So it is with SOMA, the upcoming title from Frictional Games, the team behind 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The entire game, set on the ocean floor, is less Rapture and more Event Horizon, but with plenty of what made the group’s first game so memorable. Perhaps, even, to its detriment.
The demo starts with the player character –Simon – climbing through an organic-looking tunnel into what looks like some sort of space station. “Looks like” being the operative phrase here, as the player quickly finds out this facility is miles beneath the ocean floor.
Grimy and mechanical, the station has all the creaks and groans of what you’d expect in a Frictional title. Every bang, crash and muffled groan of creaking metal gives the simultaneous impression you’re being watched and the station itself is falling apart. It’s scary enough, and the sound design gives a solid impression what you’re hearing isn’t human, but it’s also a little formulaic. “Ooohhhh I’m coming to get you” is a thin tactic by now, and although it provides a little jolt at the beginning, quickly becomes old.
For the most part, however, our time with SOMA was about exploration. During the early part of the game there wasn’t much to do other than walk around and explore your surroundings – which are pretty disturbing. Mechanical/organic matter appears to be taking over the station, taking a cue from Dead Space, although it isn’t fully explained.
In fact, not much is explained at all. It’s clear something has happened – the station is damaged and bodies appear here and there. It’s the job of the player to figure out what, with the help of a nifty device. Characters in SOMA have had implants installed in their brains, which reveal the last 10 seconds of whatever happened to them.
Thomas Grip, creative director at SOMA, says this came out of frustration with audio logs in other horror games – they ask the player to suspend their belief.
“But in SOMA we want the player to take the world seriously and players should be able to think of the placements. The goal is for the placement to tell just as much story as the recording itself. And corpses are a good way to do this. The whole idea also neatly fit with our theme on consciousness and the like.”
All of this is fine enough. But the ocean floor is where SOMA really shines – and where it has the best chance of standing alongside Amnesia.
The effect of a hazy horizon on the ocean floor contributes to a dreamlike-quality, combined with the refracted light from the various stations and hubs from all around you. Sea life appears here and there, but not often, once again adding to this sense of isolation.
The unexplained surroundings are just as strange. We came across some sort of downed spacecraft, confirmed by an audio log revealing the “ship” had crashed.
The scares don’t stop while underwater, either. As we were entering a station, a shape appeared on the roof and a drilling sound began.
At one point, we spent about half an hour trying to make our way on the ocean floor from one objective to another. This ambiguous geography is most definitely by design – getting lost on the ocean floor is terrifying, as dreadful as any haunted mansion. The player’s breathing apparatus has infinite oxygen, but this actually adds to the dread - you have bigger things to be worried about.
Just as Amnesia stripped you of weapons, SOMA gives you nothing to carry, apart from when you’re solving a simple puzzle to open a door. It’s standard fare – plug the fuse into the correct slot – but you still never quite put aside the idea you have nothing to protect yourself with. That feeling exacerbates when you first come across the game’s primary monsters – the Jiangshi.
Zombies, essentially. We’re told by a companion over radio to not trust them, which seems unnecessary. Who trusts a zombie? In any case, running away is your only course of action, with the suspicion there is obviously more to these enemies than is being revealed. And you’ll definitely want to run. Wandering through a game without seeing anyone for two hours and then finally happening upon a zombie, which happens to mess with your vision and other senses, is enough to send you packing.
In the meantime, however, most of SOMA is made up of puzzles. Grip says the team always wants to make the player do something, and have that contribute to the story.
“For instance if you are looking for a key you stumble upon narrative clues along the way. It is important that the player feels like they are playing a story and not just reading about things that occurred in the past.”
“So while you can enjoy just walking around like you said, we want to make sure to spice that up whenever we can. And then of course we want sections that are much more focused on the present, such as hiding from a monster or just taking part in some event that unfolds. Getting the right balance for that is tricky and requires a lot of testing.
SOMA is still a while away – Grip says the game won’t be out until 2015, by which time Amnesia will be nearly five years old. At this point it’s difficult to see whether SOMA will be anything more than a different version of the same game, in an unfamiliar setting.
However, what we’ve seen is encouraging. By fusing the gameplay with more narrative than in Amnesia, the player feels a little more agency over what’s happening – even though they’re still essentially fumbling in the dark.