What Does It Mean To Be Human?
That’s the question at the heart of SOMA, the latest outing from developer Frictional Games. You may know them from their 2010 indie title Amnesia: The Dark Descent, notorious for delivering a new kind of horror in videogames, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. While SOMA doesn’t go after sheer terror in quite so visceral ways, the existential questions it makes you face are absolutely crushing, bearing down with enough force to rip your soul from your body.
I don’t throw out that hyperbole lightly. SOMA will forcibly make you answer questions you’d be better off not thinking about at all, and this is why the game is so affecting.
Waking up in an underwater research facility called PATHOS II, you take charge of Simon, a man with no recollection of how he ended up in the world’s least enviable position. You guide him through the ruins of the facility, solving simplistic puzzles, avoiding varying monstrosities by hiding or running away, and ultimately unraveling the story, one horrifying beat after another.
If this setup sounds similar to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the comparisons end there. SOMA features a world and atmosphere that is detailed, brimming with little secrets for you to uncover, and manages to tell a story that has affected me in a way videogames have never done before. The crushing weight and isolation of the bottom of the ocean is the perfect place to explore the themes of the game, and SOMA hits the mark when it comes to making you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable – not just as a player, but as a human being.
If it sounds like I’m being intentionally vague about plot details, it’s because I am. Even the simplest revelation could be enough to kickstart a train of thought that is easily derailed without the game’s careful attention to pacing and concept introduction. You’ll find yourself itching to see what happens next, while simultaneously turning your head away from the truth.
The game does this so masterfully that it makes up for the lackluster, simplistic puzzles that occasionally feel more like roadblocks to the narrative than satisfying encounters. The moments of the game that involve you hiding or sneaking away from enemies also work to heighten the tension, but feel more like a holdover from Amnesia than something that really fits the world. Still, there are moments, particularly near the end of the game, where the setting and these encounters combine to create some of the most effective heart pounding moments of the game.
SOMA gets most of its scares from making you turn inward. There are many times you are given a choice as the player, one that may not have any repercussions narratively, but immensely personal ones that reinforce the hefty ideals at play. It’s the first time I’ve played a game where I felt like the connection between the character and the player felt blurred, not in a fourth wall sort of way, but in terms of making you question what makes you inherently, well, you.
That’s getting awfully heavy for a review, but to have a horror game that relies on a theme, backs it up with atmosphere, and provides some visceral terror on top of it all is a knockout hit for the genre, one that many games fail to emulate properly.
Some of the voice acting falls short at times, especially for Simon, which can temporarily pull you out of the immersive world, but that was my only technical issue. The art direction is distinctly its own, despite the obvious shades of Alien: Isolation and Bioshock, and the sound design is absolutely top notch, from the robotic voice filters, to the airlocks, and the ambient creaking of the underwater facility.
SOMA is a foray into the darkest truths we’re afraid of uncovering. It made me reflect upon my own humanity, while raising questions about the nature of videogames themselves. Alien: Isolation may have the better gameplay when it comes to the genre, but SOMA has the narrative. It’s a great example of the terror and complex ideas that science fiction is capable of making us think about, and any fan of genre should check it out.
Steve isn’t sure if he’s a human anymore but you can follow him on Twitter and reassure him.