Out of context, you might find the picture below funny. Yet while I was immersed in the game, feeling like I was Simon Jarrett lost in the wreckage of the Pathos-II, I found this picture profoundly disturbing. Be warned, spoilers follow!
If you haven't played the game, I'm not going to tell you why it's frightening, other than to say that it made me feel almost precisely the way I did that one time I saw a picture of a mouse with what appeared to be a human ear growing out of its back.
That unnerving sensation penetrates SOMA. I loved the game, but I'm not sure I would describe it as "scary." It certainly has its share of frightening moments, but beginning your playthrough with the notion that this is going to be a prototypical horror game might give you the wrong expectation.
According to the game's designers, some players have complained about just that. "The most common issue people have had is that they have felt the game wasn't scary enough," Thomas Grip, the creative director of Frictional Games, wrote on the company's blog this week.
Grip cited Frictional's status as "the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent" as one reason players expected the game to be more frightening. He also asserted that SOMA is "very much a horror game," just one that has "a slower build-up and more focus on the psychological aspects." The horror in the game, he said, "is supposed to come from the existential dread that's slowly unveiled as the game progresses."
As Grip suggests, there are occasional jump scares and the like (and they are indeed scary!) in SOMA, but the truly hair-raising -- and the hair on my forearms would literally rise during this game -- parts of the game emerge from the story, from learning what the inhabitants of Pathos-II did before you arrived, and what you are now doing there.
The more conventional horror elements of SOMA were less successful for me. When I was hiding from a monster in the game -- something that doesn't happen all that often -- I would adopt a strategic mindset that took me out of the game's fiction. I started thinking like a video game player, and not like lonely and lost Simon Jarrett. Partly that's because the stakes for me as a player were extremely low in these encounters. If I fail, Simon just gets to try again. In a game like this, death is just a nuisance. In a horror movie or novel, when a character dies, they're gone forever. (Barring their resurrection as a brain-eating zombie or other undead creature.)
For me, SOMA was at its scariest when the monsters weren't visible. When I would descend a staircase, or hear them rattling through the ducts, or hear the quiet wheezing of a woman lying on the floor, SOMA felt like a horror game. Then a monster would actually show up, and if one managed to injure Simon, I would feel impatient rather than terrified -- which I doubt is how Simon felt about it. Like most good horror fiction, the most frightening parts of SOMA come when the player is imagining things.
While the stakes for Simon's death(s) in SOMA are low, the stakes for other characters are very high. I don't want to say much more. The game is definitely pulse-quickening, nerve-wracking, thrilling and skin-crawling. Minus the skin-crawling, so are a lot of other games. It's the context for SOMA -- the music and the sound design and the setting and the plot and the characters -- that makes it, as Grip put it, existentially dreadful. That's yet more evidence for why a core belief of some players and critics -- that video games are entirely about their interactions and rules, and not also about their fiction -- just isn't true.
My Shall We Play a Game? co-host, JJ Sutherland, found the game a lot more frightening than I did. So maybe I'm just inured to gore from decades of headshots. But that mouse? No thanks.
We talk about why we liked the game and, in the spoiler-riffic second half of the podcast, why we made different choices during our playthroughs. (We warn you before we start spoiling things.)