Ghostly Machines: Hands On With SOMA’s Opening Hours

Over the weekend, I played the first third of SOMA [official site], the new game from Frictional, the horror maestros behind Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. If the tone and quality of the game remain approximately similar for the remainder of the running time, Frictional will have delivered their most accomplished title to date, but it might also be their least terrifying. That might be a good thing.

There are scares aplenty in SOMA’s drowned world, but it isn’t a haunted house or a ghost train. Amnesia’s particular strength was in its ability to inspire breathless enthusiasm about its most startling sequences: the disturbed surface of the water, recreations of torture, an unlit prison labyrinth. The bulk of the game, and the castle that contains it, exists as a form of scaffolding to support the few highlights. Structurally, it is sound but unspectacular, a murky slab of architecture that exists simply to perform a function.

Dark Descent’s function was to horrify and to create a false sense of agency for its monstrous inhabitants. For the trick to work, you had to believe in the illusions of persistent (un)life within the castle, illusions skilfully crafted through the magnificent sound design and treacherous layout of rooms and corridors. Once you had seen the code behind the curtain – which was bound to happen the umpteenth time you died in a certain section, if not before – the game lost much of its power.

There’s a parallel with horror films, which so often achieve their goals more effectively before showing their monsters in full light; in games, it’s the behaviour of a creature which must remain obscure. As long as we are puzzled by the inner workings of the beast, we can convince ourselves that anything is possible.

Alien: Isolation maintained the credibility of its creature more effectively than most horror games and it utilised a variety of methods to do so. The baggage that comes with a monster that is part of popular culture can help and hinder when depicting it yet again, and Creative Assembly accept that, cleverly playing into assumptions about the alien’s behaviour and abilities. A dash of unpredictability alongside some recognised traits makes for a convincingly creepy puppet, but there’s still an unspoken agreement that the audience will ignore the strings.

SOMA doesn’t rely on strings, although that doesn’t become apparent until it has shown its hand. After half an hour, the scene is set and the game begins to feel like the sci-fi version of Amnesia I feared it might be. “Feared” is a double-edged verb in this instance. I hoped that SOMA would be something more than Amnesia with a new skin but I also accepted that even if that’s all it were, it’d still scare me out of my seat.

As I crouched behind a computer terminal, listening to footsteps, loud crashes and the sound of SOMETHING in distress, I felt like I had returned to uncomfortable surroundings. The dank stone walls were now corroded metal surfaces but the place was recognisable, right down to the semi-organic corruption snaking through the vents and ducts. I felt like I knew the game’s rhythm – run, hide, cower, wait, puzzle, run, hide, cower, wait, puzzle – and that was disappointing, given how quickly the familiar beat had fallen into place.

That didn’t last for more than a few minutes and within an hour, SOMA has found its own rhythm and its own identity.

Where Amnesia was a gothic, Lovecraftian horror game, SOMA is a science fiction game with a horrific backbone. It’s hard to point at anything in Penumbra or Amnesia that doesn’t add to the sense of dread, doom and claustrophobia, whereas SOMA is packed with all manner of ideas. Grand, exciting, strange, brilliant ideas. It’s such a relief when the major conceits of the weird science that drives the plot are punctured and questioned. If you’ve seen any of the videos that have been released (and you should; they’re not assumed knowledge but nor should they be treated as marketing-spoilers) you’ll know that SOMA is concerned with the idea of ghosts in machines. The transfer of memories and personality into digital form, and the storage of a person’s identity within a robot.

What could possibly go wrong?

More than you imagine. The smartest thing about SOMA is that it has kept back as much as it has shown. Yes, it raises questions about post-human life and the terror of existing without a body, or existing within a body that doesn’t look or behave as expected, but that is one part of the whole. It’s also a more nuanced part than you might have imagined. There is sympathy for the wounded and confused, even those that have become dangerous, and there’s a streak of dark humour that falls into place so naturally that I didn’t realise how welcome it had been until I’d finished the preview build.

Frictional seem to be in a playful mood. There’s off-screen guidance from an authority figure who will set off the Polito alarm in the minds of certain players [if you’re not one of those players, resist googling that], and SOMA is well-aware of the history it’s toying with, confounding expectations even as it sets them. Most surprising for the seasoned Frictional fan, perhaps, is the talking – there’s quite a lot of it and it’s all of a much higher quality, in terms of both acting and writing, than the witterings of exposition-dumping quest-giver Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.

