Under the Sea

Sebastian from The Little Mermaid

This article can in some sense be considered a continuation of my previously shared thoughts about Alien: Isolation and horror simulators, but also should generally stand alone as a review of SOMA. It is also spoiler free.

I’ve backed myself into a corner, in a room with just too many windows. The monster growls behind me, and I duck behind a support beam in the wall.

“Go away,” I say under my breath, as it paces back and forth in the hall. Instead, it decides to come into the room. My mind races as the creature continues to come closer. “What do I do? What do I do?” Soon it will come around the edge of this beam and surely see me.

Finally, I decide my best chance is to just make a run for it. I step out from behind my hiding spot.

The music crescendos as I am spotted. I sprint as fast as possible out the doorway and down the hall. I hear echoing footsteps behind me of something inhuman. Suddenly all the lights go out.

The terror is palpable as I realize I’m headed right for the only room that still has the lights on.

“Great, I’ll be a sitting duck…”

I rush in anyway and make my way around the desk to the computer. I fumble with the interface a bit, but manage to get the door locked down before the monster arrives.

I hide in the corner of the room. The monster thrashes at the door but is unable to open it. I wish I could sink further into the corner.

Suddenly I do.

I look to my right and see the backside of the wall. Turn behind me and there are distant inside out structures.

“Ah fuck,” I say, “the game glitched out,”

I try to step back into the room. There is some sort of threshold I have passed, and I can no longer return. I turn around and look down into the yawning void, make peace, and leap into the abyss.

SOMA is a difficult game for me to write about. It’s a game that I had been looking forward to for a long time. It’s ambitious. It’s certainly worth playing. But somehow, it’s also a disappointment.

SOMA is Frictional Games’ follow-up to their 2010 horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In the intervening 5 years since Amnesia’s release, there have been a slew of games to follow in its footsteps, including the notably big budget Alien: Isolation. One could happily call these games “Amnesia clones,” as they borrow so much from that game, but I have preferred to consider it a new genre, called horror simulation.

Most of these games put a small twist on the formula established by Amnesia, without really making any huge strides forward. SOMA is intent on changing that. Whereas most horror sims, including Amnesia, tend to tell the story primarily through audio and text logs, SOMA pairs these with strong environmental storytelling as well as dramatic scripted sequences and dialogue scenes. The game is intent on minimizing the limitation on player agency due to cut-scenes, and allows the player to continue to move freely unless the character is physically restrained.

Opinions on whether or not SOMA is “scarier than Amnesia” seem to vary wildly. Horror, like humor, is quite subjective. As for myself, I found SOMA to be much more intensely terrifying that it’s predecessor, although it’s much more of a slow burn than last year’s Alien: Isolation. Whereas that game felt as though it turned the volume up to full blast and never stopped, SOMA is much more content to explore the dynamics of horror, crescendoing into intensely terrifying set-piece moments, and then gently falling down and giving the player room to catch their breath and relax.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time with the game. It succeeds in more ways than it stumbles. The story is compelling and left me with a lot of interesting philosophical questions that I’m still pondering weeks later. The art direction and overall polish is super high for a game made by such a small team. And the storytelling is often effective, reminding me at times of Half Life 2 and Gone Home.

So what’s so damn perplexing to me is why I have this overall sense of disappointment about the game.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of how long I have been waiting for its release. It’s not uncommon for lengthy development times of games to grow hype to unmanageable levels (Just imagine what Half Life 3 would have to be at this point to not be a disappointment).

Thomas Grip, the designer of both SOMA and Amnesia, has written and spoken extensively about his “Four Layers” approach to narrative design for games. It’s some heady and ambitious stuff for narrative-focused games that don’t want to leave the player feeling like a bystander. In a sense, the idea is to keep the player constantly engaged in the storytelling even down to the moment-to-moment gameplay, a point at which most games struggle to maintain that connection.

SOMA can be seen as a field test of those ideas. And for the most part it’s successful; resulting in what is one of the most ludonarratively consonant (there’s that word again) games that I have ever played.

But even though SOMA effectively executes on its storytelling approach, there have been plenty of other games which have focused on storytelling in the past several years. Many telling stories that lie well outside the established sci-fi/fantasy safe-zone which games have typically stayed in. This often leaves SOMA feeling like it is playing catch-up more-so than innovating. Credit should be given where due, as much of the game’s storytelling is strong, but it is perhaps impossible to not draw comparisons and find the emotional core of the game to be lacking in honesty or vulnerability. When it comes down to it, it’s a sci-fi horror story set in an laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, which can only be so relatable.

Because SOMA considers the moment-to-moment experience to be the core of the story, at any given moment, the game is typically very compelling. However, this focuses the player’s attention so narrowly that the game struggles to effectively integrate its big ideas. It can be a thrilling roller coaster ride, but when the game tries to probe at deeper questions it often feels like it’s just paying lip-service; draping philosophical window-dressing on what is essentially a haunted house.

I hate to bring up the issue of length in video games, as it’s so often a major sticking point for people in a way that I usually find unsavory. Many players will look at SOMA’s roughly 13 hour playtime and see it as being woefully short. However, as I get older, I find that my time is increasingly valuable to me, and I tend to not like it wasted. At a certain point, I knew there were going to be two possibilities with the game. Either I was going to put it down and never finish it, or I was just going to have to steel myself and marathon through until the end. I chose the latter.

In that sense, I found SOMA to be significantly longer than necessary. This is not to say that I found any of the moments in the game to stand out as particularly low quality, or that I would find it easy to say where cutbacks should be made. It’s simply a personal observation that the depth of the story felt as though it was not requiring of a 12 hour game to communicate effectively. It feels as though a third of the game could be hacked off and the story would come across just as well. Again, this is somewhat of a vague criticism, but is reflective of my feelings as I pushed myself to finish the game, expecting to be very close to the end, but rather being many hours away from it.

It’s hard for me to be comprehensive about SOMA, and in many regards, I still feel as unresolved in my thoughts about the game as I was before writing this article. It’s a good game, almost a great one even. You should probably play it. I wish I could point to one thing and say what’s holding it back, but it’s not that easy. Somehow though, SOMA never quite lives up to its potential. Even though all of the parts of it are high quality, the whole is not the sum of its pieces. It’s like a bicycle made of high quality aluminum, with new tires, but with wheels that are just a bit too square.

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