"In SOMA we have put a lot of effort into making sure that every story bit you find in the game feels real. We have tried our utmost to make sure the player can take the world seriously”. Talking to The Skinny ahead of SOMA’S release, director Thomas Grip of Frictional Games can certainly rest easy in this regard. By even the strongest of videogame standards, SOMA is a believable bit of world building and a lesson to other developers that less is often more.
This is not to say that SOMA takes place in a world players can really buy into though. After a brief present-day, real-world opening, things take a turn for the surreal when protagonist Simon’s unconventional brain scan goes awry and he wakes up in a strange, robotic future. Fans of Philip K. Dick will feel right at home with such a familiar premise and it’s no coincidence the game opens with one of the author’s quotes; “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
What SOMA gets right is that within this implausible world, everything feels right. There’s little-to-none of the usual videogame trappings – no glowing markers to guide you, no random collecting of trinkets and no wearisome ‘crafting’ that seems to be mandatory for games these days. Instead there are organic puzzles to solve, where a computer terminal can be opened by keying in the badge number of a dead worker you passed a few minutes ago. In a rather far-fetched world, every step of progress seems to make sense.
There are nods to various gaming greats of the past threaded throughout SOMA. The baton from developers Frictional Games has clearly been passed on from their previous Amnesia games but the step up in technical quality is evident. The exploratory nature and even the spaces themselves are reminiscent of indie darling Gone Home (itself influenced by Amnesia) and the unavoidable shadow of BioShock looms over the underwater research world of PATHOS-2.
Coming within a year of the excellent Alien: Isolation will likely cause many to make further connections. Both share a beguiling utilitarian world and both rely on the spaces between the jump scares to really unnerve players. Yet, where Alien pared back combat, SOMA is even sparser. Running into one of the few, yet memorable foes is all the more underwear discolouring when all you’re armed with is a techno-babble omni-tool for opening doors.
Such streamlining is a boon for investing yourself into SOMA’s world and storytelling. Its HUD-free presentation will ensure your eyes are invested in what’s going on in the disquieting world rather than on your health bar or ammo stocks. On that subject, praise should also be given for SOMA’s rather simple but effective spin on ‘dying’ – again an aspect that bucks normal videogame trends put makes perfect sense here.
If we’re going to be picky then one aspect that may draw player ire is the sheer lack of handholding. Even if, like The Skinny, you’re firmly in the camp of having less prompts along the lines of ‘press jump to jump’, SOMA’s complete hands-off approach can lead to a lot of time spent wandering around, poking your face into every nook and cranny in search of an answer. Yet when the answer comes, it’s always accompanied by a slap to the forehead, such is the game's straight-up logic.
SOMA is a game that thinks long and hard about what a game can be, in much the same way that trailblazers such as Dear Esther and Gone Home did, but like Amnesia before it, it offers enough gameplay and fresh ideas to stand on its own two feet. However, its absence of gunplay, lack of easy jump scares and adherence to unflashy puzzling may be enough to put many mainstream gamers off. It shouldn’t though, as SOMA offers some smart and compelling gaming that deserves a wider audience.