There are problems with ‘quest-giving’, however. Earlier, I said that SOMA avoids the predictable rhythms of the running-away-and-hiding horror game and it’s at its best when it doesn’t fall into any rhythm at all. By the end of the preview build, the flow of objectives had started to remind me of another horror series, however. Like Isaac, the robust engineer of the Dead Space trilogy, I was spending a lot of time fixing things as I attempted to move from one area to another. The anticipation of seeing something new became tempered by the expectation that I’d have to reboot the power as soon as I arrived.

That’s the game’s most significant weakness. When there are safe passages in which to deliver story, or panicky interludes featuring what appears to be the digital ghost of a haunted disco diver (“Don’t look at it”, you’re told by your guide in a brilliantly precise summation of a new game mechanic that is also decent advice within the game’s fiction), SOMA feels remarkably fresh and almost entirely shakes off the ghost of Frictional past. I’m not entirely sure about the player character’s too-easy acceptance of some of the more outrageous demands on his time and safety, but I can tolerate that particular disbelief gap because his acceptance allows the story to move at a healthy clip. The reliance on repairs or similar tinkering had the opposite effect, introducing an element of predictable pathfinding between points of interest.

It’s a minor quibble though. The portion I’ve played, just less than a third of the total according to Frictional, took me around three and a half hours to play. Twelve hours seems like a good length for a game that is built around a sense of urgency – an urgency that is about more than running and escaping – but there will need to be some unexpected twists and turns to keep the formula fresh.

There’s every reason to believe that those ingredients will be in place. SOMA marks a huge shift in Frictional’s work and while I don’t expect it to be as divisive as the externally developed semi-sequel Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, some will find the focus on storytelling and sci-fi a distraction from the comforting closet-hiding of games gone by. There are still monsters, and glitches in the interface have quietly and sensibly replaced sanity effects, but by putting its sci-fi first and its horror second, SOMA appears to have found an identity worth exploring.

It isn’t quite Bioshock without the shooting but it’s as close to that as any game ever released. A first-person science fiction adventure, set in a facility on the ocean floor, that touches on ethical and philosophical questions. The chases and slightly tedious stealth sections are the closest thing to action sequences, and they’re infinitely more welcome and in keeping with the tone than the almost constant murder sprees of Bioshock.

The horror pervades the entire game, but it’s been elevated from the bumps in the night and cries in the dark of Amnesia and Penumbra. There are still monsters to avoid and grotesque scenes to confront, but in keeping with its themes, SOMA is constructed around horrors of the mind rather than of the nerves and heart. It’s a remarkably assured game – some plodding underwater wandering aside – which blinded me somewhat to the boldness of Frictional’s shift to a story-driven approach. If the remainder lives up to and continues the trend of this opening third, it will also mark a successful shift from pure horror to intelligent, creepy science fiction.

It’s a good shift, allowing Frictional to apply their usual love of interactive objects and environments to a world worth building and strangely pleasant to visit. Without the pressure to run from room to room, there’s time to absorb the details and to find meaning in them. SOMA’s world feels like people have actually existed in it – a mysterious and wonderful place to live, and a terrible place in which to die.

Speaking of dying, in these early stages, SOMA doesn’t quite know how to deal with the player’s death. What game does? There are moments of violence, methods to restore health, and limping animations as punishment takes its toll. But death is the reset button that restores a saved game rather than the great equaliser or the conqueror worm. It’s a sign of how impressed I am by what I’ve seen so far that I’m expecting SOMA to deal with the issue head-on at some point, either with a sly line of dialogue or something smart and altogether unexpected. It’s that kind of game – sly, smart, surprising.

32 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    johannsebastianbach says:

    Hmm. I kinda liked the Frictional Games, but I strongly disliked their game mechanics (notice how I don’t use the word “gameplay”).
    I’d love the hell out of a horror walking simulator, without fiddling with monsters, inventory, matches, oil, sanity meters etc. I have difficulties concentrating on being terrified when there’s to much “gamey” going on.

    A few hours of sci-fi horror, without the running from monsters and opening cabinets just to fill my inventory would be definitely awesome!

    • Nouser says:

      That’s kinda what A Machine For Pigs did, removing the health, sanity meter and inventory all together, although they left the monsters.

