Existential Crisis (and monsters I guess) - SOMA
I don't know if I can fully articulate the profound impact that Frictional Games has had on the internet. In my review/retrospective examination of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I touched on how their games ignited the career of Pewdiepie, Youtube's biggest star, and forever changed the landscape of Let's Plays, live gaming streams, and, indeed, horror in general.
Frictional is still a small studio, but it's easy to see how they're transitioning to a point where people watch their releases with eager anticipation on a level normally reserved for the likes of heavyweights like Blizzard or Bethesda. The thing is, it wasn't always like this. As a small company starting out, they chiefly had to rely on word-of-mouth to sell their product, and what was the biggest platform for people to share their opinions in the internet age? Youtube, baby.
Now, it seems their fates are inextricably tied. Pewdiepie's big breakthrough came through doing a Let's Play of Amnesia (and, to a lesser extent, other horror games). Frictional's big breakthrough came when people saw the Let's Plays of Amnesia, and their sales steadily rose.
I mention all this, because I think it's important background for understanding my impressions of their latest entry, SOMA.
SOMA puts you in the role of Simon Jarrett, a 26-year old Torontonian (yes, really) who was recently involved in a car accident that took the life of his friend and left him with permanent, possibly fatal, brain damage. Shortly after the accident, Simon was contacted by a somewhat-sketchy grad student at York University who proposed a radical new treatment: a 3-dimensional brain scan that they could use to map a possible treatment. They game kicks off with you waking up in your apartment on the day of the scan, and heading to the somewhat run-down laboratory of the student, David Munshi.
Everything starts off normally. You find and consume a solution that'll help the scan's mapping, you get your keys, leave your apartment, and catch the subway (at Osgoode station! They did their homework. They even made sure to include the CN tower in the view outside the window of the downtown lab).
And then the scan happens, and everything goes full Through the Looking Glass.
You "wake up" from the brain scan inside a pitch-black, futuristic laboratory in a state of absolute ruin. The observation window leading into the room is cracked. Tools, circuitry and other sci-fi gak is strewn about. Following basic human instinct, you investigate your surroundings. That's when you hear the sounds of a robot coming to life, propelled by some kind of semi-organic compound infecting its servos and actuators.
To borrow a phrase from the immortal words of Zero Wing: WHAT HAPPEN.
Well, that's difficult to explain without giving away the majority of the plot, and while that plot doesn't contain TOO much in the way of surprises or revelations, it really is the strongest part of the game. Suffice it to say that it is NOT all just a dream, and you are indeed in the future, somehow. I can't begin to say how much of a relief it was that SOMA didn't succumb to this most base of clichés, and I'm happy to pass that relief on to you ahead of time.
So, since I'm going to try to refrain from talking about the plot, let me instead talk about the graphics, the gameplay, and the design. First off, this game is GORGEOUS. The environments are unique and varied. The base in which the game takes place features several different sub-stations, each with their own aesthetic and purpose that is readily apparent. The underwater sequences are especially brilliant, showcasing the biodiversity and colour of the ocean in a way that I've never seen before in a video game. You encounter fluorescent fish, underwater spiders, drifting seaweed...one very notable highlight I didn't even click on at first glance was a sunken submarine, half-buried in the seabed and blending in with the rock.
The sound design is terrific as well. Every physics object clatters and rattles against the walls and floor of the base with a noise that feels real. The hum of machinery is subdued in some sections, overbearing and loud in others. The muted noise of the water around you is omnipresent, burbling and leaking at one point, then hammering down with the fury of a torrent in another. The music is somewhat limited, and little less memorable than in, say, Amnesia: a Machine for Pigs. This is a minor complaint, however.
Which brings me to the gameplay. Unfortunately, here is where I have to play bad cop for a moment. I brought up the relationship between Frictional and their fans/marketers for a reason. Like Amnesia and Penumbra, there are monsters in SOMA, and just like in those other games, you are incapable of fighting them, so your only option is to hide and/or sneak past them. I cannot begin to say how annoying this is.
See, the thing is, these monsters are at best tangentially related to the central conflict of SOMA. Their presence, in the grand picture of what has occurred at this underwater base, is so contrived as to be laughable. They are there to make the game harder, but moreover to make the game more like Frictional's previous games. That is it.
It's disappointing, because it reads like Frictional came up with a dynamic, interesting meditation on the nature of human existence, and then felt compelled to throw in these rubbish bad guys out of fear of alienating their core demographic. It's understandable, in a way; as a small studio, they literally can't afford to NOT sell units. Still, I can't help feeling like most gamers would've forgiven the absence of jump-scare beasties in favour of the far superior, existential, upsetting horror that makes up the core of SOMA's plot.
All of this said, SOMA is still unquestionably Frictional's best game to date. The writing is the strongest I've ever seen from them, the characters are believable and fleshed out, and the ending is compelling and thought-provoking. Where in other horror games your protagonist is distant and unreadable (often completely silent), Simon Jarrett is a wholly sympathetic and complex individual with wants and desires that evolve in a way that makes sense. SOMA does play a certain moral choice card a few too many times, but I forgive this relatively minor sin on the basis that it does have enough variation to be impactful each time it happens.
It may well be that I'm unfairly judging SOMA on the basis of what I think it could have been, rather than what it is. What it is is another solid entry into the horror genre from a great studio, and something you should definitely check out.