Ever heard of the ‘brain in a jar’ thought experiment? Imagine some mad professor (with frizzy white hair and spectacles the thickness of a Peter F. Hamilton novel) has managed to harness a brain, place it within a jar and attach electrodes to it. He then subjects the brain to a series of electrical stimuli, causing the neurons to fire.
In this scenario, the cackling professor creates a reality for this brain by stimulating certain parts of it such that the brain will truly believe that what’s being experienced and interpreted is reality. Thus, can you ever truly know for certain if the world in which you live in is not just some Matrix-esque simulation?
Now, if you haven’t wandered off to contemplate your own existence, let me introduce you to the world of SOMA, the latest horror-fest from Swedish developers Frictional Games. However, before we go on, I need to stress that the above opening does not encapsulate the premise of SOMA. It’s just the most effective way I can think of to describe its major themes without spoiling too much.
For veteran horror enthusiasts, Frictional Games don’t need any sort of introduction. But for those who are somewhat out of the loop, Frictional were at the epicentre of a new breed of survival horror games. Their 2010 title Amnesia: The Dark Descent set the bar for a new wave of frightening games that placed players in a state of constant fear and vulnerability. So, what is the studio doing in 2015 to further our underpants budget?
Much like Frictional’s previous work, in SOMA we awake in a confused state, surrounded by an unfamiliar territory and a sense of dread that is accompanied only by an equal helping of loneliness. When protagonist Simon awakes in this strange place, he is overwhelmed by feelings of dread and fear. His surroundings alien to him, he steps out into the dark corridors of PATHOS-2, an underwater research facility that has become empty and lifeless, save for the creatures that dwell in its shadows.
Are you getting BioShock vibes? That’s understandable, but rest assured that while visual similarities may be present, each game deals with different themes and concepts. In BioShock, we are asked to look at the role we play as an active gamer and how our choices mean nothing. In SOMA, the very fabric of existence and what it means to be human are up for question (so it’s less Ayn Rand and more Jean-Paul Sartre).
“What it means to be human.” Get used to that concept, as it will be recurring throughout.
As the game progresses, Simon becomes more immersed in his new environment and what he discovers about his true nature. As he encounters the broken down robots who have taken on human characteristics, the events that went on in PATHOS-2 begin to emerge in morbid and haunting ways.
As he interacts with the inhabitants of the facility, piecing together the fragments of the puzzle while also trying to remember who he is, it’s also imperative that he remains silent and hidden from the psychotic mechanoids that wander the place, lost within their old human memories and displaying traits that can only be described as delusional.
And yes, you can go out onto the ocean floor. In fact, parts of the game make you do so in order to progress. The sense of isolation is even greater in these sequences, as your view is further limited and you are left to fend for yourself in a place where few humans have stood before.
It is rather easy to get lost (a physical manifestation of a recurring theme? Poor level design? You decide), but this does add to the overall confusion that Simon feels. However, it does sometimes feel like it drags on at times. Yes it’s nice to have a visually appealing setting and to wander about on the sea bed, but it didn’t work out too well for BioShock 2 (there’s that connection again).
The game does have all the characteristics of a good survival horror title, though. Each corridor, empty room and sunken vessel leaves the imagination to wonder what’s around, and the atmosphere thumps and beats like a mechanical heart in your ears and makes for one hell of an uneasy experience.
Surely, fans of Amnesia have no doubt been waiting a while for SOMA, and I will wager many of you have one question in-mind: “Is it scary?”
Well, I won’t sugarcoat it. The Dark Descent is largely considered one of the scariest games ever made. To take that a step further is a tough act to follow and, sadly, SOMA just cannot match its predecessor in terms of unbridled terror. Oh sure, you’ll no doubt feel unease, tense and be a little on edge, and there are even one or two moments that are genuinely quite scary. But it must be said that it is not a patch on previous survival horrors.
What Frictional have done – it seems – is opt for a more story-driven game that uses horror as an immersive tool rather than a key mechanic. Maybe they realized that they couldn’t top what The Dark Descent did to players (and their sphincters), or they were highly impressed by The Chinese Room‘s take on the sequel, A Machine For Pigs. Either way, don’t go into SOMA with your expectations too high.
Of course, much of what makes a horror game great is how it looks (see: Alien Isolation). The HPL engine used for Frictional Games’ previous work has definitely had a bit of a tweak, with impressive use of lighting and shadows. You won’t see it all the time, but a dark locale in a horror game is as much of a trope as a talking animal in a Disney flick.
And yes, HPL is a physics-based engine, but you’ll seldom find a puzzle that utilizes it. You will, however, probably spend a few minutes at the beginning seeing which items you can smash against a wall. You’ve got to make yourself laugh these days, haven’t you?
With a lot more audio being used in SOMA – breathing more life into its characters – it’s unfortunate that the voice acting is not entirely amazing. It’s not terrible, but it’s definitely lacking in award-winning performances. That’s a bit of a shame, too, as the story is complex enough that it warrants a lot of dialogue, but intriguing enough that it will keep you guessing. I also think it’s safe to say that the game’s enemies are enough of a threat to keep you on your toes, and the uncanny way in which they speak and think gives them a whole new unsettling air which you won’t find in other games.
Also, look out for the guy with the lightbulb-looking head and the dude who got lost on his way to Silent Hill. Yeah, most of the enemies are robots (and a little easy to outrun), but occasionally you’ll have your fear factor pushed a little further and it’s at these moments where the game really tries to remind us that it’s a horror.
SOMA might have downplayed its terror a little bit, but it will still get into your head and leave a lasting impression about the state of consciousness, the mysteries of reality and the existentialist nature of humanity as we know it. And for that reason alone, it’s definitely worth checking out.
This review is based on PC version of the game which was provided to us.
While SOMA may be lacking in the fear department, it more than makes up for it in existentialist unease.