One title symptomatic of my recent gaming renaissance is Frictional Games’ Soma. I kept seeing it advertised on the Playstation Store and I became transfixed by the spooky, sci-fi cover art. I read the description and became intrigued about this undersea, sci-fi narrative. But I didn’t purchase it- not for over a year. For a year I came close several times- attracted by the same science fiction elements- but every time I would leave without purchasing. I know now that there were 2 reasons for this. Firstly, it was an indie game. And secondly, it was a survival horror game. Up until a few months ago I almost exclusively played AAA games- and for the most part RPG’s or what is known in the industry as “Action Adventure” titles. As pathetic as it sounds, I was scared of playing a horror game. When I finally gave Soma a go, it signaled a step into unknown territory.
The premise of the game is as follows. You are Simon Jarrett. You’re a Canadian everyman who survives a serious car crash that leaves you with severe brain trauma. As Simon, you seek out this experimental brain surgery somewhere in Toronto. You start the procedure, and wake up at a futuristic research facility at the bottom of the ocean…the kind with flickering industrial lights and busted pipes. It’s nothing like the plush, Art Deco swagger of Rapture. Everything about the environment Simon finds himself in is cold and gray and metallic. It’s a complex of several research outposts that are waterlogged and fallen into disrepair. All the inhabitants are dead, but you are not alone. Simon finds that the only folks around are the facility’s industrial robots, who for some mysterious reason believe they are humans. Their eccentric dialogue, in which they will recall memories of family vacations or share petty gossip, and their complete obliviousness to their true nature is made all the more creepy by the fact that they are clearly designed for loading, engineering, and general maintenance. I won’t spoil anything about how Simon ends up here, or what the deal with the robots is, but hopefully I’ve given you an intriguing insight into the basic premise.
It’s very much a fish out of water narrative, which I found appropriate, since it reflected my own exploration of the survival horror genre through the lens of Soma. For the most part I found Simon a relatable and sympathetic protagonist. I definitely felt like I was right there with him at the bottom of the sea. In the opening stages of the game I was terrified about what might be lurking in the steel, shadowy corridors of PATHOS-II. I fully expected something in the way of fiends, mutants, lobotomites or cannibals to be hiding in the ceiling vents, waiting to jump out at me. The game quickly introduces stealth mechanics, such as the ability to poke your head around a corner. However I barely used that throughout the game. The stealth as a whole is a little simple and shallow, and it felt like the game was trying to awkwardly juggle its ambitions to be a hide-and-seek w/ barnacle monstrosities game and one of those story-driven walking simulators characterized by crushing loneliness. It succeeds better at the latter, and I felt that if it wanted to go down the monster route, then it could have then used more interesting and intuitive stealth mechanics. I liked that I was playing a game where not only was I not a super-soldier of some kind, but just an unlucky guy incapable of fighting back. There’s no combat and that’s great. But where the stealth mechanics let themselves down is the necessity that we both don’t look at the monsters and simultaneously don’t move around or go near them, so make a wrong turn and you’ll get bon-dangled by a deformed mass of algae and twisted limbs.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this game. It succeeds best with the strength of its storytelling. The dialogue feels engaging and polished, and some conversations get quite thought-provoking when they get onto the subject of existentialism and the nature of being. The narrative is full of interesting and excellently-crafted twists, and is all the while reinforced by a solid backbone that touches on what I consider to be classical science fiction themes: the nature of consciousness, identity, reality, and isolation. The ending is very interesting and it definitely had me thinking about it for a long while after I finished playing it.
I liked that the game took place not just inside the tight corridors of the research facility PATHOS-II but in the dark, underwater realms of the seabed. It can be a bit tedious moving around in the heavy diving suit but it adds a sense of authenticity and atmosphere. Even though there are creepy Lovecraftian horrors, they are used sparingly. The majority of the game is spent exploring, collecting audio logs, and solving puzzles. Therefore the atmosphere is chilling and it has more the tone of a psychological horror than a sequence of jump-scares. However the sparse addition of monsters does mean that neither fans of stealth or lonely walking simulators will be fully satisfied, and it goes back to my earlier point that the stealth gameplay felt a little underdeveloped. I would recommend this game though, especially to those suckers for well-written sci-fi narratives. It’s a game I’m glad I played and that helped make me more well-rounded as a gamer. Ultimately it has encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone more often.
Let me know if you liked this game as much as I did! I’m looking for good stealth games, so if you have any suggestions for me, then please comment them below. If you enjoyed reading this piece and want to see more of the same, then please consider giving it a Like or Subscribe! Thanks for reading.