By Brian Mannell
“Reality is that which, when you start believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
- Phillip K. Dick
SOMA began with a quote from Phillip K. Dick (an American author and philosopher who wrote stories using philosophical, sociological, and metaphysical themes), which set the pace for what I think is one of the better storytelling experiences I had from a horror game.
SOMA was created by Frictional Games, who are most well known for making Amnesia and Penumbra. I haven’t personally played either of them, but judging by their popularity in the horror genre, and my recent experience with SOMA, it’s clear that Frictional Games is not just a company who creates a run of the mill horror experience.
You play as Simon Jarrett who wakes up in Pathos-2, an underwater facility located deep within the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. You wander around the facility, trying to find answers as to why you suddenly woke up there, while exploring the story behind what happened. Soon after you will meet another character named Cathrine, an employee at Pathos-2, who will try to guide and help you through your horrific experiences, both physically and mentally. The voice actors for both Simon and Catherine are great, and combined with an excellent and believable script it helps bring a deeper connection to the plight and struggles they both go through.
The game starts out with a Phillip K. Dick quote for a reason, as the real meat of the story comes from how you and the characters experience certain situations, questions, and the realities of both. Questions such as what does it mean to be alive? What makes you, you? What does it mean to be human? These are questions that even the greatest minds of philosophy haven’t been able to answer conclusively, and when you are faced with them they are not meant to provide easy answers.
This is the main reason why I love SOMA so much. The story progresses and asks those questions without being too pretentious about it, and I am an absolute sucker for philosophy. I don’t think I’ve ever been this affected in a video game that forces me to choose one impossible answer for another, let alone a game from the horror genre (which generally lacks strong storytelling experiences). And the story extends to the setting itself.
It’s as you would expect a facility to look like in a horror game: dark, decrepit, traces amount of dead bodies, but it’s so much more…. Alive. There are more than one facilities in Pathos-2, and they’re all infected by a substance (inspired by H.R. Geiger designs) that keep both machines, and even humans, alive. It’s unclear why the unknown substance does this, but as you progress through the game you will understand not only what it is, but why it’s functioning that way. You’ll also get the story of the personnel in each facility, and what they not only had to go through, but also what their own personal philosophies are in regards to what it means to be alive (more so the former). Overall, the story is not only engrained into the characters and their experiences, but also the environment and the dreaded universe Frictional Games had created. All added to my immersion within Pathos-2, as they not only reflect upon what was going on, but it also relates to Simon and Catherine as characters.
As you explore Pathos-2, trying to find a way out and gather information, you will encounter an occasional monster, and they are pretty frightening. Frictional Games employs a good variety of monsters, nearly a monster at every facility, and in traditional Frictional Games-style you have no weapons (they wouldn’t help against these creatures anyway). Your only hope, like in Amnesia, is to hide and throw any objects to distract them in order to survive. The feeling of helplessness against these monsters are added when your vision gets screwed up whenever a monster is near, and the closer the monster the more your vision goes haywire. You have to be extra careful, especially when you have to solve a puzzle with a monster in the area, as they can be relentless.
The puzzles in the game range from being simple, to being vague. I remember a time when I was trying to solve a puzzle while a rather annoying monster was stalking and trying to find me, and I wasn’t given much information on how to solve it. For that one, I had to look up a walkthrough on what to do because I was stuck for a half-hour. However, I think if you are used to the puzzles presented in Amnesia you will have a much easier time solving the puzzles than I.
When I’m not solving a puzzle, and/or trying to survive an encounter with a monster, I explore around each facility reading from notes and tablets, listening to recordings of the employees, and encounter machines who think they are human. The sound design is top-notch; footsteps echoing in metal corridors, lights flickering, drops of the black goo from the walls and ceiling, the facility groaning over the pressure of water. Even outside walking in the ocean is a wonder to look at, with the sounds making you feel like you are deep within the ocean, as you walk around trying to get to your next destination.
SOMA is a beautiful looking game, with top-notch sound design and story. The creatures are scary (except for the first one), and Frictional Games was able to create a universe which is both alive, and important for its relationship with the characters and story. Although the puzzles can be difficult, the pacing almost formulaic and spotty at times, and the creatures annoying to deal with on occasion, SOMA provides a very well done horror experience that is not only immersive, but contains one of the best philosophical stories I have experienced in gaming.