Thursday, February 16, 2017

SOMA Review: Somewhere Beyond the Sea

"From the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent comes SOMA, a sci-fi horror game set below the waves of the Atlantic ocean. Struggle to survive a hostile world that will make you question your very existence." That's the product description on Steam, which labels SOMA specifically as a horror game, and even goes so far as to imply that it's not just horror -- it's survival-horror. That's kind of misleading, I feel, because SOMA really feels more like an adventure game first and foremost. The story is clearly the main point of emphasis, with you spending the bulk of the game learning about what happened to the doomed crew of the futuristic underwater research station, Pathos-II, and solving light puzzles to progress. The horror elements are definitely there -- a few monsters show up to impede your progress, and there are some good scripted scares and moments of genuine tension -- but the horror in SOMA is really more of a theme than a core gameplay mechanism.

You play as Simon Jarrett, a man suffering from a traumatic brain injury as the result of a car crash. The game begins with you agreeing to meet a researcher to take part in an experimental brain scan for a developing technology that he thinks might be able to help. You sit down to perform the brain scan, your vision goes black, and then suddenly you find yourself in another place, surrounded by metal walls and high tech computer terminals. It's dark, and there's blood on the floor. A few dive suits hang in the nearby corner. No one else seems to be around. You stumble upon a call log, in which two people talk about sealing the doors to keep "them" out and making sure everything is set to run on standby for when they evacuate. The rest of the game is a matter of finding out what this place is, what happened to it, how you got there, and how you can get back home -- if you even can at all.

SOMA plays a lot like a typical adventure game; most of what you do in the game consists of exploring different environments trying to figure out where to go or what to do next, while solving light puzzles and piecing the story together from clues found in the environment. You read journals, data entries, personal notes, and system messages; you listen to audio logs, phone conversations, and black box-style recordings of the moments before people die; you see signs, posters, and video clips on the walls and video screens; you see the corpses of people who died mid-action and the monsters created by the artificial intelligence that's now running the station. This is environmental storytelling done right, with a variety of different ways to parse the history of Pathos-II, with every important detail and reveal set up by some type of visual or verbal clue before you encounter it.

What the hell is this place? How did I get here?

The story in SOMA deals with a lot philosophical science fiction subjects like identity, consciousness, existence, artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human. Playing SOMA kept making me feel like I was inside a classic science fiction novel, which may have been exactly what the designers were going for considering they open the game with a quote from Philip K Dick: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." There's a lot of stuff to wrap your brain around, but most of it's hidden away in computer logs and such, and so the game requires effort on your part to both find and interpret all of its details. That can make the story really engaging if you're into those sorts of subjects, or if you find yourself sucked into the game's world and just want to learn more about it, but that also means it can be a little dense and difficult to play sometimes. I, for instance, ended up playing SOMA alongside three other games and sometimes struggled to get back into it after playing something else for a while.

A lot of the game's philosophy and science fiction come into play by making you think about typical science fiction questions. For example, if you clone someone's consciousness to a new body and then kill one of them, does that count as murder? If you put a human brain into a robot body -- humanoid or not --  is that person still human? If you could scan someone's brain and create a perfect computer simulation of that person in a virtual world, would that person be human? The game never asks these questions directly; rather, you ask yourself these kinds of questions when the game puts you in difficult situations where you have to make decisions about what to do in order to progress, or when it gives you the choice to do things for the sake of others or what you think is right. It's one of the best implementations of moral choice I've seen in a video game; although every major decision is a binary choice, there's a valid reason for choosing every option, which really makes you think.

Early on while you're exploring Pathos-II, you start to encounter talking robots, many of which are in a state of disrepair. The robots seem like utility workers that the staff would pilot remotely to do work outside, in the water, but the first one you meet insists that he's human, lying on the floor right in front of you, but that he's injured and needs a doctor. Immediately, the game presents you with a situation where you have very little idea of what's going on, and no idea what to believe. Soon after, you discover that you need to redirect power in the area to get somewhere you need to go, and you have two options: one will send the power through a conduit that Carl "The Human Robot" Semkin is currently hooked up to and will put him through constant, excruciating pain, and the other will disable all power in the area, permanently, effectively killing him. What do you do?

