By Nathan Grayson on April 4th, 2014 at 12:00 pm.
It’s not that I feel like SOMA is poorly made. On the contrary: for a demo of a game that’s at least a year out, the Amnesia spiritual successor practically sparkles beneath its grimy, moss-encrusted shell. I just feel like, despite a very unexpected setting, I’ve been here before. Crept through these halls, turned these nobs, let these tidal waves of otherworldly sound crash into me as I press ever onward, slightly on-edge but no worse for the wear.
Allow me to explain myself in a bit more detail. Oh, if you want to avoid spoilers, this is probably the part where you should run away screaming. The short version? SOMA’s setting – the physical location in which it occurs – is absolutely not what you were expecting. It stands to be one of the game’s most intriguing elements, but again, if you don’t want to spoil the surprise probably turn back now.
OK, deeeeeeeeeeeeep breath.
Aaaaand ker-splash. SOMA takes place under the sea. On a near-future Earth, as derelict spaceships don’t often contain oceans. Well, really cool ones probably do, but people don’t usually let really cool ships become derelict. It’s something of a catch-22, you see.
The demo I played began in an almost organic-looking ventilation shaft. I still thought I was in space at this point, as nothing had suggested otherwise. Right off the bat, though, I was stricken by something unexpected. My character, Simon, had a voice. A frantic, slightly whiny, curse-spitting one. It was honestly a bit obnoxious, but fortunately he didn’t pipe up too often.
His goal? To escape this decrepit shell of a mechanical production facility (?) and find the one other human he’d managed to make contact with, a woman named Catherine. I solved a brief, Amnesia-style object-manipulation puzzle involving plugs to open a door, and I was on my way.
I emerged into a more open, ceaselessly clanking portion of the facility, and it was there that the genre’s trademark Bestial Grumbles began. “I am a spooky thing lurking in the conspicuous darkness of those giant turbines over there,” the menacing growls punctuated by piercing roars seemed to say. “However, I’m not going to do anything yet because it’s far too early in the game for me to leap out and go ‘OOGABOOGABOOGA.’ So, you know, as you were.”
The first section of the demo was entirely made up of rather predictable tension building funhouse tricks. For instance, I made it to the opposite end of the achy breaky room, and I sighted a valve that would presumably open a door to an upstairs area. As I turned the valve – again, manually, Amnesia-style – the growling, grumbling, and scratching grew louder, closer. And then – shock, awe, snap, crackle, pop – the valve broke off, offering the first of a few cheap jump scares.
Not particularly surprised and kind of ready to discover something of substance about this place, I proceeded onward. There, I found the remains of an impromptu living quarters. Rotting mattresses on a sticky floor, a makeshift clothes line bleeding oil and grease, food that stopped qualifying as food eons ago. All of this cobbled together in a nearly pitch-black observation deck, but clearly abandoned to the ravages of time. I began to grow a little more curious. What happened here, exactly? (Probably monsters.) Where’d everybody go? (Probably monsters.) Were monsters involved? (No, genius. Yes of course they were.)
Another perfunctory put-the-bit-into-the-other-bit puzzle later, however, I came across a couple of SOMA’s most interesting, er, bits. There was a body in the rather confined storeroom next to a pool of electrified water, bouquets of ropey, sparking wires blossoming from nearby walls. Interacting with the body, however, produced an unexpected effect: an audio playback of this person’s final moments. Frictional creative director Thomas Grip told me that will be true of every corpse you discover in SOMA. Everybody’s got a story to tell, and so too does every body have a story to tell.
“You can interact with corpses that you find, and you get, like, the last 20 seconds of that person or machine’s life,” explained Grip. “There are also black box devices that all personnel or machines had installed. So every corpse in the game has a little story to tell of how they died. You can piece together much of the story that way. I think that makes for more interesting audio logs.”
“The moments before death can be super profound, but I almost like it better when they’re fairly trivial. Just, like, slipping on something. So you’re expecting this elaborate setup, but you just find them saying, ‘Oh, don’t forget to feed the cat’ as their last words. It’s interesting to tie it into our big themes like consciousness. Death is the opposite of being alive, so it’s hard not to deal with various forms of it if that’s your main subject.”
While the overall story didn’t really grab me in the demo, tiny moments did. The aforementioned dead man’s tale hinted more at potential than anything else, but an encounter with a long-forgotten AI, er, arm legitimately tugged at my heartstrings. At the end of a disheveled assembly line, I came across a clearly busted mechanical arm that was tipped on its side. “Hello, is someone there?” it queried in a disarmingly frantic monotone. And then, as I got closer: “Amy, is that you?” Its old engineer, presumably. Long since departed or deceased.
I got within arm’s length of the, er, arm in hope of understanding, perhaps even assisting. “I’m glad you’re here, Amy,” it sighed, voice still sputtering static-y resignation. “I’m scared.”
Getting too close merely resulted in it killing me, but the build up to that point was masterful. Discovering this thing was in no way required (despite the fact that my demo was largely very linear), and it offered a perfect formula for intrigue equal parts mysterious and affecting. What was this AI’s purpose? Why is it dying/malfunctioning? Who was Amy? It was a small thing, but more than, say, a late-demo monster encounter, that’s what stuck out to me about the game.
