Now that I've gotten through the gauntlet of massive AAA releases like Metal Gear Solid V and Dark Souls III, I wanted to take some time to clear out some smaller games that have been collecting dust in my Steam library before diving into any other massive, time-sucking games. One of my highest priorities was the Indie sci-fi horror title Soma, developed by Frictional Games - the same company that made Amnesia: the Dark Descent. I had heard pretty good things about this game, and I liked Dark Descent, so I was eager to finally have a chance to dive into this one.
Learning from failures and forgetting successes
Soma show signs of learning from the weaknesses of both The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs (which was actually developed by a third party), even though it still doesn't necessarily nail the mechanics this time either. It's a far better experience than Machine for Pigs, and shows the level of quality that helped make Dark Descent such a hit. The most notable improvements from Machine for Pigs is in the depth of gameplay and monster encounters; and the most notable improvements from Dark Descent are in puzzle design and narrative.
Monsters sometimes appear in where you get important story bits to incentivize you to not just walk away.
Monster encounters do still feel very un-threatening for the first half of the game. The first few monster encounters even seemed scripted to catch the player. This was possibly done in order to tutorialize the game's healing mechanic, but it also serves to desensitize the player to the monster and the threat of death right out of the gate. Unlike The Dark Descent, you don't start out terrified and cowering in fear from a mysterious and ominous enemy that can kill you in a heartbeat, and then gradually grow desensitized to it as it kills you and you realize that the consequences of death are pretty minor. Instead, you're taught right from the start that dying is virtually consequence-free, and that it isn't really worth the time and effort to try to avoid the monster by sneaking around, or to try to hide from it. The monster's appearance is never even surprising either. There's a screen-tearing effect and static noises to indicate that the monster is near, even if you can't see him. It's the same kind of effect that Slenderman played with. So even while you're walking around, you never feel the need to peek around corners or glance over your shoulder to make sure nothing's stalking you. This kills any potential for horror that the game might have been able to establish.
But there are some subtle improvements from Dark Descent. In that game, being caught by the monster usually meant instant-death. Now, you can actually survive one hit from the monster. You fall unconscious, and then wake up with your vision all blurry and movement slowed. It's an effect similar to the sanity effect from Dark Descent, and it does make healing feel more relevant, and draws the monster encounters out a bit longer. You don't just die and restart from the beginning; you instead get knocked out and then continue from the middle of the encounter - often halfway to your eventual destination. In the second half of the game, there will also be sections in which a monster will pursue you across multiple rooms, which means you don't just sneak past it and forget about it like you would in Machine for Pigs. Having that extra chance to continue, and evading the monster across a larger play area, reduces the tedious, trial-and-error quality of insta-kill monster encounters that was a big problem in the previous Amnesia games and in games like Alien: Isolation.
The feeling of being in a cat-and-mouse pursuit is very rare, and it's easy to get trapped in dead ends.
That extra leeway is welcome, but the problem is that monster encounters still don't feel very mechanically interesting. There aren't any closets to hide in, so running and hiding isn't really an option. Doors are opened and closed with buttons, so you can't hide in a room and peak out a crack in the door. There are some doors that slide open, so you can peak between a crack in that door. Even this is barely useful, as the hallways and rooms are laid out so that you'll only have a view of the hallway wall five feet away. You can also easily get trapped in dead ends with absolutely no recourse if the monster pursues you. You can throw items to try to distract the monster, but it's not very useful since you're often stuck in closed, confined corridors. Much like in Machine for Pigs, you can mostly evade the monster by crouch-walking past when its back is turned. Even if you do come face-to-face with a monster, the correct response isn't to run away in a panic and hide, peeking out every so often with your finger hovering over the "heal" button. No, in this game, if you see a monster while walking around, you just turn around and walk in the other direction and hope you aren't followed into a dead end. And the monster will occasionally trap you in dead ends that force you to have to just let it kill you because you can't actually hide, and it blocks the only route of escape.
There's rarely any sense of being stalked or hunted - the levels simply aren't designed for it. By halfway through the game, I actually wonder whether the game may have been better off without any monsters or actual threats. I don't think it would, since the monsters are part of a plot thread that is the source of most of the game's mystery and intrigue, and without them, I don't think the storyline about scanning human minds would hold up as well for the entire duration of the game. So despite some instances of learning from its past failure, Soma drops the ball when it comes to the things that Dark Descent (and by extension Alien: Isolation) did well.
More organic sci-fi puzzles
The bigger improvement from previous Amnesia games is the puzzle design. The puzzles feel more natural in the environments than they did in Dark Descent, and they're more involved than in Machine for Pigs. You still don't have a proper inventory, puzzle items are just temporarily collected and then automatically used on the appropriate puzzle, but you're also usually required to do something once you bring the appropriate puzzle item to the puzzle. These puzzles also fit naturally into the sci-fi setting. An item-fetch puzzle might also require you to download files from a specific computer before taking the fetched memory chip to the required destination. There's another puzzle midway through the game that requires you to add and remove files from a computerized simulation so that you have all the dependencies required to run the simulation, but without exceeding the computer's active memory capacity.