      I didn’t really like it, even if they health and sanity were more cumbersome than anything, the existence of a inventory forces the player to explore and interact with the scenery, making it much more immersive. The world of AMFP felt much more empty than previous Irrational Games works.

      A worse level design didn’t help, either.

      • Toadsmash says:

        Machine for Pigs’ main problem was that the danger for seemingly 3/4 of the game was purely imagined. Isolation worked infinitely better as a horror game to me because the risk to your (character’s) life was real and ever present. Psychological horror is a great thing to a point, but the suspension of disbelief gets more and more difficult the longer the game tries to keep up a pure headgame, and MFP was awful about that. Yes, we get it. Our protagonist is unhinged. We figured that out in the first ten minutes. We don’t need to be smashed over the head with it for the next three hours.

        • Shakes999 says:

          I enjoyed MFP’s story immensely , but the rest was pretty meh. I don’t know what I was expecting but that certainly wasn’t it. Chinese Room dropped the ball pretty badly. There wasn’t a huge amount of game play mechanics to begin with but they somehow managed to completely trim them out of the game.

  2. Fenix says:

    Sounds promising!

    The video material they have released so far for Soma has been quite enjoyable, good to know the actual game is also solid.

    I have a question though, what is a “Polito alarm”?

    • Eight Rooks says:

      To explain it would sort of be a spoiler for an old/classic game you may or may not have played?

      Hell, even saying that is a spoiler of sorts (if you play said game for the first time and remember this article).

      • Fenix says:

        eh, I don’t mind too much if it’s spoiled.

        I was just surprised because googling “polito Penumbra”, “Polito Frictional” and “Polito game” didn’t lead me anywhere.

        • Zanchito says:

          You probably want to google for a Doctor Polito. Spoilerific, tho.

          • USER47 says:

            I tried googling doctor Polito just for fun, and there are loads of actual doctor Politos in the world:-D. The first mention of SS2 was on 4th page.

            For example this Dr. Janet Polito not only is obviously disguised Janice Polito, she even matches her ingame personality.:-D
            link to vitals.com

            “She is caring and easy to talk to. also very professional, smart, and knows what she is doing. I would highly recommend her. She is the best doctor I ever had.”

            Sounds like my experience.:-D

        • DeepFried says:

          Dr Janice Polito, its a reference to System Shock 2, huge spoiler for that game but look it up if you want.

    • kwyjibo says:

      If you don’t know the reference, stop reading RPS.

      Do not return until you’ve played System Shock 2. Because we’re going to test you like some sort of dirty immigrant.

      • Fenix says:

        Well there go the ending spoilers I suppose! I was even proud of myself for resisting temptation and not googling what Zanchito told me to :( *removes System Shock 2 from Steam wishlist*

        Anyway I am aware of having missed not one, but many of PC gamings great games but having been a teenager when they came out and having went through times without access to gaming PCs I don’t think it’s a sin. I have been trying to rectify it, I played Deus Ex a couple of years and I am playing through Psychonauts now, but as an adult without infinite time missing some is inevitable.

        Hell, people whose JOB is to play games are frequently posting articles of them playing some old classic, I am sure I recall one of the RPS main writers writing their experience as they played Half Life for the first time on this very site!

        • USER47 says:

          It’s far from ending spoiler, actualy…Feel free to play through it, you are missing a lot:).

        • DeepFried says:

          Even knowing that spoiler the game is still very much worth playing, the atmosphere is amazing considering the level of technology at the time, and in that respect the game holds up surprisingly well. If you’re playing through old canon, then system shock 2 is not one to miss for any reason.

        • Jackablade says:

          Knowing of Polito isn’t really a spoiler. You’ll hear from her within the first 30 seconds or so of the game.

        • Dominare says:

          You have NO fucking idea how many of us envy you for having your first ever shock2 playthrough ahead of you – don’t you dare spit in our collective faces by not making the most of it!

  3. Sunjammer says:

    I’m SO excited for this one. Frictional seem like a studio so completely attuned with the things I want in horror games it’s like they’re making games i’m willing into existence. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen of this and can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  4. Monggerel says:

    Considering how little (not at all) I enjoy things that go ABLOOGEYWOO from a dark corner, I’ll probably pass this. Didn’t finish Amnesia either, because being startled is a physically painful experience. No “AAAAGH” screming or jumping out of chairs for me, just a sort of extreme and headache-inducing cringe. Don’t want.

