SOMA and the evolution of survival horror in videogames

We catch up with Thomas Grip, designer at Frictional Games, to talk about the Swedish studio's indie survival horror game SOMA and to discuss how indie titles have usurped the likes of Resident Evil as the cutting edge of videogame horror

Article by Jodi Mullen | 23 Sep 2015

Like the gristly abominations that haunt so many of its landmark games, the survival horror genre is evolving, changing beyond recognition. The last half decade or so has seen a tectonic shift in videogame horror, with many heavyweight big budget franchises running aground, from the critical failure of Resident Evil 6 in 2012 to the demise of Dead Space, Alone In the Dark and, more recently, the Silent Hill series.

And yet, while so many of the behemoths of the genre have floundered and been consigned to the grave by sales-driven publishers, a new wave of indie survival horror titles has emerged from the shadows to take their place. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Five Nights at Freddy’s and Outlast have proven far more capable than their triple-A peers at delivering genuine scares by the bucketload whilst they themselves strongly influenced 2014’s standout big-budget horror title, Alien: Isolation.

Game designer Thomas Grip has been at the forefront of this new generation of survival horror since he founded his development studio Frictional Games in 2006. After releasing the Penumbra first-person horror adventure series at the end of the last decade, Frictional’s breakout game came in 2010 with the deeply disturbing psychological horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent. A sequel outsourced to Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room followed in 2013 while Grip and his team worked on their next project, SOMA.

“The horror that I love the most is more subtle and deals with disturbing subject matters. Currently that sort of thing is almost unexplored territory for games. SOMA is our attempt at doing just that" – Thomas Grip

SOMA, a sci-fi first-person survival horror experience, bears many mechanical similarities to its predecessors Amnesia and Penumbra but differs in a number of significant ways, aside from its temporal shift from the Victorian setting of the former to futuristic, underwater environs of the new game. Grip, lead designer on the game, outlines some of the key changes that he believes take SOMA to ‘a higher level’. “SOMA has an active story," he begins. "You still have a lot of background lore to figure out, but unlike Amnesia, you partake in events that move the narrative forward. You do not just learn about a story, you take an active part in it”.

The team at Frictional have also worked hard to make the narrative and gameplay elements sit together seamlessly, offering players a richer story and one that invites plenty of speculation and fan theories. “In Amnesia, the placement of diary entries and notes made no real sense," admits Grip. "In SOMA we have put a lot of effort into making sure that every story bit you find in the game feels real. You can really get a lot of story from just pondering why a note or audio log is in a certain place. We have tried our utmost to make sure the player can take the world seriously”.

Grip also promises significantly more variety in the type of threats the player encounters in SOMA and a change of tone that’s reminiscent of the psychological horror that made games like System Shock and its sequel so memorable in the 1990s. “Amnesia is all about ‘a monster is hunting you’ type of scares," he says. "With SOMA we want the horror to be more cerebral and of the existential kind. We want to induce a sense of terror that is not just the primal "boo" scares, but which really chills you to the core”.

Frictional’s desire to get away from the ‘jump scares’ that occur when encountering these monsters has manifested itself in the strong themes that run throughout the game. While titles like Bioshock were lauded for their attempts to weave philosophical concepts like objectivism into their narrative fabric, Grip believes that these same ideas had little bearing on a player’s actual gameplay experience.  By contrast, he feels that the game and the experience of playing SOMA is very much defined by these themes. “The thematics of SOMA – things like consciousness, AI and personal identity – are not just a background element, they are what the whole game is about," he claims. "As you go through the game you will directly confront these subjects. They are all tightly woven into the gameplay and basic narrative, and are a crucial part of what will make the game scary and unsettling to the player."

He continues; “By supplying certain information to the player, through dialog, graphics and general atmosphere, we let the right sort of questions enter the mind of the player. These questions will then become important elements of certain sections the player needs to play through. The game never says "consciousness is mysterious because...", but by setting up a certain mood and forcing the player into certain situations, we let them realise this themselves. This is a bit risky, as it requires the player to roleplay properly and take the game seriously. Recent play tests have shown that for most people it really works though, which is extremely satisfying to us”.

This more cerebral approach to horror in games is influenced by some of the Frictional team’s favourite authors and, unsurprisingly given Grip’s insights on the thinking behind some of the game’s systems and themes, has a philosophical underpinning. This is another thing it shares with Bioshock – along with its underwater setting – although, SOMA’s inspirations are quite different in tone to the objectivist, libertarian Ayn Rand works that set the tone for Irrational’s game.

“The biggest influences for SOMA have been sci-fi and fantasy from writers like China Mieville, Greg Egan, Peter Watts and Philip K Dick," says Grip. "A lot of inspiration has also come from philosophy and the writings of people such as Daniel Dennet, David Chalmers, Thomas Metzinger, John Searle and many more. Consciousness is a subject I have been deeply interested in for almost 20 years and is what has formed the basis for the subject matters explored."

One of the trends that has characterised the recent wave of indie survival horror games is minimalist, or even absent, combat and gunplay. Even Alien: Isolation rendered the player helpless when faced with the terror of the xenomorph, although shooting sections against androids and humans did dominate later sections of the game. Amnesia: the Dark Descent was one of the first games to remove combat from the horror experience and it’s such an effective tool at unsettling the player that it has been carried forward into SOMA. As Grip explains; “When you remove guns, it becomes unclear to the player how they should approach any given encounter. They become more alert of their surroundings and the soundscape. And when not having to constantly worry about combat related stats, the brain is free to go crazy with fantasies about the slightest sound. It basically amps up the player's imagination and that combined with a greater sense of feeling vulnerable makes a horror game with no combat much more effective at producing scares and a sense of dread”.

The surge of interest in indie horror titles in recent years owes much to the efforts of a core of YouTube vloggers, including PewDiePie, whose Let’s Play videos of horror games have virtually reached meme status in the online community. These videos usually intersperse gameplay sections with webcam footage of the YouTuber terrified out of their wits as they encounter scares, all hammed up for the camera naturally. They’ve proved phenomenally popular – PewDiePie’s Amnesia videos have received tens of millions of views collectively. Grip has been unsurprised by the popularity of this type of content and has his own explanations as to why it does so well.

“I think a major reason is because horror games, especially games like Amnesia, do not require the player to be constantly concentrated on mechanics," he reasons. "But a lot of it happens in your imagination, so that lets the person playing it act out a lot and put on a show as they play the game. On top of that it is also hilarious to see people getting scared for some reason”.

With the new generation of horror titles – both indie and big budget, as recent games like Alien: Isolation and Until Dawn prove – there’s a sense that the genre is finally growing up and moving away from the tried and tested mechanics of the PS1 and PS2 eras. Grip believes that technology and games writing have evolved to a point where developers can attempt something altogether more ambitious and break new ground for horror in videogames. “The horror that I love the most, that you see in movies like The Exorcist and Hard Candy, is horror that is more subtle and deals with disturbing subject matters. Currently that sort of thing is almost unexplored territory for games and I would like a lot more that sort of horror. SOMA is our attempt at doing just that.” 

SOMA is released on PS4, PC and Mac on 22 Sep