The opening of Soma starts off with a Phillip K. Dick quote. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Coming from anywhere else, the quote would sound a bit blasé. But Frictional Games never really does blasé, does it? No, they never shy away from making a statement, even if the well-made statement causes more couch stains than Taco Bell.
Even the title of the game is dripping with symbolism. Soma is also the name of a drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that was used to distract the population from realizing how off and wrong the world was. They believed that soma had “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” Truly an interesting supposition for where Soma is going. But the only people that would’ve known that fact are too busy debating on which translation of The Count of Monte Cristo is better and has no time for video games. Too bad too, because they’re missing out on Soma good games. (yes, I feel as bad about writing that one as you do for reading it)
Soma plays very similarly like its spiritual successor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, when it comes to gameplay. It’s the same duck-and-cover approach. The objective isn’t to beat the enemies in the game, but to survive the experiences with them in the same room. The only difference is, they’re walking the room slowly wondering why there was a noise made, and you’re whimpering in the corner like a small child.
The atmosphere is still creepy, but in a different tone than The Dark Descent. Where Dark Descent was in a Prussian castle in the middle of the woods, Soma sets more of an underwater Bioshock tone, with the focus being of heavy philosophical questions. What is man past the physical body that we are born with? Can a machine think, feel, and even be “human?” Well, the game doesn’t exactly answer that for you, but it definitely poses the question in-game. There are points where the game gives you the option of killing robots that have human consciousness in them. Not just AI, but were once human and have had their memories and thoughts implanted into a machine. While seeing these robots is few and far between, it gives the player a chance to both appreciate the atmosphere and scenery that Soma offers, as well as appreciating each separate person.
The plot sounds like something H. G. Wells would have pitched to his publisher. After going into a doctor’s office for a brain scan, Simon Jarrett wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility. After doing some research, he finds himself almost 100 years in the future, with his only companion being another human consciousness found in a robot named Catherine. She tells Simon that a comet hit Earth a few years ago, wiping out all human life. In an effort to save humanity, she created a computer called the Ark that would be like a virtual world for the rest of human consciousness. Basically, it’s a quite expensive tamagotchi that’s intended to fly around Earth for a few thousand years. Only problem is, she doesn’t know whether it’s been made, where it is, or how to get to it.
The game makes use of a device called an omni-scanner that allows Simon to open doors and access certain computers. After meeting Catherine, she convinces him to attach herself to his omni-scanner in a way reminiscent to Portal 2’s potato Glados. The only difference is, she’s only “on” when she’s plugged in to a computer terminal. For her, the events of the game are only occurring for brief periods before being yanked off and shuttled to a new building. It creates interesting dialogue between Simon and Catherine about the concepts of time, the merits of whether a machine can be human, and so on.
Another interesting change from The Dark Descent is that Simon talks! That’s right, no more hearing a British man slowly read text like a schizophrenic with asthma. Being able to talk directly with the denizens of this underwater horror is probably Simon’s greatest strength as far as narrative design. He questions things, and throughout the course of the game seems to have some sort of evolution between his original thoughts on humanity and our place in the world.
The biggest issue with the game is the enemy design. One enemy you only meet underwater, and his only means of moving is by teleporting short distances. This makes him wildly unpredictable to sneak around and makes him noiseless, giving you minimal indication as to his location. Another enemy doesn’t move unless you throw something at it. It’d be alright if Simon didn’t throw somewhere between a drunk man throwing an empty beer can at a wall and a toddler throwing its new toy down a staircase. As well, the level designs when monsters are much more minimalistic. Many of them are quite linear, with “branching” paths all being dead ends.
That being said, the atmosphere in Soma is exactly what you’d expect of Frictional Games. Even though I hadn’t been in any danger for the first hour or so of the game, and even knowing that they did that in The Dark Descent, the game was still scaring me shitless. It was to the point where someone knocking on the door or dropping a spoon made me have a heart attack. Each room, every computer terminal, every audio dialogue, and every piece of paper you can read is dripping with backstory, and you’ll want to read up. They each tell of life underwater before and after the comet hit, as well as the struggles they faced once the world around them was spiraling out of control.
The only thing spiraling out of control more than the world around Simon were my load times. I was playing on a PS4, which you’d think for $400 could load an indie game that only takes 15-20 hours to complete. You could probably finish writing a novel in between some of the load times, and that’s assuming it hasn’t glitched on you. Three times I was met with a black screen and a frozen loading icon that caused me to have to restart a given area.
Soma’s that kind of game that, when you look back, makes you think for way too long about the inevitability of death, the concept of humanity, and our place in the universe. It’s a truly harrowing experience that speaks through it’s narrative pacing, plot, and atmosphere, asking these questions without really voicing a specific answer. And that’s fine, since this is the sort of stuff you want to debate in forums and write huge feature-length articles on. Frictional Games has definitely polished their game design from The Dark Descent. The game looks gorgeous, scares easily, and has a story that will leave you feeling more confused about life than a college graduate.