Shortly after, I found a command center that, among other things, contained a map of Earth (HINT HINT THE GAME’S SETTING HINT) and a computer that’d let me communicate with whomever else was nearby. Hurrah! Sweet, sweet freedo– and then pipes screeched, metal walls popped, and water came gushing in. Fade to black.
The demo then time-skipped to a slightly later area, a deep sea hunt for where/whatever Catherine and her kin called home. She’d told Simon to escape from all the madness lest the rock-bottom boogiemen “Jangshi” turn him into fish food, but he apparently had other plans. So I trudged across the ocean floor, moving slightly slower than usual (there’s no actual swimming), while marveling at some seriously impressive audiovisual design. The sun, made of fire as it is, rarely travels underwater, so it was Scooby Doo spooky down there. Sound was muted but no less impactful. The sea churned like a dying washing machine and wailed like a dying cat. Also, I found a crab and I named him Charlie.
According to Frictional, nearly 50 percent of SOMA will take place in environments like that – wide-open underwater crypts, expansive pits of pressure and woe. Except this one wasn’t particularly open at all. There was a branching path that led to another corpse, but otherwise it was linear and largely uneventful. After a while, I took to sprinting because once again, it didn’t feel like any legitimate threats resided nearby. It was just more build-up.
I ended up inside a flooded facility of some sort, rust and barnacles taking the place of wallpaper that’d long since rotted away. It was, once again, a treasure trove of environmental clues – labs and kitchens that looked like they hadn’t seen life since the sea was but a bowl of soup god forgot to wash out – but very little actually happened. I opened doors. I examined kitchenware. I found a note, but I honestly don’t remember its contents.
Until the end. Down a claustrophobic hallway I sighted a blue glow, and curiosity compelled me to investigate. Just like that, it sped – almost teleported – toward my face to greet me. A bulbous creature with endless black holes for eyes and a sickly gait. It loomed above me for a moment, bathing me a blinding blue light, and then the demo ended. Creepy? Absolutely. A worthwhile finisher after all the build-up? Not really. But then, this was only a demo. The reveal of what was presumably a single Jangshi wasn’t really what all that slow-burn tension was built around. In fact, SOMA will be significantly less monster-focused than Amnesia, Frictional told me.
“Enemy encounters are not going to be our focal point for the game,” he said. “It’s just that it’s sort of an easy thing to point out when you’re talking about the game. But there’s a bigger purpose for the game.”
“There’s gonna be monster encounters. People will be able to scream and make YouTube videos and stuff. But we also have other elements, and monsters are only one part that we want to lead up to a greater whole payoff. It’s gonna take a few hours of the game to get into, but it’s gonna be a hell of a lot more disturbing than having a monster breathing down your neck. If we can pull it off.”
Some monsters, meanwhile, won’t even really be monsters at all.
“You have that problem of players just assuming things are hostile and trying to kill them,” Grip noted. “But we’re trying to have that middle ground where they’re unsure. They’re thinking that there might be something interesting there if they check it out some more. We’re not using the word ‘enemy.’ We’re using the word ‘creature.’ And these friendly ones contain tons of valuable story information, so you don’t want to miss out on that if you can avoid it. But at the same time, you’re worried that you’re gonna be attacked. We really want the player to use their imagination.”
It is, then, an exceedingly interesting plan for a horror game, but the demo left me all-too-aware of the demandingly precise nature of crafting such a thing. I’m not gonna lie: I wasn’t particularly scared or even unsettled for most it. The environment looked very nice and well-crafted, but it felt hollow. Nothing really pulled me in, let alone dragged me back to its lair kicking and screaming. There were hints of greatness, but they were few and far-between.
That said, SOMA is still a ways out from release, and I certainly like the idea of a hyper-psychological slow-building survival-horror game in theory. Also, the bottom of the sea is such a natural setting for this sort of thing. There are few things more primal than a fear of drowning, of our lungs bursting like ratty balloons. The key, I think, lies in filling the gaps with more than just endless trudging, cheap jump scares, and perfunctory puzzles. At times it felt like I was playing a lesser Amnesia, and that needs to change. There’s big potential in this world and the way its story stands to unfold (Themes of consciousness and perception? Frightened AIs and storytelling corpses? Sign me up!), but I only caught a glimpse of it. I don’t feel much like I saw it tapped.
But despite how many Amnesia artifacts I found in SOMA, Frictional is dedicated to making something new and different. My fingers are crossed, and my NERVES OF STEEL are at the ready.
“It’ll be nearly five years since we released Amnesia when SOMA comes out,” concluded Grip. “There have been tons of experiences like it since then. You’ve had games where you’re chased by monsters and you’re running away. Games like Slender even fit that bill to an extent. I think many of the people who found Amnesia to be fresh might not find that experience fresh four or five years later. My hope is that players will be looking for something new, and that’s the experience we want to provide. I don’t feel like adding more monsters or something is the right way to progress from Amnesia.”