SOMA – How I learned to stop worrying and love PROGRESS
I’m quite late to the party when it comes to SOMA, but is it ever too late to delve into the murky waters of a modern classic? Nope. Frictional Games has become something of a household name amongst the PC gaming community – particularly on the back of the breakout Indie Horror hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This was a truly shit-yourself, sweaty-palmed, “Oh god, don’t make me keep playing” scare-fest. Full-disclosure time – I could never play Amnesia for more than 20 minute stints at a time (to prevent the massive coronary event which will inevitably kill me. Just loading the game I could hear my arteries hardening…).
The moment you pick up SOMA and start to interact with your environment, the roots of Amnesia start to become very clear indeed. A fantastic aspect to come out of Amnesia (which remains every bit as nail-biting in it’s genetic descendent SOMA) is the downright sadistic fascination with closed doors. Your average Triple-A horror installment will have its fair share of jump scares behind closed doors – it’s pretty firmly ingrained in me to beware any elevator, doorway, stairwell and dark corner; but no game or developer has made the process of opening a door as heart-stoppingly horrific as Amnesia, SOMA and the works of Frictional Games. The way they’ve achieved this is quite brilliant. Rather than have an ‘Open door’ button to have it swing open before you – simply click on the door and then, whilst your every nerve screams ‘NO, DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR YOU FUCKING MANIAC’, you have to drag your cursor and inch by inch unveil whatever nightmares your mind conjure (helped along by the utterly chilling musical score, courtesy of the excellent Mikko Tarmia). Despite the knowledge that 90% of the time, you’ll find nothing to fear on the other side of the door – that won’t stop it being as downright Shit-ifying the next 50 times you have to do it.
The premise of a post-apocalyptic world may seem rather done-to-death these days – but SOMA has a rare quality that few games will ever possess. Clichéd as it feels to write, this game made me question what it is to be human. The moral quandaries at the heart of the narrative will genuinely haunt you in a way I wasn’t convinced games could achieve. This isn’t the only way SOMA sets itself apart from the ever expanding field of single player games in a post apocalyptic setting. The environment is something I had not expected when diving into SOMA (zing!); I had been labouring under the assumption that I would be in sterile lab-style environments a la Portal – however, I found myself exploring the depths of the ocean with disparate visual cues and an unfamiliar world, interspersed with hulking monolithic structures littering the sea-bed. The process of finding your way amongst the rocky sea floor, evading the genuinely alarming terrors you face is nothing short of captivating.
I’m reluctant to reveal too many details of the plot – I truly believe this is a game to be experienced first hand and I can’t express enough how unique a ride it is; and not one to miss. Despite having a wealth of frights (all too many were enough to encourage a little bit of piss to dribble out) the game strikes a deeply satisfying balance between horror and narrative. There are sizeable periods where you don’t necessarily feel ‘in danger’ and can freely roam, absorb your surroundings and soak in the narrative – internally tossing back and forth the moral dilemmas the game forces you to confront.
If you find yourself daunted by the horror aspect of the game, the modding community has your back. A recent instalment in the form of “Wuss Mode: Monsters Won’t Attack” – a free mod on the Steam Workshop will go full Ronseal and do exactly what it says on the tin. All ‘enemies’ (or rather ‘Entities’) will become totally non-violent. At times, the AI did become a little over-bearing during my playthrough. Once spotted, I felt pretty much certain I was going to feel that bitter sting of the ‘game over’ screen. As welcome as this mod may be for many players, I can’t help but feel that it takes a certain sense of excitement away from the game. The thrill of spotting a horrendous, teleporting man-beast-machine coming at you; having to turn and run – facing away from the nasty bastard and running like hell felt amazing. To survive one of those encounters really felt like I’d achieved something in a game where the majority of the challenges will test your mental strength over your ability to play video games.
All in all, this game has made me super excited about the transition developers have been able to make from a modern Indie masterpiece like Amnesia: The Dark Descent to a sumptuous, beautiful and tragic work of art like SOMA.
The graphics alone can stand and bang with some of the best Triple-A games out there – but it’s the story elevates the medium to what wider society can recognise as a legitimate and valuable art form. PLAY IT.
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