What is a person? How much does our physical state relate to our identities? Do our memories get interpreted by our personalities as much as our personalities are shaped by our memories? Will this game even give me the gosh darn time to process the existential quandaries it spurts out as much as it spurts out gameplay-induced terror? Is that the point?
SOMA was released in 2015 by the same Frictional Games that put together Amnesia, and the semantic link between the names is quite relevant. As in Amnesia, you control a character who uses his brain to try and piece together the narrative beats that brought him here, his opposable thumbs to solve spatial puzzles, and his knees to be as quiet and low as possible so the spooky bipedal creatures will just stop chasing him please oh god.
SOMA’s gameplay elements are kept relatively minimalistic. Your left hand is dealing with regular ol’ movement with your left trigger to run and some sprinkling of peeking around corners. Your right hand, however, is putting in a welcome amount of more effort. In-game actions are quite accurately kinetically represented by what your hands are doing. Tapping the right trigger pushes buttons and pushes your face into screens to use like any other chunk of UI. Holding RT keeps interactables in your grip, which then allows the right stick to be used in conjunction to articulate drawers, levers, all kinds of fun stuff.
Although, the actual novelty of this system depends wholly on the narrative context. The opening sequence of rifling through protag Simon’s apartment for some brain juice becomes
“okay, I get it, you can open drawers, where that juice at?!” But then there’s the scary stuff where your success at certain encounters is dependant on how much of a cool you can keep over your own hands as the spooks keep stomping towards you for pete’s sake just let me open this sliding door in peace thank you.
Writing these paragraphs this way isn’t for nothing – SOMA’s ebb and flow is constantly shifting between two clear segments. Brilliant sections of character, philosophy, and worldbuilding are routinely interjected with gameplay rooms of “find the ‘progress the game’ button without screwing up activating it, which you absolutely will because a spooky man is constantly behind you and will knock you to the ground you wuss.”
So I played it on easy mode, wups.
While the very conscious terror of monsters chasing you to kill you helps engage you with the psychological and existential horror, the more gamey-feeling monster encounters seemed to get in the way of the utterly enthralling story.
SOMA came out again in December 2017, except this time for the Xbox One. This release has a ‘safe mode’, effectively enabling god mode and rendering the monsters harmless. On one hand, it was an utter relief to be able to NOPE out of the horror part of the game. On the other, as you would expect, there’s a noticeable lack of urgency. The terror related to not wanting to see the monster for fear of starting a section over again is gone. This sure doesn’t make the monsters big teddy bears – they’re still utterly unnerving in visual and sound design – but once you remember that there’s no penalty for touching them, it almost becomes a game to find them and give them a big ol’ sloppy grandma kiss on the cheek.
Unless that was just me trying to alleviate the tension created by the damn fine execution of everything else.
The writing is all kinds of lovely. Lead voice cast Jared Zeus (oh, wow) and Nell Mooney audibly have a great time as professional Toronto man Simon Jarrett and professional GLaDOS and Dr. Halsey fangirl Catherine Chun – it would be hard to NOT have a good time with the kind of dialogue they have to grapple over. Anything from narrative themes to specific emotional beats are foreshadowed just to the right amount (Simon describes drinking the brain juice as tasting metallic via “sucking on a penny”. Catherine just so happens to not hear some of Simon’s early questions. And all the philosophical points it brings up are explored and followed through with gosh darn satisfyingly (as in the narrative beats where you change suits, or sit in a lift for a while, or linger with a lady.) Without spoilers, it’s hard to appropriately gush over how exceptionally well directed and satisfying some sequences are. Immerse yourself in the world, and the world will reward you. Especially the lift.