Metanalysis: SOMA

“Humanity, Consciousness, and the Horrors of the Deep Perfectly mixed in this Spooky and Existential Narrative”

Both the sci-fi and horror genres explore the realms of the “what if”. Sci-fi tries to peer ahead and paint an estimation of what life would look like if we follow mankind’s progress to it’s inevitable conclusion. Meanwhile, horror pries into our deepest fears and puts them front and center. SOMA capitalizes on the inherent unknowns of these two genres to offer tense moments of introspection that will cause players to question both their understanding of the in-game reality and their own. Stuck in an underwater facility at the mercy of an omnipresent A.I., twisted humans, and unstable robot denizens, caution is critical if the player is to unravel the truth behind the protagonist’s and humanity’s fate.

SOMA provides those brave enough to venture into it’s folds a story which questions the fabric of what makes up consciousness and identity, cocooned in a narrative that is sure to give most players nightmares for weeks to come.

The Framework

SOMA comes to us from a developer with a background firmly rooted in the horror and adventure genre. Frictional Games has developed and the Penumbra and Amnesia series, both very similar in design to SOMA. But while Penumbra and Amnesia both took their inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft and other dark fantasy sources, SOMA delves into the world of science fiction to explore a terrifying future that’s all too easy to imagine.

Like it’s predecessors, SOMA’s gameplay revolves around exploring a large environment, this time taking the form of the underwater research facility known as PATHOS-II. Progression through the facility is accomplished by completing some light puzzle solving, while avoiding confrontation with the dangers of the deep. Players are afforded the opportunity to flesh out the narrative through the use of secondary devices like audio logs, notes, and conversations with what few remaining friendly denizens the player is able to find.

SOMA’s narrative is an exploration of several themes, such as the resilience of humanity, as a major extinction event leaves protagonist Simon Jarret and the rest of people stationed at PATHOS-II as the last humans on earth. It also tackles the nature of consciousness and what it means to be alive as players encounter the few remaining sentient beings on the planet, only to find strange and frighting amalgamations of biology and technology.

As a single player adventure game, SOMA plays akin to an interactive novel, with the player’s primary means of interaction being Simon’s literal driving force as players move from objective to objective in an effort to unravel the mysteries of PATHOS-II. Most of the action is handled via free-form environmental exploration, as players are given free reign to maneuver through the facility at their own pace. Player’s progress is often impeded through light environmental puzzles, further encouraging players to maneuver around the space.

SOMA’s primary selling point are it’s story and premise. It plays like a point-and-click adventure game mixed with bits of a walking simulator, but the mystery driving the conflict in the game encourage active exploration and engagement within the environment as players seek out shreds of information in order to piece together an answers. Anyone familiar with a Frictional Games title will find a worthwhile story sure to leave the player questioning the very nature of life.

 

The Execution

The game’s bread and butter, the narrative, is handled beautifully. From the sound design to the way each environment is laid out, moment to moment SOMA is an engrossing experience. The ocean itself is an ever-present character that provides a constant and uncaring presence, simulating the pressure of  being trapped miles underwater. Every bit story that the player finds adds to the sense of dread, forboding, and especially loneliness that permeates every minute of this game. The dangers, though few, provide tense segments that serve to break up the narrative and ease the monotony, as players are tasked with remaining unseen or fleeing from certain death.

Again, anyone who has played any game in the Penumbra or Amnesia series should be familiar with how the game plays out. The typical format for every section/level is such that the player must find their bearings, locate the exit and the “key” necessary to advance, all while under duress from a horror that may or may not be lurking in the dark.

The halls and structures found in PATHOS-II are twisting and winding, providing a meaty experience that will take most players about 10 hours to get through. However, especially during parts that introduce a malicious presence to the environment, I often found it tricky to navigate the dark and cramped halls, often needing to backtrack more than I was willing to endure. The parts of the game where we are forced to go out into the ocean floor were equally confusing, and while I did get sucked into the dread of being stuck at the bottom of the ocean, the frustration of needing to find my way around large, same-y, and largely unmarked structures was enough to break the immersion.

