Frictional Games

I like sci-fi horror and the initial videos of Soma looked really cool. But while I was excited to play the game, I was also wary. Frictional games are hit-or-miss with me. I liked Penumbra: Overture and Penumbra: Black Plague had some great moments, but Penumbra: Requiem was a disappointment and Amnesia struck me as overwritten and silly rather than scary. So when I started Soma I was worried. I didn’t like the voice of the main character, Simon Jarrett, at first and the set-up of the game seemed like a mash-up between the other Frictional games and BioShock. Yet when I talked with my first robot who didn’t know he was a robot, I realized that this game had more going on. As Soma progresses, it provides a story that is surprising and thought-provoking. And, remarkably, it all fits together logically. So many games sacrifice logic to make game mechanics work. For instance, in Soma you get to hear the final moments of dead characters. In many games, you get this information through journals which beg the question: how did the character write this if they were dying? In Soma, the moment is recorded by a black box that everyone has embedded in their brains. Why your character, Simon, is able to access these black boxes is likewise made clear. While not all elements of the story are spelled out for you, you can piece them together through reflection.

The story is the real strength to Soma. It’s what draws you in after a slow start and what addicts you and keeps you wanting to play even though the horrific environment makes your stomach churn. Yet as the game goes on, another element comes to the fore: Simon’s relationship with Catherine. Catherine is Simon’s guide through the world of Soma. And instead of being a simple computer construct or a manipulative puppet master, Catherine is a three-dimensional person (metaphorically speaking) full of flaws. As Simon and Catherine encounter horrors together a bond forms between them . This is not some hasty romance, but a friendship between two people alone and afraid. They support each other, but also yell at each other and get into arguments. This very human relationship at the center of the game both adds depth to what you experience and underscores the themes the game is exploring.

Basically, the game questions what makes us human. Is our consciousness part of our human bodies or can it survive outside our flesh? And if so, at what cost? And if we entrust more and more of our safety to machines, what will it mean if those machines don’t understand the humanity they are trying to preserve? I have read some reviews that have panned these questions and felt they were too overdone. But I liked them and found their placement in the game to fit really well with what was going on. And I appreciate a game that attempts to make me think as well as feel.

The other main criticism I have seen of Soma concerns the monsters in the game. Some found them disappointing or too repetitive in how you overcome them. While many of them can be dealt with by simply moving slowly and quietly, I thought the various monsters were delightfully creepy. They all had different behaviors that made them feel unique even if, in effect, all I was doing was crawling around to avoid them. While the monsters created some pulse-pounding moments, the creeping dread that permeates the rest of game is the main horror in Soma. This dread is created by the environment, especially the sounds. Yet it is largely conveyed through the story itself, the tale of what happened and what people had do do, what you, as Simon, have to do, and the realization that the only glimmer of hope is a hazy reflection of humanity. It’s a dark game, but dark in an existential way. How many video games can make that claim?

Overall, Soma won me over and drew me down into its depths. I love horror sci-fi, but I’ve found many horror sci-fi games either frustrating to play (Alien: Isolation) or full of incredibly obtuse puzzles and cringingly overwritten characters (Stasis). Soma is a well-thought-out work that provides you with an immersive experience that that gives you plenty to feel as well as think about.

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originally posted February 24, 2016

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