With its upcoming game SOMA, Frictional Games is leaving behind the world of Amnesia and venturing into a new setting and new thematic territory. This horror sci-fi game delves into themes of consciousness, and instead of assaulting you with a barrage of jump scares, SOMA goes for a slow buildup, trying to get inside your head. I recently had a chance to play a section of this combat-free first-person adventure, and discovered a few details about its story and setting.
You play as Simon, a man who has found himself in an abandoned science facility. According to Thomas Grip of Frictional Games, "He's not an amnesiac character, but something weird has happened to him that has made him end up in this place, and that's a big mystery, but I can't talk to you about that right now. What's sort of cool with the mystery is that you could actually figure it out directly, but I don't think that many people will think in those directions and want to consider that possibility."
The places you explore can help you solve that mystery, if you take the time to examine them closely. Said Grip, "We put a ton of effort into making every area a sort of narrative playground. There's tons and tons of small clues for the player to figure out." I love environmental storytelling, so when I played SOMA, I wanted to examine every sign and every schematic to see what they might have to tell me about the strange facility and what had taken place there. But the game is also designed to pull in players who don't want to investigate every little detail. Grip said, "We're designing it for a player that reads nothing, listens to nothing, just runs through. He should get the main gist of the story. It's not that we want to cater to players like this, but it's just that if we have that as a sort of goal, then we are sure that we have more active storytelling."
Much of the story remains shrouded in mystery, but a few tidbits emerged from my time with the game. Something strange has happened with the robots in the science facility I explored. At one point, I made my way through an area that a couple had once shared, but the woman had hanged herself, leaving behind a message that said, "Whatever that was, it wasn't Carl, I want you to know that. Nothing about that thing was even close to OK." Nearby, a human-sounding voice emanated from a trapped robot, leading me to suspect that somehow the consciousnesses of humans were becoming imprisoned in the metal bodies of automatons.
There were noises that sounded like distant screams, and I wasn't sure if I was hearing what I thought I was hearing or if my imagination was making more of the muffled ocean sounds than was actually there.
Like the technology in another horror game I recently played, Alien: Isolation, the computer terminals and other machinery in SOMA look clunky and dated, but still, given the presence of robots and hints in text logs of the existence of an artificial intelligence that had gone rogue, I initially suspected that the facility I was exploring was in space, or perhaps on some alien world. But when the facility became flooded with water, and Grip then skipped ahead to an underwater section that comes an hour or two later in the game, it became clear that SOMA is actually set beneath the surface of one of Earth's own oceans.
It was as I made my way across the ocean floor that SOMA really started to scare me. There were noises that sounded like distant screams, and I wasn't sure if I was hearing what I thought I was hearing or if my imagination was making more of the muffled ocean sounds than was actually there. The murky depths of the ocean seemed like a fitting metaphor for the depths of the human psyche that Grip is keen to explore with the game. Later, making my way through the flooded wreckage of the lambda station, I encountered the jiangshi, a mysterious ghostly threat you must run or hide from. If one is nearby, the visuals and sounds are distorted by staticky disruptions, as if the proximity of the jiangshi is interfering with the frequency of Simon's mind.
The section of SOMA that I played really was a slow build, letting the atmosphere and sounds create a sense of psychological fear rather than relying on gore or jump scares. With sinister glee, Thomas Grip said to me, "This is an atmospheric sample of the game, just planting seeds in your mind, and then later on, four or five hours into the game, we get to the really creepy stuff!" I admit that I'm scared to return to SOMA's unsettling world, but I also look forward to spending more time in its environments and looking at all the little details that will help me piece together its narrative. SOMA is aiming for a release on the PC and PlayStation 4 in early 2015.