If I told you that SOMA is a game about the nature of humanity, how would you react?
If you’ve read reviews of sci-fi properties before, that phrase will probably trigger an eye-roll powerful enough to yank out your optic nerves. But hold on a second, because this time I mean it: SOMA is a game that explores the nature of humanity, identity and self. It’s also one of the best science fiction narratives that the medium has ever produced and a bleak horror masterpiece.
In 2010 Frictional launched a boom in first-person horror with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Stripping players of any means of fighting back against the monsters was a risky move, but it paid off in the creation of what many consider a modern classic of the genre. Amnesia was followed up by the excellent A Machine For Pigs while Frictional worked away on a new, far more ambitious project: SOMA.
What’s it about? That’s where we run into difficulties. Frictional were very tight-lipped and cryptic leading up to its release, and I absolutely believe that if you decide to experience this game you should do it knowing as little as possible. But that also means I can’t talk about most of the things that make SOMA incredible. Here, then, is a highly-abbreviated and abrupt description of the game’s plot:
You play as Simon Jarrett, a hapless dude who ends up trapped in an underwater research station called Pathos-II. Something has evidently gone badly wrong prior to your arrival, as the station is being consumed by bio-organic tendrils and shambling, inhuman husks roam its half-flooded halls. After making contact with one of the few remaining survivors, you’ve got to explore the breadth of Pathos-II for a means of survival while avoiding the angry accusations and unfriendly crustaceans that stand in your way.
Seriously, there’s so much I’m leaving out, like the fact that
——- is ——- after —— and it turns out you’re ——- so that’s why you have to ——–
It’s COOL AS FUCK is what I’m saying.
And yes, this is a story about weighty, heady sci-fi themes, a story that doesn’t just discuss the nature of self and the meaning of humanity but which explores those themes through its plot and gameplay in fascinating, thought-provoking ways. SOMA will never have characters stand around and monologue at you; instead it simply presents situations in which the ideas it wants to explore naturally occur to the player, as if through telepathy. This is the sort of mature, responsible storytelling that sci-fi across all mediums so often fails at, and especially when it comes to video games.
My only dissatisfaction with the plot comes from the whole biomechanical horror thing, which never really takes off in the way I wanted and ends in a fairly abrupt and unsatisfying way. It’s a testament to how much there is going on in SOMA that I can criticize what seems like the main thrust of the story so heavily and count it as only a minor flaw.
In terms of gameplay it feels like Frictional took some heavy cues from The Chinese Room’s work on Machine For Pigs, as SOMA limits the monster-dodging to contained set-pieces and uses it far less frequently than its predecessor. The variety of shambling horrors you’ll find around Pathos-II are well designed and harrowing to be around, particularly in terms of their audio, and there are a few standout encounters, but I found myself growing frustrated with the enemies whenever they showed up. This isn’t because the stealth mechanics are bad or because the game is frustrating– it’s actually very lenient in giving you multiple shots at each section– but because the plot and the exploration aspects were so engrossing I just wanted to get back to them. Late in the game I finished one of the most harrowing, breathtaking, awe-inspiring non-combat sequences I’ve ever played in a game only to get thrown into a labyrinth of corridors with a shuffling monster wandering around, and I sincerely wished I had a skip button to just get past it.
SOMA is at its best when it uses environment to build a sense of dread and menace, and its best environments are outside the confines of Pathos-II, on the sea floor. Vast structures and foreboding red lights loom out of the darkness before resolving into recognizable shapes, and the sounds of wildlife– natural or horrifically mutated– echo from above. And just off to the side is the darkness of the abyss, beckoning. Waiting. There’s something down there…
Like I said at the start of this review, I feel hamstrung by my desire to not spoil this game. I could happily keep writing about SOMA for thousands of words, but instead I’ll cut it off here. All you need to know is that Frictional’s latest is the Real Shit, a horror game that scares intelligently and uses its environment and themes to instill a sense of existential dread while simultaneously spinning a sci-fi yarn worthy of the great entries in that genre from other mediums. If you have any sort of affinity at all for horror games, go out and buy it.