Last year, I did three posts for October, but I had actually meant to do four. I had been meaning to finish off my Halloween series of reviews with some words on Soma, but, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to finish the game before Halloween ended, so I decided to hold off until I started doing spooky games again in 2017. Fast forward a year, and I boot up Soma again to realize that I was only like 20 minutes away from the end of the game, which was much closer than I had thought. Had I known that, I would have just powered through and completed it last year………. hindsight is 20/20.
Soma is the story of Simon, a terminally ill man from the modern day who agrees to have his brain scanned as part of a medical experiment. Upon waking from the scan, he finds himself not in the present day, but flung a century into the future to the abandoned and decaying deep sea station, PATHOS-II. He soon discovers that the WAU, the biological computer which maintains the facility, has gone awry, and in its misguided attempt to preserve the life of the crew has created a number of deranged cybernetic monsters which now roam the facility. As Simon contends with the threat of the WAU and its creations, he sets out to discover the ultimate truth of the new world he has awoken to and the ultimate fate of humanity.
Soma is a run-and-hide style of horror game, similar to the studio’s other infamous horror title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Simon has no real way to fight back against threats, and instead must make use of stealth and evasion to steer clear of dangerous encounters. Unlike Amnesia, however, Soma puts considerably less focus on handling the enemies, and a far greater focus on story and exploration. It’s one of those games where there isn’t a lot of interpersonal interaction, but instead most information is relayed in the past tense via computer terminals, written messages, and something akin to audio logs.
To be honest, most of the horror in Soma isn’t really derived from the threat of the wandering enemies. Rather, it’s the bleakness and existential nausea of Soma’s plot combined with the oppressive and alien atmosphere of the deep sea that makes the game unsettling. It’s less of a horror story that focuses on mysterious physical threats (like zombies or monsters), and more a kind of cerebral horror that is focused on questions that rattle the comfortability we have with our own human existence It’s more Eraserhead than Friday the 13th.
As a consequence, I’ve read more than a few opinions that state that Soma is best played with the enemies turned off. There exists a popular mod on Steam that basically makes all the monsters disappear, allowing the player to fully engage with the atmosphere and story without any distraction. Personally, I played through the entirety of the game with the monsters fully functional, and I found the encounters with them to be a mixed bag. There were a few that were really exciting, but there were just as many that I thought were rather menial. None of them were particularly hard to handle, save for one that I found unusually annoying. I recommend new players start the game with the enemies on, but if they become too much of a nuisance, just download the mod and turn them off. Don’t let them stop you from enjoying the things that the game truly excels at.
And the things that Soma excels at, it really excels at. There are tons of games that are set in sci-fi settings, but few games that really create stories that contend with the best sci-fi literature and film out there. It’s often said that sci-fi is best used as a tool to frame questions about the nature of human existence, but few games actually tread into this territory. Games like Halo and Half-life really just boil down to power fantasies of humans taking on overwhelming alien invaders. They don’t make the player actually question the world in ways they’ve never done before. They’re basically popcorn flicks like Independence Day. But Soma really digs deep into the ideas that it wants to explore. It’s the video game version of Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
PATHOS-II is also just incredible to explore. At a technical level, the graphics in the game are far from the most sophisticated, but the team behind the game made up for it with an incredible use of lighting and their own aesthetic design. The picturesque quality of so many areas had me constantly hitting the screenshot button. These environments do a great job of evoking disquiet and wonder. My favorite moment in the game is one in which the player character is trekking on foot across the bottom of a dark abyss filled with strange deep sea creatures, and I was just left in awe by the sheer alienness of the experience.
Finally, I have to talk about the ending, but I’ll keep it spoiler free and merely offer my reaction to it. At first, I found the final sequence of the game to be incredibly anti-climactic, and I wondered if I had gotten a bad ending. But after the credits were over, there was a significant playable section that made me reflect on how the game had ended before. Lots of horror games have multiple endings, often times some are considered “good” and others considered “bad”. As far as I know, Soma has one ending, but it could be considered both the good and bad ending. It’s definitely a troubling ending that drives home the ideas and themes the game focuses on. It goes back to how I can’t stress enough that this is a story-driven game first and a survival horror game second.
Soma has received an enormous amount of acclaim since its release, and I can definitely understand where all that’s coming from. It’s an exceptional storytelling experience that synthesizes an intricate and thought-provoking sci-fi narrative with a dense and immersive atmosphere. But the monsters in the game definitely feel vestigial to the whole experience. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t make something more out of this aspect of the game, but, on the other hand, the fact that the monsters are so disposable means that players who choose to turn them off aren’t going to have a compromised experience. Definitely, Soma has become one of those games I feel I can recommend easily to anyone.