Review: SOMA, a Lovecraftian-themed game

This post is by Acep Hale.

My dear unknown friend,

Let me now turn your attention towards video games, and not just any video game, but Frictional’s latest offering, SOMA. Most will remember Frictional from their 2010 offering, Amnesia: The Dark Descent which broke new ground in the horror game market and given the plethora of reaction videos still plaguing Youtube Amnesia still firmly holds its seat as one of the most frightening video games ever released. Frictional Games handed off development for the sequel Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs to The Chinese Room and focused its own sights upon SOMA.

Before we go further it is my fervent wish you would plunge into this game knowing as little as possible, yet I myself would be grudging at best to fork over $30 on such advice. Knowing this I will try to keep revelations to a minimum and will be using screenshots released by Frictional Games themselves in order to keep as many elements of discovery and surprise intact as possible.

SOMA wears its sci-fi/horror trappings proudly. The game opens with a quote from Philip K Dick. Its deep oceanic setting recalls HP Lovecraft’s most iconic creations. SOMA‘s creature designs immediately bring to mind the work of H.R. Giger and David Cronenberg’s films. If the memory of the phrase, “Say, Bill. Would you rub some of this powder on my lips?” from Cronenberg’s 1991 film Naked Lunch makes you squirm then this game will positively make you writhe in your seat.

The loading screen of SOMA is an animated MRI of Simon, the game’s protagonist, the usual blank everyman yet within the confines of this game the old shopworn conceit works admirably well. This MRI is peeled back, layer by layer, a flipbook revealing nothing. Fitting for the existential horror of SOMA. Soma a greek word for body, usually used when discussing the mind and the body. It is also the name for a drink/plant/drug in the Indian Vedas long believed to be mythical (although modern researchers believe they have found the myth’s basis) that granted one immortality. Aldous Huxley used it as a device in his 1931 science fiction classic Brave New World, recasting soma as a universally endorsed hallucinogenic drug. As should be readily apparent by now, the title for this game gives us our first clue as to its principal concern. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness” and Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” are two other touchstones that will reward genre fans.

Frictional Games have stripped all conventional trappings that lend comforting familiarity to gamers and lead to a further divide in experience. Gone are on screen guides, way points, or even the ability to fight Pathos-II’s warped and mutated inhabitants. Much like Lovecraft’s creations one does not fight the overwhelmingly powerful, one must avoid them, crouching in the shadows, remaining out of sight, praying you don’t inadvertently stumble into a stack of supplies and send it clattering to the floor.

The audiovisual design of this game lives up to its high concept. If possible I would play this game with a good pair of headphones. The game’s soundtrack is standard yet effective fare for a horror game but it is in the sound design that SOMA shines. Pathos-II groans, sighs, and occasionally shrieks under the immense oceanic pressure, doors shift and stick until their opening becomes tense experiences unto themselves, and the found voice logs fill in the extremely satisfying story of what befell Pathos-II and her crew.

Same goes with the visual design. At first glance some may think of BioShock if only for the undersea motif yet whereas BioShock went for a steampunk appeal SOMA opts for the bio-mechanical fusings of H.R. Giger. When your character does leave the interior of Pathos-II to travel the ocean depths it is not freedom yet rather Warner Herzog’s assertion, “Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger,” that springs to mind. (I just imagined how incredible it would be if H.P. Lovecraft and Warner Herzog had dinner together. The mind boggles dear heart.)

In earlier days this would have been a point and click investigative game yet Frictional Games has changed that tired genre into an entirely tactile experience. One drags drawers open, pulls cables, moves objects roughly about the screen. Anything that isn’t nailed down can be picked up, thrown, examined and manipulated. Puzzles have been streamlined away from passive aggressive nerd vengeance towards logic exercises that advance the plot. An equal or greater amount of time is given in this game to ethical questioning yet thankfully there is no judging, no influence on the game’s outcome based on these decisions. Instead one is left to imagine the repercussions of their decisions. SOMA is a game that respects the imagination.

In the end this is what impressed me the most about Frictional Games’ latest offering and made me believe it would be of special interest to readers of Lovecraft eZine. Here we have a game that even though it does have sections of pulse pounding terror instead chooses to turn in another direction towards a deeper horror. First confronting us with the fear of dying alone, futilely, hundreds of miles away from any other living soul on the bottom of the ocean floor and then once we have become comfortable with that crushing weight asking us at what cost, in what diminished capacity, are we willing to cling to our lonely existence? This game, like our beloved Lovecraft, asks us to consider ourselves and in that consideration we may find ourselves more frightening than other’s monsters.

SOMA is available for PS4, MAC, Windows, and Linux. Mac, Windows, and Linux versions purchased through the Humble Store will have 10% of the purchase price donated to charity.

2 responses to “Review: SOMA, a Lovecraftian-themed game

  1. I played through SOMA over a period of about two weeks, shortly after it was released. While some of the puzzles are a bit tedious, and detracted from the game play, overall I thought it was very good, very entertaining. It wasn’t as heart-stoppingly scary as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but I don’t think that’s what Frictional was going for with this game. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are some interesting and disquieting moral choices one must make in SOMA–’nuff said.

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