    Then again, I played STALKER more than most things and the last game in that series has a monster (the chimera) which literally only exists for the purpose of there being a random jumpscare generator. So, I unno.

    I like the premise, very “that feeling when qualia” esque which, whether or not one’s familiar with What is it Like to be a Bat, can be a novel setting for horror. For videogames, I mean. Cause videogames are usually several decades behind on everything. They’re slow.

    • Monggerel says:

      “screming” sounds horrible I apologize

    • Distec says:

      Every STALKER game I’ve played reaches a point when I feel so uncomfortable moving forward. And then I don’t. And then I try again a year later. Repeat.

      Is it wrong that I feel like this is part of the game’s strength?

      • DeepFried says:

        Stalker really isn’t scary at all once you’ve played it through a couple of times, most things a pretty scripted, spawn areas, tactics, labs etc.. once you know what to expect and how to deal with it there is no scare… but even without the scares the stalker series is still damn fine, i’m in the middle of replaying it for about thr 4-5th time right now.

  5. Verio says:

    I don’t typically play scary / horror games because I don’t like the anxiety of anticipation. The knowing that something is going to jump out at me, and I definitely don’t in any way enjoy the jump scare.

    However, it sounds like this is eschewing that style of stuff in favor of something that is horrifying on a more cerebral level? Does this game stuff have jump scares or no? Because as it stands, I am super super intrigued by this, though I would be disappointed if it turns out to have the kind of scares I can’t handle and the purchase was wasted :/

    • gunny1993 says:

      As far as I recall Amnesia and Penumbra didn’t have many jump scares at all, it certainly didn’t rely on them.

      • DeepFried says:

        There were some jump scares, but you’re right they were mostly psychological horror, which works through atmosphere, anticipation, and tension. However that sort of horror produces jump scares of its own, you get so highly strung than even mundane things can act as jump scares even if they’re not designed as such.

  6. Zenicetus says:

    This sounds like something I could enjoy, but first a question:

    Since it sounds like you can die in the game, is it Save on Demand, or Checkpoint Saves? And if it’s the latter, how is the pacing between save points?

    Poor checkpointing can ruin a game, and it almost ruined Deads Space for me. There is no fun in having to spend 15 minutes or more, traveling through the same area and doing the same puzzles I just completed.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      There are sections in which you can fail without dying – those have restarts at the precise point where you fail. No backtracking, no repetition.

      You can also ‘die’. Maximum I had to replay was a couple of minutes.

      All through autosaves. It has smart checkpointing in the areas where it’s needed.

  7. noom says:

    Really looking forward to this. I’ll be glad if it’s a little less horror focused and a bit more sci-fi philosophical style. Kinda burnt out on the first person horror thing in the past few years.

    • DeepFried says:

      If you’re burnt out on horror then no offence but you probably should be looking else where.

  8. vahnn says:

    I really need to stop reading previews of games like this. It’s well-done and the kind of stuff one seeking info about games would expect to see, but..

    I won’t be able to un-know this or “un-see” the points mentioned about the game mechanics and whatnot. So if I do pick up the game and try to fully lose myself and become immersed, in the back of my head the entire time will be “game mechanics, game mechanics, game mechanics” and will kill the mood for me. =(

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      Do you have the same issue with film reviews – as in, when cinematography/performance/editing are at the front of your mind because of analysis you’ve read, you find it harder to look past them? I watched Slow West this week and found the opening 15 minutes distractingly artificial and I think that’s at least partly because I’d gone in with a lot of critical/technical thoughts from various places.

      The film was good enough that it pulled me in and pushed all of that to one side, and I reckon you’d find the same with SOMA. But I’m definitely sympathetic to the avoidance of too much analysis before experiencing something for the first time!

      • DeepFried says:

        I think the simple antidote to that problem is to leave a decent time gap between reading something like this and actually playing the game, you’ll forget pretty much all of it with enough time.

  9. RagingLion says:

    Even if this is milder horror, it’s too much for me to play through.

    But I’m definitely going to watch a Let’s Play of this (possibly a guy called Coestar who I watched play Alien: Isolation for the same reason). Which is a real shame because then Frictional won’t get any of my money – what I realise is that if there was a way for it to exist as an economic model, I would totally send £2-3 Frictional’s way to watch someone else play this. I kinda think I wouldn’t be alone in this, so if the right person happens to read this, … get on that and make it happen somehow!