Meeting Carl "The Human Robot" Semkin.

Is it better that Carl be kept "alive" even if he's in pain and miserable, to also keep the other systems in the area running, or do you take the more merciful route that will let him "die" in peace, but shut the entire system down? I initially opted for the first route, figuring he's just a robot and he's in denial, that it wouldn't matter if I put some more electricity through a robot. But when I pulled the lever and heard Carl start screaming, I freaked out. "Holy crap, that sounds like a real person in real pain," I thought. Whether Carl was a real person or merely a robot who thinks he's human, I couldn't put him through that kind of pain. I flipped the lever back, and chose to sacrifice the entire area, Carl included, just so he wouldn't have to suffer.

Later on, you reach a point when you realize the only way forward is to transfer your consciousness into a new body. It's not until after the process is complete and you "wake up" in the new body that you realize you didn't transfer your consciousness -- you cloned your consciousness. The old you is sitting there in the other chair, still unconscious, and will have to be left behind. The game gives you a choice: do you kill your old self, or let him live? The old you didn't realize you were cloning your consciousness, so if you leave him alive, he's going to wake up several days later and be trapped there all by himself, wondering why the procedure failed and why your friend (who's been helping you get around Pathos-II) has disappeared. Do you leave him there to go insane and die a slow, rotting death by himself, on the chance that maybe he'll be able to survive, or let him die in his sleep and save him from that torment? Besides that, how do you feel about there being two of you running around in the same universe? It was such a hard decision for me, and I appreciated how it got me thinking about things from multiple perspectives.

Configuring a communications antenna. 

When you're not grappling with moral dilemmas or digging around for information on the story, you're typically solving puzzles to progress. Every now and then these take the form of actual abstract puzzles in computer interfaces -- the type of deal where you have to find the right pattern, or connect the dots in the right sequence -- but for the most part you're doing things in the environment to get different sections of the different stations working so that you can get to other areas. You might need a special tool to operate a certain piece of machinery, which requires you to find the tool, then repair the machine yourself, then operate it correctly, with each of those steps involving its own sub-series of puzzles. Sometimes the puzzles are as simple as smashing a window with a fire extinguisher and climbing through it when you realize the door's broken, or realizing that, when a computer terminal won't turn on, it's because it's unplugged and you just need to plug it back in.

It's not always clear what you're supposed to be doing in a given situation, however, when you're not solving an obvious puzzle. There's an awful lot of wandering along the only available path until you find a button with a glowing light and pressing it. You don't always know what the button does or why you should press it -- there's no context, no reason for it -- you just press it because you know you're in a video game and you need to do something to advance the game. When the game tells you to find a wrecked ship nearby, you don't have any idea where you're going or what you're doing, you just set out and walk the only direction the game will let you, until you eventually stumble into it and wonder "Oh, is this the ship? I think I'm supposed to go over here? Maybe?" And you just go places and do things until you find the one thing that will let the game advance.

I'm just trying to look at this map. Please don't murder me. 

Unlike its predecessor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, SOMA doesn't feature a true inventory system, resource management, healing items, or sanity meters. As such, it doesn't really qualify as a survival-horror game because the act of surviving is barely present in the actual gameplay. Monsters show up at various points of the game, and they can possibly kill you if you're not careful, but they feel more like obstacles there simply to impede your progress. With a few exceptions, they're not really scary; in many cases, they just feel annoying.

There's no combat system in SOMA, so when an enemy appears you need to avoid it. Different types of monsters behave a little differently; one is blind but has really good hearing, so you need to be careful about making noise, and throw objects to distract it away from you, while another becomes more alert and aggressive if you look at it. But for the most part, you mainly just have to crouch and stay behind cover to avoid most enemies; if you get caught, run away and try to close a door behind you or break line of sight and find a hiding spot. Horror games have been doing this for years, and it worked fine in Amnesia, but I find the stealth gameplay in SOMA more of a nuisance than a fun, engaging, or tense challenge.

