Video Game Review: SOMA (2015)
Studio: Frictional Games
Genre: Survival Horror
Key Creators: Thomas Grip (Director), Mikael Hedberg (Writer)
In a Nutshell: Without spoiling anything, here’s the idea. You are Simon, an ordinary guy with a tumor who signs up for an experimental brain scan. When you sit down and close your eyes for said scan, you open your eyes to find yourself in a mysteriously empty and foreboding environment devoid of other humans but full of broken machines and weird oily-goop. With the help of your trusty AI guide who lives in your omnitool (this tool just opens things for you and works many of the computers), you set off to explore and find a way out of what turns out to be an underwater research facility. If you play or watch this, get ready to get spooked by the creepy robots who wander this haunting setting and by just generally the existential crisis of questioning what it means to be human.
The Critique: I love this game. It’s not very fun to play, though. It is very good at being what it is, which is a survival horror game. This is to be expected from Frictional Games as they are the creators of that monolithic example of this sub-genre: Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This means you will be uncomfortable for a large amount of the time you’re playing simply because of the atmosphere, even when you’re not actively running away from the various zombie-like-robots. When you are actively avoiding the robots, you will be alternatively running away from and/or crouch-sneaking around them. This is no surprise as this is the bread and butter of survival horror gameplay. In most cases, your only agency is the ability to move around and evade enemies, as you can’t just shoot them. This is what makes it scary. You are practically powerless and your job is not to dominate or defeat anything as you would in a number of games, but rather to just survive against forces which can easily kill you. This anxiety of not being caught and killed makes the weird chirping sounds of a nearby robot put you on edge. This is effective to the point that I soon developed an automatic and reflexive crouch-and-turn-off-flashlight response to those sounds because otherwise I would probably die. This game has put me in several instances of running away from things with my heart pounding as I stream obscenities with the intermittent “please no no no.” If you like that type of survival horror gameplay, then awesome, it’s exactly what you would expect and it pulls it off with flying colors. However, it doesn’t do anything new with its gameplay and if you don’t really love that dynamic, then it gets pretty boring. In my opinion, it’s not fun to play.
That’s really not what makes SOMA shine though. The gameplay isn’t memorable, but the story is. It stands out because it’s an effective experience beyond even that patent survival horror anxiety. Yes, it does its horror game job of scaring you, but this game is popular arguably because it makes you think in ways that are simultaneously fascinating, unsettling, and frequently depressing. Even when good things seem to happen, it reminds you that things might actually be futile and meaningless or even cruel. While it doesn’t sound fun to be sad and unsettled, it is somehow satisfying. This game lives on its effective storytelling and plot twists. After watching and playing this game, I found myself coming back to it mentally, thinking about its morals and the lose-lose choices I had to make. It’s a rollercoaster with lots of emotional dips, but it’s still a hell of a ride overall.
Buy it Now, Wait for a Sale, or Just Watch a LetsPlay: Watch a LetsPlay. This game does some really cool, interesting, and innovative stuff with its story by intentionally make you feel bad in a number of ways but still somehow makes you like it overall. While those negative feelings it revolves around are compounded by the implications of playing and acting out the things it guilts you for, it is still effective when watched instead. Personally, I felt playing it wasn’t much better than watching it, so save the money and just watch it unless you really love survival horror gameplay.
Editor's Note: If you *are* interested in purchasing SOMA, check out this Humble Bundle that includes the game (among several others) for less than $7!