're good.
SOMA does its best to keep you alive, in fact. Horror games lose their power when the player dies and is forced to repeat a sequence. The ideal scenario is for the player to barely make it out each situation, their heart racing as a door closes behind them. If the player has died and restarted the same area five times, the designer probably messed up. For all its strengths, Amnesia -- like most horror games -- didn't get this right. (Because it's hard!)
While it's possible to die in SOMA, it won't happen often. When a creature attacks, you're briefly knocked out. Waking up, the player moves a little slower, limps a bit, and the screen is blurry. The game usually places whatever came after you far enough away that it's possible to keep moving in the right direction, though you're not clear enough to be fully out of danger. If The Bad Thing finds you a second time, it's probably lights out. This second chance at life, however, means you're able to keep progressing through difficult sections -- it's not pure trial-and-error.
This small change kept me in the moment and helped the game maintain momentum. It does mean players could brute-force their way through the game, but if you're doing that, why are you playing a game like this? And while I wasn't often seeing a game-over screen, the horrifying noises enemies made as they charged at me were punishment enough. Some of their voices are still ringing in my ears.
Going forward, there will be some discussion about SOMA's themes and a sequence or two, but I'm not gonna spoil anything major. If you're especially sensitive, be forewarned!
From the start, SOMA lays out its biggest question: what does it mean to be human? Over roughly 11 hours, it doesn't answer that question. Instead, it forces players to confront their feelings on the matter, pressing them to make increasingly uncomfortable choices about the nature of consciousness, the existence of a human soul, and the stark consequences of man playing god.
There's a great example in the game's opening hour, in which the player discovers a heap of twitching metal parts. Upon inspection, the parts appear to be...breathing. "Hey, can you hear me?" the players shouts to no response. The labored breathing continues, and it becomes clear something is very wrong. Two bulky wires protrude from the metallic mass, resting comfortably next to a screen that, coincidentally, controls power for the area. Out of options, you slowly pull one of the wires from its home, prompting a long, grotesquely squishy sound -- and a scream.
"No, don't!" shouts a voice that sounds awfully like a human woman.
Despite your character yelling back, the machine -- or whatever it is -- doesn't respond. You pull the other wire.
"I need it!" it cries in desperation. "Why? I was ok. [long pause] I was happy."
As the power drains out, their voice disappears into silence and the parts collapse upon themselves. The door to the next area opens, but it's not clear what happened to this...thing.
Was that a person? Did you just commit murder? You're confronted with dilemmas like this over and over in SOMA, each incident more haunting than the last, as it becomes clear the experiments in the underwater base were blurring the lines between man and machine. (One decision prompted me to walk away from the game for a while, my conscience thoroughly disturbed.) There was no choice but to remove the wires in this instance, but that's not usually the case. You can often choose one option or another -- or walk away from it entirely.
When I played, it wasn't not clear what -- or if -- my decisions impacted anything, aside from prompting introspection. SOMA asks players to make ethical decisions about how humans treat machines, and those choices have stayed with me far more than the times I screamed and hid from a monster.
SOMA stands tall in individual moments like that, but the larger story is on less stable footing. Amnesia's plot was cheesy, granting the game licence for its over-the-top voice acting and melodramatic script. SOMA, on the other hand, wants to be taken more seriously. While the production values are certainly up to scratch, the writing and voice acting struggle to match the game's ambitions and often come across as forced. The main character is a particularly tough sell, largely thanks to hammy and unsympathetic voice acting. Worse, while it's a trope for characters in horror to pretend weird stuff isn't happening around them, this guy barely remarks on it. Even when he does, the character dismisses things out-of-hand. It feels off.
Questionable voice acting doesn't derail the game, but some story beats in the final hours nearly do. It's difficult to talk about what doesn't work without getting into spoiler territory, but I'll say this: Not every story needs a series of unexpected twists at the end. Luckily, SOMA recovers in its final moments and sticks the landing.
(One quick aside: remember how I said I couldn't talk about how the game starts? I still won't, but if you, like me, don't buy the way the game opens, give it time. It ends up working out.)
Though jump scares are fun in the moment, they don't last. The best horror sticks with you long after the credits roll, an uneasy feeling that lingers uncomfortably in the moments before you fall asleep. I've been thinking about what happened in SOMA for days now, especially the game's closing minutes, and can't let it go. Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. If that's not a sign of success, I'm not sure what is.