Like many a nerdy dreamer I to have found myself caught up in the excitement of starting a let’s play channel (thegreatowl). For the uninitiated, that’s a Youtube channel where you upload playlists of games you are playing through or any other content as it relates to games: reviews, reviews of items in games, commentaries as you play, stuff like that.
I’d been away from gaming for some time as I have focused on writing but saw this as a way to get back into it without it feeling entirely indulgent. Basically I finally had an excuse to play games and call it work. Thank the gods.
One of the greatest things about getting back into it has been observing the world of video games as it has evolved so much over the past half decade or so that I have been away. One particular genre of games, of which this piece of writing concerns itself with, is survival horror.
Yes, we’ve seen earlier iterations of this kind of game before, such as the original ‘Resident Evil’ or ‘Silent Hill’ but let me tell you, have they ever come a long way. These new games make the old ones, unsurprisingly, look dated beyond compare.
The game I picked up off the Playstation online store goes by the name of SOMA. This is not the first game of this kind produced by the company ‘Frictional Games’. Their original was a game called ‘Amnesia’. While I intend to dedicate most of this writing to SOMA, Amnesia as well deserves a nod, and was a staggering achievement in terms of what can now be accomplished in a game setting that must have suspension of disbelief or fall apart utterly.
I should say first as well I am not usually a fan of horror movies, or having the shit scared out of me. Which makes even further the point that this game performed an incredible feat to draw my interest. Now on to what makes this game so great in my opinion.
I’ve already mentioned in passing the first reason: suspension of disbelief. When creating a survival horror environment game designers are faced with a monumental task: make what is entirely safe and harmless, seem like it’s going to kill you. It is then paramount that the player be completely immersed in the game world. Snap out of the immersion for even a moment and what you are doing and all your feelings towards it become laughable. Herein lies SOMA and its predecessor’s basis for success. At ever level they achieve this and it is more nuanced than you might think.
Setting: SOMA takes place on the ocean floor. By choosing such an ominous and obviously claustrophobic backdrop for the game’s wonderfully written narrative the player is already primed for immersion – quite literally in this case – pardon the pun. You are in Pathos, a hilariously named underwater city. I say hilarious because Pathos among its many meanings means tragedy. Who the hell named this place! It is beautiful in all its dark and rusted horror. Frequent power outages and the remnants of those who live their show rather than tell the story you’ve been dropped into. The additional detail, should you choose to explore more, is worth discovering. I could continue more here but suffice it to say the level design is exceptional and although largely linear still rewards the player for searching out rooms that have no other purpose than fleshing out the plot.
What is a world without sound? I would recommend if you play a game like this that headphones are a must. You won’t truly appreciate the efforts that went into SOMA’s sound design unless you do so. They are jaw dropping. Doors open with a visceral metallic snap, your boot-steps thud weighted with foreboding, as you run hard your heart-beat picks up in your ears creating urgency, gore and all things bloody or squishy have the appropriate amount of… squishiness? I was particularly impressed when you are outside the city and walking on the ocean floor. I can tell you from my times diving they’ve nailed this perfectly. Here like in no other game does the sound matter and draw you in. It is easy to forget that that light flickering just so as you enter a room setting your nerves on edge is done so with purpose and forethought. I can assure you all throughout SOMA you will find examples of the design teams unending mission to make every new corner, one that you hesitate to look around.
The villains: They are perhaps the greatest challenge in a game of this nature to get right. How, do you get a player to actually feel threatened by a pile of pixels? We, the jaded citizens of modern society, usually after getting a look at what is scaring us say, “oh, I’ve seen that before. Boring”. Thankfully the game designers of SOMA have quite elegantly solved this problem.
They’ve simply and brilliantly added the game mechanic that looking directly at these foes will cause as much damage as coming in direct contact with them. I nearly clapped when I heard this portion of the gameplay explained by your lone companion that follows you along in your mission. It’s success was two-fold. First, and most importantly, the mystery of that which stalks you is maintained in a natural way . Without mystery, without wondering what this thing is, we quickly lose our fear. Imagination is always so much more terrifying than reality. Second they implemented the game mechanic in a way that made sense for the story. It is always truly impressive when an apparent weakness is subverted and made instead into a strength. The final characteristic of your would be killers I want to mention is their frequency. As opposed to scare after jump scare which would quickly numb the players senses, these monstrosities are used at carefully timed increments, again usually at plot points of particular interest to heighten you immersion.
The last aspect I will discuss and one which I credit survival horror games with reviving, is plot. When you cannot rely so much on action or bright flashy graphical flourishes you must have a wonderful story. And in no way is SOMA’s weaker than any of its other well executed components. I’ll be careful here as it is so good I would hate to spoil any of its delicious details. They really did hit it out of the park. Sci-Fi lovers will swoon, and horror fans should be just as satisfied. The overall arc as revealed by one character specifically is impressive enough with its scope and philosophical considerations, let alone all the different occasions the designers us in world features to reveal other points. Everywhere, as I’d already mentioned, is show not tell. Molding pictures of loved ones gone, a bloody razor blade, sealed off pathways with warnings, all show the player what has happened here and the imagination quickly sets off on a million suppositions of what could have transpired in this haunted tragic place.
So in conclusion. If you can stomach, the churning of your own, play this game. I don’t really liked being scared but I will forgo that feeling for something so well crafted. SOMA is excellent and if Frictional Games continues on this trend, gamers should look forward to each and every one of their releases.
I give this game a rating of… Thirty Unicorns!