Puzzles feel more involved and organic within the sci-fi setting.
The horrors of transhumanism
Fortunately, the narrative that the game tells is thoroughly thought-provoking and expertly-crafted. This narrative is the thing that actually elevates Soma up above Amnesia: the Dark Descent. This narrative explores the mind-body problem in a similar manner to The Swapper, but this time, with a more transhumanist slant. The actual gameplay doesn't incorporate the theme as well as The Swapper does, but the story that is told is still very thought-provoking and offers an interesting dialogue on the concepts of the mind-body problem as they relate to transhumanism. While The Swapper used the mind-body problem as the centerpiece of its core mechanic that you were constantly engaged with, Soma focuses on exploring corridors and evading monsters as its core mechanic, with a thematic transhumanist puzzle or set piece showing up at regular intervals to make you stop and think. It works just fine, but it never reaches the level of ludonarrative harmony that The Swapper excels at.
Transhumanism (if you aren't familiar with it) is the philosophy of improving the human condition and human biology through technology. This can vary from the use of computerized implants to improve human cognitive functions or health, to the more radical ideas of implanting human minds into computers or android bodies. Soma primarily deals with the later, but the former is also significant in the story as well. It starts with the supposition that human minds can be downloaded into computers, but then asks the deeper questions of "Would that work?", "Would the result still be 'human'?", and - most importantly - "Can the 'you' that is downloaded actually be the same 'you' as before?".
Aw, it thinks it's people! How cute.
... wait a minute ...
The major twist of the game is actually revealed pretty early, and it barely really qualifies as a twist. This is a great design though, since it frees up the game from having to try to skirt around an issue in order to build-up to some dramatic late-game twist. Instead, the game is free to start asking it's heady questions within an hour of starting up the game, which gives the game the time and opportunity to give those questions and discussions the focus and directness that they deserve (and - for some players - require).
For anybody who's paying attention to the narrative and actually thinking about the things that you're asked to do in this game, the existential horror of your actions and the events of the game should be screwing with your mind enough that the game doesn't need to throw in deadly monsters. I felt genuinely sad when I had to hurt or kill some of the robots, and the game gives the player some subtle choices as extensions of certain key puzzles that made me pause and think about the repercussions and morality of what I was doing. After all, within the context of the game, all these robots and A.I.s pass the Turing Test. All the moral choices that you face are presented as fuzzy "lesser of two evils" options rather than the "paragon or renegade" choices that most other games (including heady games like Fallout) throw at the player.
The game even makes some of these choices for you early in the game (when you don't necessarily comprehend the weight of your actions) by forcing you to make one choice over the other in order to proceed. This just makes the open-ended choices later on feel so much heavier (after the game has explained the sinister nature of the character's previous choices), and they made me stop dead in my tracks and contemplate the weight of what I'm deciding to do. They aren't utilitarian, there's no impression that one path or the other might result in a ludic reward or alternate ending, and even if I did think a choice might affect the game's ending, I was genuinely oblivious as to how. I was left considering what I thought would be the right thing to do based on my own understanding of the subject matter that the game was presenting me with, and that was a genuinely hard decision to make. I sat for a minute or two at some of these choices, moving the mouse cursor over each of the option buttons, as I debated in my head which one was the better choice. And even the word "better" seemed like the wrong term: better for who?
And now we get to the key metaphysical conundrum of transhumanism: are you still you?
This game even managed to blow my own preconceived notions of the mind-body problem of transhumanism out the window by providing a possible reconciliation between the conflict of identity, stream of consciousness, and the five-minute hypothesis. This explanation made me second-guess what would have been my natural inclination towards these sorts of metaphysical puzzles.
If Philip K. Dick had been a game designer
Visuals and audio are also mostly exceptional. There's some really good lighting, texture work, and exemplary use of decorations and clutter. There were even a few moments in the underwater sections where I just stopped and admired the view of fish swimming around and seaweed waving in the current - it could've been a very nice screensaver. Video monitors could look better, but that's about the only goof in this game's visual design. The immersive visuals are accompanied by a variety of immersive sound effects. Voice acting is fine, and I like the Joe Everyman quality of the protagonist voice actor (He sometimes sounded so much like James Sunderland that I had to check the credits to make sure it wasn't Guy Cihi doing to the voice work). Some lines of dialogue are delivered a little flat, and a couple conversations felt unnatural given what was happening on screen, but these incidents were forgivable and far between. This game has very solid production value to go along with its exceptional sci-fi narrative.
Both A Machine for Pigs and Soma rely very little on the horror of their minute-to-minute gameplay. Instead, they carry themselves on their powerful, existentially-terrifying narratives. The science fiction concepts of Soma are good - really, really good! Like, almost Philip K. Dick good! But as good as those narratives are, both games feel underwhelming as games when compared to The Dark Descent or The Swapper, but Soma far exceeds Machine for Pigs. If you're looking for a scary-tense survival horror game, you might want to look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a deep, cerebral science fiction story that will spin your head with metaphysical possibilities, then Soma is definitely a game for you - a game that you'll enjoy even more than Dark Descent.