SOMA – Fear the Meaning, Not the Monster

SOMA, despite being developed by the makers of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, wasn’t originally planned as a horror game, and you can tell. The scares don’t quite work some of the time, and can often feel more like exercises in frustration as you play tag with the weird denizens of the deep. It’s SOMA‘s subject matter that’s horrifying, exploring awful implications and unsettling revelations about what it means to be human. You may not be very afraid of the monsters that roam this facility, but the game’s story will leave many shaken.

The main character, Simon, goes in for an experimental test designed to help best treat some brain damage he received in a car accident. It involves putting a large machine around his head, and when that machine comes off, he finds himself staring into a dark, dank labyrinth of unknown devices and malfunctioning lights. His whole world gets thrown into an uproar, and this is only the beginning of some of the awful things he will go through.

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The story deals with the implications of existence, or what it means to be a human being. It’s very difficult not to spoil much of it, but the story involves an AI known as WAU, one that is built to protect an archive of copied human personalities. These have been pulled from existing people using advanced machinery, and the WAU intends to keep this data safe no matter what. This involves a marriage of machine and organic matter in many places as the WAU does what it can to keep these people alive, regardless of the quality of that life.

You’ll see them here and there. Sometimes you’ll find a robot that seems a little too cordial when it catches you passing by. Maybe it howls when its power is cut off, seeming a little too realistically pained by the act. Maybe it stalks the halls, leaving your vision blurring from a bizarre, uncomfortable effect. These mixtures of man and machine are sickening to see, and the agony you see in their eyes is far more haunting than any slavering monster wandering the halls.

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That’s not to say the lumbering beasts aren’t frightening or dangerous. Cobbled together from sea life, steel parts, and human limbs, these creatures are an affront to existence, mentally as well as physically. In short, they don’t like you much, and the various creatures all intend to do you in. Great job on keeping people alive, WAU. Awesome.

These creatures n SOMA are varied in behavior and look. Some look like pasty, naked humans with lights flickering where their heads should be, and others are clunky robots covered in pulsing barnacles. These creatures were never repeated, making each encounter visually unique, and ensures that you never feel quite familiar with what you’re dealing with. You never think ‘I’ve seen this thing before. I know what to do.’. Each area has a different monster, and with that new beast comes the nervousness that you have no idea how to escape it. It helped make every new encounter feel creepy and new.

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They all chase you differently as well, with some exploring the halls aimlessly while others stalk your position using sound. This means that you have to avoid them in various ways, again making sure familiarity doesn’t set in and break the frightening mood. Should you risk being seen in hopes to lead the monster off the path? Will being seen cause damage to you whether you can get away or not? It’s hard to know, resulting in many moments where you’re paralyzed with distress, unsure what to do. That you have to do this all in near pitch-darkness most of the time only makes it worse.

Even in the dark, you’ll know when one of them is near or if you’re getting hurt. The creatures cause a static noise on-screen when they get close, and an even more violent distortion when they’re about to tear you apart. Even if you’re not looking at them (and some you can’t even look at), you know they’re near. It’s a great effect that keeps up the suspense as the things get close, and the added distortion adds a little more challenge as you face the creatures down.

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That being said, the effect works through walls in many places, and has a wide range. A monster might still be quite a ways away, but your screen will still be flickering. There are degrees of static you’ll come to know over time, but until then, it can be hard to tell how close something is, resulting in players hiding when they don’t really need to. Also, when the monster is really close and you need to run, the blurring can get so bad that you don’t know where to go, resulting in a few failures that feel a little unfair.

The game tries to fix that issue by having the character pass out once before death becomes more permanent. You can survive a single encounter with a monster, but it will knock you unconscious, slow your movement, and add a faint blurring effect to the screen for a bit. It’s enough of an effect that you really don’t want it to happen, but it also saves you from some frustration if you get in a position you can’t escape from. The monster will also wander off someplace far away from you, making it a little easier to accomplish your goal.

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This effect created a perfect balance to an issue many of the run/hide style of horror games has. In most horror games of this type, a single run-in means death. This often means many frustrating deaths from something as simple as a wrong turn, and can feel very unfair. The alternative is to let players take a hit, but this can encourage players to dash through the monster to get to safety, sucking out much of the fear the game’s been trying to build up (Outlast was bad for this one). SOMA‘s system balanced that problem, making a monster encounter something you want to avoid while also keeping players from getting frustrated by dying from silly mistakes.

That being said, getting past some of the monsters just feels like a chore in places. As good as they look and as interesting as their effects are, it still often comes down to watching the monster’s patrol and hoping it will walk away from where you need to go. It’s a waiting game, and it’s not overly interesting to sit there, fingers crossed until the creature gets out of your way. In some better encounters you can use sound or get the monster’s attention to lure them off, but for others, you’re just waiting for an opening.

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It could some personal fatigue with the genre, but waiting is not conducive to scaring people. Waiting for something you can barely see is even worse. This can be annoying, and also make the game’s systems painfully clear as you just sit there while some monster aimlessly meanders around. You’re just waiting for the AI to get out of your way, and often in the later parts of the game, you don’t know which way IS the right way, resulting in more frustration as you try to explore while keeping an eye out for the creatures. The visual noise should make that clear, but since it kicks up so far away from the monsters, it can be an unreliable method of knowing if they’re actually coming your way. All of this results in some dull encounters while you wait for your opening, or bash your head against an area until you finally find the way out. At least the checkpoint system is generous.

It may have been enough to make me walk away from the game, but the storyline is just too good to pass up. Most of the game’s problems are nuisances for players who are very familiar with the genre, so the quality of the story makes it easy to tolerate these sections when they pop up. As is, the game’s narrative explores aspects of humanity in interesting ways, providing moral dilemmas without stopping to judge. Instead, it lets the player think about what they’ve done and the deeds they’ve been complicit in, sticking with them long after the game is over. SOMA‘s story is a chilling, gripping read, delivered with care and subtlety. The game is well worth it for its narrative alone.

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SOMA might get on the player’s nerves at points, but it’s hard to put down as it rushes towards its bleak conclusion. The run/hide style of horror may be running out of gas, but Frictional Games have done their best to improve systems and minimize aggravation as best they could, creating a strong entry in the style. For all its flaws, it’s still going to be a chilling game for many, but most of your sleepless nights will come from what the story tells you about humanity. The questions it raises are far scarier than any undersea bogeyman, and will stick with you long after you’ve left this bleak facility behind.

SOMA is available for $29.99 on Steam.

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