There's no real consequence for getting caught, for instance, except that the game becomes literally unpleasant to play. If a monster catches you it damages you and then wanders off a short distance; the damage causes you to move more slowly with an exaggerated head-bobbing limp, and also blurs and doubles your vision, which puts a heavy strain on your eyes in real life. You can get caught another one or two times before dying, at which point the game just restarts you from the autosave right before the monster encounter -- no big loss. You can heal by finding what basically amounts to a first aid station; these are usually present before and after every monster encounter, and at random other intervals when you couldn't possibly need one, so there's never any risk of being low on health and low on resources, struggling to survive and hoping you can make it to the end, because the tension only exists during the encounters themselves.

Creeping through the corridors of the wrecked ship.

The actual gameplay involved in avoiding enemies is usually pretty boring, too, with you often sitting there with your hands off the controls doing absolutely nothing, just waiting for the monster to give up looking for you or to wander off in some other direction so that you can get where you need to go. As I played, I found myself far more interested in the story -- learning what happened to Pathos-II and exploring the game's philosophical subject matter -- which made the monster encounters feel like they were just getting in-between me and the fun, interesting part of the game.

That's not to say the game isn't tense or scary -- it's just more subtle than a lot of other horror games. The horror in SOMA stems more from the implications of the story and the immersive atmosphere it creates than it does from traditional survival-horror resource management or jump-scares (although there are a few well-executed instances of the latter). As others have written before, SOMA is arguably scarier when the monsters aren't around because the story and atmosphere create such a strong feeling of dread and anticipation of what could happen that you get nervous venturing into uncharted territory and panic when things start to happen around you. When the monsters show up, it starts to feel a little too "video gamey," with a lot of encounters calling their design mechanics to attention as you notice things in the level design obviously intended to service the stealth system, and think about the enemies in terms of their AI and how to exploit their parameters.

The scariest part of the game has nothing to do with the monsters (of which there are extremely few), but rather the environment itself. In the game's climax, you descend into the abyss, the deepest part of the ocean floor bathed in complete darkness. The atmosphere there is hellishly oppressive with your vision so limited and what feels like a storm raging all around you from the currents rushing past you and the distant booming of underwater seismic activity. You know from computer logs that there's aggressive, mutated sea life down there, and you start to worry about what horrors lie in wait just beyond the range of the lampposts that are guiding you to the next outpost. There's a genuine sense of dread as you go deeper and further into the abyss, as the lights become dimmer and further apart and you start to feel more and more vulnerable. Some of the game's best scripted moments occur during this sequence, and they're among the most terrifying, effective scares I've ever experienced in a horror game.

Heading for Tau station in the abyss. 

That puts SOMA in kind of a weird position where it's not very scary most of the time, but knows how to be really effective when it wants to be, while occasionally missing the mark by perhaps trying to be a little too much like Amnesia with its patrolling monster encounters. Although the monsters have a strong thematic link to the story, I'm not sure their gameplay execution fits with the rest of the game design. Perhaps if SOMA played more like a survival-horror game instead of the horror-adventure game that it really is, they would work, but as it is I felt like they detracted from the overall gameplay experience and didn't add good enough horror elements to make up for getting in the way of the story progression.

The horror theme and atmosphere are present throughout the entire game, mind you, but the story and the underwater atmosphere are the two main reasons SOMA is worth playing. The environmental storytelling is top notch, the philosophical sci-fi premise is truly thought-provoking, and the atmosphere is incredibly immersive. It's a fairly decent horror game with some really good moments in it, but some of the horror elements feel tacked-on, which is somewhat ironic for a developer known exclusively for making good horror games. That's partly a knock on the game design itself, but it's mainly a knock on the advertising, which hyped up SOMA based largely on the esteem of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, when really, Frictional were trying to do something a little bit different with SOMA. It's a solid game and it's definitely worth playing; just don't go in expecting another Amnesia.

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