Underwater, No One Can Hear You Scream
2015 has been an incredible year for video games, and even the horror genre has seen its fair share of great games, too. The latest game to join the ranks is SOMA, a sci-fi first-person horror game for PC and PS4 from the folks at Frictional Games. The developer is known for being responsible for creating what’s typically thought of as being one of the scariest video games of all time, 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. After five years, Frictional Games is releasing their follow-up right in time for Halloween, and it may well be the scariest video game released all year. [early story spoilers ahead]
SOMA grants the player first-person control of the main character in its story, Simon Jarrett. Simon has recently been in a tragic car accident that killed his girlfriend and left him with a condition that has rendered him only a couple of months left to live. On a whim, Simon decides to attempt to save his life through an experimental brain scan procedure. As the brain scan starts, Simon blacks out and awakens in an entirely different room in what appears to be a futuristic station of some kind.
This “futuristic station” is soon to be discovered as being an underwater base called PATHOS-2. Not only does Simon have no idea how he ended up here, but he has no idea where he is or when in time he is. As you travel through the halls of the Upsilon base of PATHOS-2 as Simon, a woman named Catherine begins to communicate with you. She tells you to travel to Lambda; another branch of the PATHOS-2 underwater facility. Upon arrival at Lambda, two things are revealed: Catherine is an AI replica of someone who once worked at this station; and every other human on Earth is dead.
Catherine tells you of the WAU; an AI program that has taken over PATHOS-2 in hopes of saving humanity. Unfortunately, the WAU has only created these human/machine hybrid monsters from the remains of the dead bodies of the PATHOS-2 facility workers through use of structure gel that reanimates dead organisms and machines and now covers large portions of the facility. Catherine goes on to also tell you of the ARK; a satellite which her human counterpart previously worked on that possesses a computer world that would house the brain scans of the staff of PATHOS-2, and Simon, allowing for humanity to somewhat “live on.” From here on out, it’s up to Simon to find the ARK and “save humanity.”
The basic gameplay structure of SOMA is comparable to other games in the genre, like Outlast and Alien: Isolation. You’re allowed no weapons and no way to defeat the monsters that the WAU has created. Your only hope of survival is to hide and sneak past the monsters. This lack of offense really makes for some incredibly tense moments. Like, say, a moment where you’re not entirely sure which dark hallway to go down and you can hear the footsteps of the creature lurking around you, and when it spots you, you do your best to sprint away to safety as you hear it gaining fast.
SOMA is split up into two alternating gameplay sections: exploration sections and stealth sections. For a good portion of the game, you’re allowed to search around each branch of the PATHOS-2 facility, looking for clues as to what occurred to wipe out humanity. Simon has an ability to interact with broken down intercoms and the bodies of dead facility workers and hear the final conversation that played out from said intercom or dead person, thus giving some interesting backstory to the facility and its people. There’s also some puzzle solving in these sections, but they’re generally pretty easy to navigate.
The other half of the gameplay in SOMA is what I mentioned before; stealthily sneaking around the dark corridors of the stations, trying your best to not be torn apart by some horrifying creature. What makes this gameplay loop keep from becoming stale very quickly is that each encounter with the monsters in SOMA is different, as each station of PATHOS-2 has its own unique monster with unique traits. One monster is blind, and relies only on the sound of your footsteps and doors you open, etc. Another monster will only truly sense you if you’re looking in its direction.
These sections could potentially feel tedious if the player is to die and restart the entire section. Thankfully, SOMA tries its hardest to keep the player alive. If a monster catches you once, you’re simply knocked unconscious and are then relegated to limping through the rest of the section before you can heal up (of course, if the monster catches you again before you can heal, it’s back to the previous checkpoint for you). There’s also a smart way of conveying distance between the player and the monster in which the screen will become more and more distorted as the monster gets closer.
It isn’t necessarily these gameplay moments that made SOMA a scary experience. These moments when facing off with monsters are tense, but not necessarily jump-outta-your-seat scary. SOMA never really goes for the jump-scare kind of horror. It’s the presentation and some of the story beats in particular that really make the game unnerving for me (I won’t get into what makes the story particularly scary as it would be spoiler-y, but I will say that there’s some serious stuff to think about in the ending of this game that’s truly kind of frightening to think about).
The presentation in SOMA is particularly fantastic. Sound design-wise, hearing the monster stomp around, not quite sure where it’s at, makes for some particularly frightening moments especially when paired with the eerie music. The voice acting, on the other hand, is quite hit-or-miss. Simon and Catherine are voiced well and the actors do a good job of conveying a lot of emotion in their voices, but the voice acting sort of falls apart with some of the side characters. SOMA, for the most part, looks pretty great graphically. What it may lack in texture quality and character animation, it makes up for in atmosphere and lighting and the extensive design of the PATHOS-2 facility, which bears a strong resemblance to H.R. Giger’s designs for the ship in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
The gameplay in SOMA can be quite exhilarating and fun, but it is really the strong story that made me spend about 8-10 hours lurking through the halls of PATHOS-2. The game’s story has fantastic pacing, and it really propels you forward to finish it. It’s a scary game, but not for reasons you would likely expect from a game of this ilk. SOMA will leave you thinking long and hard about some of its extremely dark themes, making for one of the scariest video games I can honestly think of.