SOMA: Undersea philosophy
Updated: Jul 21
Intelligent Science Fiction is often philosophical in nature. Normally forward looking into problems that one might have in the distant future. This can be anything from genocidal robots (The Terminator ), Drug induced dystopian nightmares (Bioshock, We Happy Few ) Brave what is human (Blade Runner and also Become Human) and even shooting things with lasers (Independence Day and Turkish Star Wars ). Science Fiction covers a wide range of topics that are, to this day still talked about and debated among everybody from academics and scientists to the average Joe. (David Cage’s use of Holocaust imagery has been a.... interesting talking point in Become Human). However, unlike David Cage’s robot Page. SOMA is a powerfully terrifying game that examines what it means to be human. There are also monsters for some reason.
Simon Jarrett’s ordinary life was turn upside down after a terrible car crash that cost him the life of his girlfriend and his life in the long run. Faced with incurable internal bleeding and brain swelling, Simon took the chance at an experimental brain scan. A possibility of brain reconstruction, as well as the chance to live longer. However, once the machine activates Simon finds himself in a abandoned undersea complex. Upon exploring he finds it filled with sinister monsters and robots that behave in strangely human ways. He teams up with a mostly friendly AI, Catherine and the two get really angsty over the debate on what it means to be human.
The humans in metal
SOMA has some elements of the Walking Sim genre (First Person Camera, a lot of walking and minimal gameplay for greater focus on story). As a result of this, characters have to be rich and interesting in order to make up for the loss of conventional gameplay. A bad game will leave the player character as a gormless mute, a glorified cameraman to watch the interesting characters do the plot. Simon is not only not a fully voiced (wonderfully acted by Jared Zeus by the way) but he has urgency within his own narrative.
His ordinary manner and personality are relatable to the player as he is uncovering everything at the same rate as we are. The existential crisis experienced is all the more powerful because Simon's ordinary worldview is slowly ripped apart in front of us. He gets angry at the seeming inhumanity of Catherine, quietly devastated at the loss of his own humanity and even joyful at times at the promise of hope. He behaves in a way that almost anyone would otherwise react in his situation.
Oh sweet Catherine Chun
Catherine Chun on the other hand is rather difficult to assess. She is something of Simon’s opposite. Despite being comfortable in her AI form (even seeing it as an improvement) she comes across as rather cold towards other AI entities: claiming that they are not truly sentient (even though they are). She is a hypocritical and manipulative towards Simon, even though she is a kind person who wants to save humanity in some way. She is a complicated person whose morals are not always clear. Catherine keeps the player interested in her story through the apparent indifference. Her scientific indifference is intriguing to us as it emphasizes the Alien environment Simon has been thrust into. She becomes a highly motivated character that is engaging within the story and the theme of humanity.
We are only human after all..... Right?
As video games grow and mature as an art form devs will start tackling higher story concepts. Even though concepts, such as sentience or free will have been explored in other mediums (Minority Report or AI: Artificial intelligencefor example). Video Games however, thanks to the addition of interaction can provide their unique spin on deep concepts. Such examples can be with Nier: Automata(Don’t get the Steam version please) or the previously mentioned Bioshock . SOMA drips with existential horror and the loss of humanity.
The monsters are gross monstrosities combining sea life and human flesh. Massive mechanical tendrils infest PATHOS 2, constant reminder of the stations computer WAU: which is spreading through the station “like a cancer”. (Spoiler warning) There is a scene very early in the game where you, Simon must disconnect a robot in order to divert power. Each socket you pull out, she weakly protests “No...I need that..” It was only after I had killed it I released that, I had committed murder. I did the equivalent of switching off a woman’s life support. SOMA’s slips a deeply disturbing moment into what is already a terrifying game. All through thematic context alone.
Why are there monsters again?
SOMA (as with any Frictional game) is terrifying. The sequences where Simon has to stealth past the various horrors are genuinely nightmarish. This is owed to the fantastic sound design and visual cues that create a fantastic atmosphere. The down time moments always put you on edge with the continuous reminders of loneliness. There are no humans left in the station. However there is a problem. Even though the monsters do inflect the correct reaction out of the player, the plot reason for their existence is weak and impactful. The WAU is spreading the bad substance that makes the monsters, that is it.
The requirement of monsters
The monsters feel less like a reason to exist within the story but as a requirement for gameplay to happen. The WAU itself too feels rather pointless outside a visual and slight thematic role. It is never really established as a definite threat but more as thematically appropriate obligation. A scary thing that is there for no good reason. In Silent Hill the monsters represent aspects of the PC’s mind; SHODAN twisted the residents of VON BRAUN to be loyal servants. At best the monsters in SOMA have some thematic value but not much else.
Gameplay is very much the same as any other Frictional game. You explore various spooky scary environments; perform whatever task/puzzle that is required to be solved before proceeding to next level. Sometimes a monster has to be sneaked past/run away from. That is kind of it really. All of the game's mechanics are well put together and work perfectly fine. If you have ever played/ watched Amnesia: the Dark Decent then you have seen/played SOMA. There are no combat mechanics or inventory management as most items picked up are used within the next room at most.
(Not)Looking at the enemy
When a monster spawns in a particular area Simon has to stealth his way to success. It is here where the game as a survival horror comes into its own. You have to keep to the shadows, without light and avoid making any sounds. You have to rely on the brilliantly terrifying sound design and memory of the area’s map design in order to get from point A to B. The amazing use of static (audio-visual ) add to the sense of horror as one simple sound, a single misjudgement of distance or wrong turn make everything go wrong. The level design is open ended with monster encounters. which permit multiple hiding places and routes towards victory. It is stressful but also not unfair. Expect one however.
That one monster I dislike
Towards the end of the game, the final monster encounter of the game. The area itself is a series of corridors and small rooms. The moment the monster has spawned it knows instantly where you are no matter where you are hiding or how far you are away from the monster. It opens doors and if it doesn’t then it will petrol outside the door. The game, which has always stressed stealth and patience, suddenly throws all that out of the window. You are expected to outrun a monster that is faster than you, dashing through a number of rooms waiting for a door to open. It was harrowing but frustrating to unlearn the patterns that had been drilled into me from the start.
Graphics and art style:
Graphical fidelity is sharp and crisp. Even though most of the colour ratio is dull gray metal, it makes sense in this case however. Pathos 2 was never meant to be a comfortable place. It is beautifully Unitarian. The metallic vines mentioned earlier are a wonderfully disturbing stylistic choice, the AI growing and consuming the entirety of the station.
SOMA suffers from some bad optimisation. Namely the unusually long loading times when loading up a game for the first time. It can take almost a minute to load. There is also a problem where every time a new area loads. The game freezes noticeably each time another part of the game loads. It’s annoying and distracting when these things happen as the game is otherwise quite stable.
SOMA, despite its problems is an enjoyably scary survival horror that does tackle some interesting themes. I wish the monsters were more compelling on a story level or that the WAU’s presence was not so forgettable or resolved in such an anti-climatic manner. However if you fancy an intelligent, survival horror that is not Silent Hill 2 then this is a pretty good substitute.