I tend to classify science fiction in one of two ways: soft science fiction or hard science fiction.
Soft science fiction is where the scientific advances and futuristic setting essentially serve the same purpose as magic in fantasy. Here the term “science fiction” refers more to the story’s genre than it does to its themes. This is where Star Wars and the Mass Effect series comfortably sit. Those stories could be told just as well in any genre with nothing more than some cosmetic tweaks in regards to their characters and locations. That’s not to say they don’t tell fantastic stories using the sci-fi backdrop they’ve chosen; it’s just that they don’t require the science part to actually work.
Then there’s hard science fiction. Now, hard sci-fi uses an advanced setting and outlandish technology to specifically address its themes. This is where you find Asimov’s The Caves of Steel or the Deus Ex series. These stories don’t work without the technological advances present in them as they’re interwoven in to the fabric of the story being told.
Frictional Games’ SOMA is one of the few video games I can recall that falls in to the category of hard science fiction; its themes of identity and subjective observation cannot be divorced from the futuristic underwater research facility that serves as its setting. It seems to also want to hang with the very best of the genre as the title is a clear reference to Aldous Huxley’s master work Brave New World. But can a video game really go toe to toe with the likes of Asimov, Orwell, Bradbury, and Vonnegut? It sure can try, and man does it soar close to those great heights.
Simon Jarrett is an unassuming Canuck with an unassuming life who recently lost his girlfriend in a car accident and now suffers from an inoperable brain hemorrhage. Our story begins in 2015 on the very day that Simon goes in for an experimental brain scan that is meant to map his neural pathways and allow his doctors to devise a holistic treatment that will ultimately help his body heal the damage. Upon arrival at the researcher’s offices, Simon is ushered into a complicated chair with a wired helmet where the scan is to commence. Upon having the helmet lowered on to his head, Simon blacks out and when he wakes he finds himself in an underwater research lab called the PATHOS-2 – nearly a century later.
To say anything more than that would be doing you, the prospective player, a disservice. SOMA is a game that is meant to be discovered, and the writers have done a brilliant job of sidestepping the usual amnesia trope (ironic for a development team that brought us two games by that name) to offer our character a plausible excuse for having no frame of reference for the events unfolding around him. Simon is lost here and so are you. But does he even belong? Is he even himself? Is this the Earth he knows? Has he traveled through time? All of these questions have answers but it’s up to you to uncover them.
Navigating the PATHOS-2 will take up the majority of your time in SOMA, but this is far from a walking simulator. The visuals, music, level and audio design, even the puzzles you encounter all exist in the service of creating an utterly convincing atmosphere. PATHOS-2 feels lived in and broken down from the stress of existing for decades in the crushing deep-sea atmosphere. Every bit of technology you encounter feels like a functional extension of the industrial and scientific equipment we have today. This is not an outlandish speculation on the future leaps our civilisation might make; all slick, anodised aluminum and intuitive touchscreens; this is a view port in to the gradual evolution in our physical technologies that may allow us to explore our greatest questions about the nature of physical reality and our place in it with more granular detail than we could before.
As an exercise in existential philosophy SOMA is mostly successful. There are some very interesting questions being asked about the nature of identity and existence, and kudos to the authors for refusing to supply any definitive answers. SOMA’s greatest moments appear as moral dilemmas that you are given binary choices to resolve. These choices, however, do not devolve in to the usual “be a dick or be a saint” that most games offer as their idea of morality. No, the questions here are ones that you actually have to ponder for a bit and while they have little to no effect on the story itself, they may reveal things about yourself that you didn’t know. One choice in particular made me put down the controller for a solid minute so I could actually think through all the different angles and come to terms with what was being asked of me. That hasn’t happened since Tell Tale’s excellent The Walking Dead Season 1 and it’s no small feat for an interactive story to accomplish.