Of positive note, compared to say Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is a constant companion that the player picks up early on. This provides a two-fold benefit, as the guide helps to convey important narrative clues to players in order to better world-build and also provide a roller-coaster effect as players who grow accustomed to companionship are later forced to traverse large sections of the game alone, further selling the ambiance of solitude and isolation that permeates the game.

As a narrative driven game, there is little in the way of action expected from the player. Most of the challenges were akin to escort missions and games of “Where’s Waldo”, where the player must find an object of importance that will allow progress. Most of the game is experienced as a passive participant to the narrative that unfolds around the player. Interactions with the environment and the few NPCs only shed greater context on the world rather than challenge the player in any meaningful way.

The few amount of adversaries SOMA forces the player to deal with proved surprising, as previous Frictional Games titles had no shortage of enemies. I found myself in a constant state of terror opening doors as the music, sound, and environments all led me to believe there would be a monster I would need to steer clear of. Instead, I often advanced to the next area with little adversity, finding little reason to be stressed. The lack of direct conflict with dangerous creatures eventually became welcome, as an over-abundance of insta-kill  monsters would have made the game exhausting to play through, and instead allowed me to focus entirely on the unfolding plot.

SOMA is very similar in nature to it’s predecessors. It features similar beats to the story, and a satisfying big twist at the end meant to leave the player with a sorrowful, if not pensive feeling. The game’s narrative takes center stage and does a marvelous job of keeping the player engrossed, dangling the carrot of meaningful resolution in their face while subverting narrative expectations.

 

The Verdict

I played SOMA as part of The Skill Floor’s Spooktober event in 2016, where every member needed to play a scary game to completion. At Getch’s suggestion, I picked this game and have regretted the decision ever since. SOMA’s narrative is beautifully written, and is one that cuts deep, right to my core. By the time the game was ramping up to the climax, I was emotionally drained as the game continued to present lofty ideas that I was unprepared to deal with.

I played SOMA over the course of about 4 sessions, each lasting a little more than 2 hours. I was able to finish the game with ease except for one part right at the end that was almost game-breaking, leaving me to wonder if I would forever be unable to finish the game. Thankfully, either by luck or perseverance, I managed to get to the end. Without spoiling anything, as I recommend playomg SOMA without prior knowledge, I was pleasantly surprised by the final scene. After being dragged through situations that made me question the nature of life itself, I was relieved that the developers opted to reward players with an optimistic ending, since I was emotionally exhausted by the end of it.

I also happened to play the game with an audience, both because I streamed the game and because, although sequestered, I had a small grouping of fellow TSF members watching my every move. My recommendation for anyone looking to play SOMA is to have a friend or two riding shotgun, as it will provide a necessary tension release. However, for those looking to play this game solo, I can only recommend the experience to those brave enough to have a serious existential crisis upon completion.

I am not normally an advocate for purely story-driven games. Story, while easily in my top 3 ingredients to a perfect game, is not often engrossing enough in this medium to sustain long-term play. SOMA provides a lengthy journey that is both adequately spooky and elicits an emotional response to the plight of the main character. But I think that to have added any more agency to the player would have wound up ruining the atmosphere this game works so hard to craft. A more action-driven but similar title would be Bioshock, where the weight of the ethical dilemma is undercut by the mass murder the player ends up carrying out. By removing the player’s ability to fight back, we are forced instead to focus on the narrative.

SOMA is a game that will tax it’s players to the very end. But while an emotionally exhausting experience, it is one that has allowed me to grow as a person and has given me pause in other games. SOMA managed to explore ideas about life, death, and humanity without being pretentious or heavy-handed. Story heavy games are often slow and dull, especially when interactions amount to choosing what direction to go next. However, what SOMA lacks in straight gameplay it makes up for in atmosphere and story-telling, all of which culminates in an experience that has stuck with me since the day I finished it. For those looking for a spooky horror ride, I can’t recommend this game more.

-Brian Perez

 

The Brief

PRO:

  • excellent narrative that explores loft ideas in meaningful way
  • visual and audio design perfectly capture spirit of horror
  • no skill needed to enjoy narrative
  • relatively short completion time

CON:

  • emotionally draining experience, story may not be for everyone
  • level design was sometimes confusing
  • narrative driven, no action or participation besides some puzzle solving
  • no replay value besides re-experiencing the story