Few games leave the player with the lingering, sometimes troubling feelings that stick with you after playing SOMA. From Frictional Games, who scared the pants off Youtubers with the Amnesia series, this is a more contemplative game. You play Simon, normal in every way except that he’s slowly dying from a bleed in the brain. While receiving an experimental new scan everything goes dark. When the lights come back on, he’s in Pathos-II, a facility at the bottom of the Ocean. All is not well here. The base’s AI has worked its way into all the electrical systems, machines and sea-life merge in unintended ways, and a few old robots have forgotten they’re robots.
It’s first person and reminiscent of the Amnesia games and their imitators. You can crouch and peek around corners or pick up scrap off the floor and toss it about. Occasionally you’ll need to break a window by lobbing something heavy through it. As you head deeper into the complex you meet with various hideous predators that will make trouble. Hiding and sneaking play a big part of the game, but SOMA doesn’t ask you to spend hours tucked away in lockers. Instead you’ll need to duck in a corner and wait for the best moment to shuffle past undetected.
Sometimes you’ll escape. If not, the game uses a forgiving second chance system. Getting caught by an enemy once will knock you back, get caught again before reaching a healing station and you’re finished. What’s remarkable is how rarely this happens. The game wants you to be frightened, but it never feels like your obstacles are insurmountable. They are simply part of the unfortunate sequence of events Simon is trapped within. As such, events progress at a pace that feels appropriate to the experience.
Complimenting this, each encounter with an enemy is unique. There are no Goombas here; no enemy feels like a generic “SOMA Monster” haunting every corridor. Instead each encounter feels like a planned moment, designed to frighten you in just the right way. When their time is done, they bow out of the story. It is not unusual to find long periods of time going by without an encounter and yet the game feels no emptier for it. In these sequences the setting, and the science fiction is allowed to breath. It maintains tension, but isn’t afraid to put away the action now and then. SOMA feels like a curated experience, controlled and patient, as if every corner, ever room was tested and retested to make sure events flowed smoothly. I haven’t played something so well managed since Bioshock.
To go into more detail would spoil things. Even so, the game is adept out outmanoeuvring your speculations. If you play expecting to guess the twist, you might be disappointed. Whatever your ideas are, the developers thought of them first. When the truth of Simon’s journey is revealed, it comes neither too early or too late, and is less a surprise than a feeling of immense satisfaction. It is a masterpiece of storytelling.
If it has a weakness, it’s in variety. This isn’t a long game, but you’re going to see a lot of airlocks and corridors before it’s over. That’s a consequence of the setting, and they do try to shake it up. You’ll spend time walking across the ocean floor, or riding transport vehicles, but it’s never long before you’re staring at corridors again. This carries across to the monsters too. While each encounter feels unique, the visual style of the creatures themselves is pretty consistent. Rotten flesh and junk in various arrangements. It’s not a bad style and you’ll spend most of your time hiding from them anyway, but non really stand out like a Xenomorph or a Big Daddy.
This isn’t a deal breaker though because SOMA plays to its strengths. It takes its little bag of ideas and polishes them until they’re absolutely sparkling. It grips the player immediately, and confronts them with difficult questions. This is a game about being human, you will explore what it means to be yourself, and what it means to be alive. At times the game does an eerily effective job of breaking down the fourth wall and making you question where the game stops and reality begins.
SOMA is something special. It’s a great horror game, and a tidy little first person narrative experience that makes the most of a conservative budget and a limited scope. That’s an achievement in itself. But it also explores territory few other games have, it opens with a quote by Philip K Dick, and like Dick, it uses science fiction to make you question your fundamental understanding of the world. Here it succeeds too.