A Legacy Of Terror
Frictional games have carved themselves a reputation for making horror games with a unique gameplay mechanics. Minimal or no offensive power to the player means lurking around terrors rather than taking on them. Physics and gestures based environmental interactions mean that even simple acts like opening a door leaves you with sweaty palms and thumping heart.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent brought mainstream recognition to them. The following years has seen this apporach being adopted by other games like Outlast and (most famously) Alien Isolation. With SOMA, Frictional now takes us into the future and down below under the sea.
Who am I?
We start the game as Simon Jarett, an average joe living in present day Toranto. Simon has recently been in a Car crash in which he sustained a life threatning brain injury. After being told he has only months to live, Simon signs up for an experimental Brain scan. He exits the brain scan, and the world as he knew it. This is where the game properly truly begins, as the player stumbles though the underwater research facility, Pathos II, that they inexplicably found themselves in. Pathos is in a state of disrepair, with nary a soul in sight. Without spoiling too much, the mystery of how we got there resolved quite satisfactorily without resorting to tropes like ‘It was a dream all along”.
Navigating Pathos II is no easy task, as hulking robotic monstrosities stomp around, and the gameplay is, in essence, a messed up version of hide and seek where failure means death. And this is where the game falters a bit on multiple levels. One, these creatures are meant to invoke primal terror, except robots aren’t inherently scary, and diverse creature design doesn’t really change this. Secondly, Hide and seek is no fun when you don’t have any place to hide. Simon can crouch, walk and run, but closets and cabinet where a man can hide have been seemingly outlawed in the future.
Gameplay end up becoming a hurdle to story telling. The game follows a cycle of exploration – monster encounter – exploration, and soon enough dealing with monsters becomes chorelike and tiresome. You dread them, but not in a good way. There are Notes and Audio logs that give out crucial story details, but some can be missed because a homicidal bot is breathing down your neck.
Sights and sounds of a futuristic Dystopia
The game really nails the sound design. Pathos II is mostly dead, but seems alive with each hiss, click clack and thump conveying the feeling being trapped in a world made of metal. Being immersed in water suitably dulls and drowns the noise. Hearing a creature walk past you is suitably unnerving.
Graphically, the game is good looking, though chromatic aberration and glitching effects are slightly overused. I’ve never been to the bottom of the ocean, but SOMA does convey it as inhospitable and alien as a landlubber can expect it to be.
SOMA’s parting gift then, will not be night terrors but lasting thoughts. It is one of the most engrossing video gaming stories in years, that examines existential dilemmas in a entertaining if flawed gaming experience.