The only thing that holds SOMA’s story back from true greatness, in my opinion, is that it reduces one of its primary conflicts to a simple matter of good versus evil – at least in my eyes. It takes a lot of the bite out of the story to have such a complex web of moral and philosophical quandaries presented to you only to have an elemental evil displayed that no sentient creature could convincingly defend. It feels regressive, like the team felt there needed to be a Yellow King at the center of this particular hero’s journey.
This also bleeds over in to the game design itself. Much of SOMA plays out like Frictional’s first great success Amnesia. You explore an environment where almost everything is interactive in some way and look for items and clues that will piece together your motivations and make the path forward clear. Unlike in some others games I could mention but won’t because it would be rude, the documents, audio logs and notes you find scattered about serve only to provide you with valuable bits of context. The story itself will play out and make perfect sense regardless of whether you scoured every inch of PATHOS-2 or not, but your decisions and actions will be much more well-informed if you do a little exploration.
The problem is that this exploration is sometimes restricted by the various monstrosities that roam the claustrophobic corridors of the research station. These grotesque horrors are truly terrifying at first and I often found myself cursing out loud as I darted from hiding place to hiding place, avoiding their gaze and trying to stay silent. These encounters are mechanically sound as they follow directly in the footsteps of Amnesia’s now well-worn system of dis-empowerment. You can’t fight, you can only run, and looking at one of these fiends will mess up your vision and make you easier to spot, so it’s best to always keep them at the edge of your vision. This creates a tension like no other I’ve experienced as you huddle in corners and listen to them lumber about and scream in torment, not knowing if you’ve just been spotted or not, but never daring to leave your hiding place as death surely awaits you out there. The only problem with the whole thing is that by the end, the monsters have overstayed their welcome. In the opening hours, Frictional does a great job of limiting these encounters, subjecting you to them only when they know you least expect it, but by the closing hours you’ve gotten used to them. They become an annoying roadblock that you understand, instead of an unknown horror you dare not provoke. Much like Frictional’s misstep with the story I feel this speaks to their concern that they may not have made enough of a “game” for gamers. SOMA could have literally only had one of these encounters and simply alluded to another for the rest of the game and I would have been shitting my pants at the prospect of the second one the whole time. That’s not to say they should have done that; I’m only pointing out the fact that when it comes to horror, anticipation is far more effective than delivery.
I already mentioned a little about SOMA’s presentation, and from a visual and auditory perspective, the game is pitch perfect. From the dim interiors of the PATHOS-2 where creaking bulkheads threaten an imminent flood, to the sea-bed exteriors where the seaweed sways beneath your footsteps and strong currents sound like the muffled reports of an encroaching thunderstorm, Frictional got it right. I’ve never been deep-sea diving but I think that even James Cameron would be hard pressed to find fault with the level of detail on display here.
However, one place where anyone on PC can find fault is in SOMA’s abysmal optimisation and quality assurance. Throughout my playthrough, I was constantly plagued with frame rate spikes and dips ranging anywhere from the upper 50s to the lower teens. Initial load times are somewhere in the one to two-minute range, and area transitions freeze up momentarily then finally get those beautiful high-res textures in place after a 15 to 30 second wait. I was also plagued with a number of hard crashes that sometimes killed a solid 30 minutes of progress. It’s unfortunate that a world with an atmosphere so lovingly crafted and so intent on drawing you in its narrative would squander a player’s investment by directing their attention to texture pop-in, and replacing the tension found in avoiding a monster with the fear that your rig could dump the whole thing at any moment and make you wait three minutes to get back to it. Releasing a PC game (especially one that was developed on PC as its primary platform) without proper play testing and optimisation, hoping to make it up with post-release patches, is simply inexcusable.
I do think it’s a testament to the rest of the game, though, that I was willing to brave every single crash and technical hiccup to push through to the end. SOMA is a great game with a powerful narrative, and if you’re the kind of person that likes your Science Fiction rock hard (oh, very mature) then you owe it to yourself to discover its secrets for yourself. Just play the damn thing on PlayStation 4, okay?