I expected SOMA to scare me. I did not expect it to make me cry. And cry I did. Three times.
The third of Frictional Games’ horror titles, fourth if you count A Machine For Pigs, is everything game fans hoped it would be. It is nerve wracking, challenging, and it improves on the formula that Frictional has been establishing for years. Their games rely largely on a reversal of the typical gameplay scenario. Instead of a combat driven power fantasy, players are forced to evade, hide and run as their only means of survival. The defenseless feeling driving each enemy encounter fuels the player’s panic, serving as one of the better suspense building mechanisms in the genre of horror games.
SOMA is the story of Simon, a former Toronto bookstore employee who wakes up one day in an empty underwater research station and sets out to unlock its secrets. The base, Pathos II, and its various substations have been infiltrated and taken over by a deadly artificial intelligence referred to as WAU. As Simon unravels the mystery of the fate of Pathos II, he stumbles across a project called ARK, the research team’s last stab at preserving humanity before the Earth was destroyed by a comet. With the human race all but extinct, he and Catherine, a sentient scan of the project’s original creator, must retrace the footsteps of the facility’s last inhabitants and launch the ARK into space, all while avoiding the hostile robots and nasty, disfigured monsters under the poisonous influence of WAU.
Frictional has once again delivered an atmospheric triumph: every abandoned room and poorly lit corridor is scary enough without the many dreadful creatures (“WAU’s little pets”) haunting them.
However, the literary themes of SOMA are where the game truly shines. Frictional has made great strides in narrative delivery. Whereas its predecessors Penumbra and Amnesia relied too heavily on the notes and journal entry-type storytelling of its point and click origins, SOMA instead employs a more diverse approach, using everything from computer terminals to “black boxes” to invite you to fill in the blanks with context clues. Solving puzzles and gaining insight into the events of the game requires a proactiveness I haven’t encountered in years. You will need your hand held as you play SOMA but by no means will the game be the one to do it.
SOMA will also keep you guessing. Initially I took the game as a metaphor on recovering from grief but about halfway through I realized it was actually a commentary on the nature of humanity. At many points in the game Simon has heated conversations with Catherine about the ethics of the ARK project, which preserves the scans of real human beings for preservation in a virtual atmosphere. While Catherine is ambivalent about any psychological or moral issues with her creation, Simon is troubled at the implications and as he increasingly feels disconnected from his own emotions and senses begins to question if what they are doing is right. Is a scanned file of a human being, superimposed in a robot body, the same thing as a human being? Should they be treated as such? Are we only as human as our ability to be the only copy? While this theme is often explored in science fiction, it is the participatory element of video games that perhaps truly drive them home. It’s one thing to ask what makes a human being. It’s quite another to ask it as you make the decision to end a life.
On the technical side, SOMA does have a few missteps, among them lackluster character models and some unnecessarily convoluted puzzles. The story also drags on after a point thanks to constant problems springing up in the process of the ARK’s launch. However the payoff is ultimately very satisfying. SOMA’s few imperfections can be overlooked for the deep contemplative state the game will leave you in at the end.
SOMA will scare you, no doubt, but it won’t be the memory of a gnarled, disfigured mass clumsily ambling towards you in a corridor that leaves you awake and unable to sleep at night. It will be the question of what makes us human.
And you’ll be terrified.
SOMA was developed and published by Frictional Games. It was released on September 22, 2015 on PC, Mac, Linux and PlayStation 4 at the MSRP of $29.99. A copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.