If you haven’t played Soma, I’m jealous that you get to experience it for the first time. I hope you didn’t read any reviews. Possibly including this one. All you should know going in is that it’s by indie horror developer Frictional Games and that it’s something about an underwater base. Oops. I wish you didn’t even know that second bit. But, really, there’s no avoiding it. Whether it’s the screenshots or the “set below the waves of the Atlantic ocean” in the product description, that particular cat is well and truly out of the bag.
After the jump– wait, should I even click past the jump?
If you’re reading this, you’re either ignoring my advice or you’ve already played Soma. For those of you in the former group, I’m going to keep it spoiler free, but I’d still rather you didn’t know anything going in. So let me give you one final chance to skedaddle and go experience Frictional Games’ thoughtful sci-fi masterpiece by telling you: Soma is a first-rate example of storytelling in videogames for the story it tells and for how it tells the story. Plenty of games manage one or the other. Precious few manage both.
For its moment-to-moment interaction, Soma cares mostly about creating a sense of place. It has no inventory, no scrounging, no ammo, no weapons, no crafting, no leveling up, no skill trees. Nothing between you and its setting. No exploration even. Any time you see a choice of paths, it’s probably because you’re going to have to sneak around one of the game’s occasional monsters. Unlike the sucker punch of the Alien game’s alien, the monsters here are telegraphed and the deaths they inflict are forgiving. There’s no “Surprise!, you’re dead, now go reload and play a big chunk over again”. The Steam workshop has options for turning off the monsters’ aggressiveness so they just shuffle about harmlessly. Now they’re just ambiance. I don’t recommend this. It robs the game of some important tension, but it’s an option.
Conventional gameplay exists in Soma only by way of physically touching the environment. You turn dials, flip switches, push buttons, log into computers, plug in circuit boards, pick up photos, and tap iPads. The environment feels so real, so tangible, because you’re so often touching it. It creaks and groans as you prod it. It breathes. It has the weight of whimsy-free hard science, all hardware and bulkheads, computer terminals with loading bars, scattered movable items of no value to you, storage rooms that are as irrelevant as any storage room. Ironically, because you can ignore so much of the environment, you can enjoy more of the environment.
In the olden days, this would have been a point and click adventure game. But Frictional has made it a vividly first-person experience that is, above all, true to its setting. It is the exact opposite of the latest Tomb Raider game, in which you’re constantly toggling glowing orange interactive bits at the detriment of whatever world the graphics are trying to achieve. The world of Soma, free of waypoints or glowing orange bits, under your fingers instead of behind a HUD, is immediate and vivid. At turns eerie, horrific, sad, awe-inspiring, and even achingly beautiful. I would describe some of these environments as among the most amazing I’ve ever seen in a videogame. This ain’t just another horror game made from the Unity engine. Frictional’s HPL Engine is in rare form.
Did you play the last Alien game? Do you remember what an awesome job Creative Assembly did with Sevastopol Station? How they took you on an interactive tour of the trappings of the original Alien movie? That’s what Soma does, but it does it in a unique and imaginative world, all the more unique and imaginative because you’re discovering it as you go, because you’re exactly you, completely unaware of what it is and why it is and initially even where it is. Soma, a game about discovery and identity, has a really smart take on the stereotypical protagonist with amnesia.
At one point, it seems like Soma is going to give you a gun. Uh-oh, I thought, we’re going in that direction? Turns out, no, we aren’t going in that direction. Phew. You can trust Frictional to stay true to the realization of its undersea haunted house. But this isn’t an undersea haunted house for the same reason Bioshock was an undersea haunted house: namely, to keep the environments small enough for lavish detail and first-person shootering. Instead, this is an undersea haunted house for specific story-related reasons. Soma starts with you playing a normal dude in Toronto (throughout the game, he references that he’s from Toronto as if it was a Kansas to Soma’s Oz). How is this going to be a game about an underwater base?, I wondered as I faffed about in my Toronto apartment by way of an introduction to Simon, the main character. Then it’s suddenly a game about an undersea base and it makes no sense. It seems forced. Again, rest assured that you can trust Frictional. They know what they’re doing and they know what you’re thinking. The reveals in Soma are my favorite kinds of reveals: ones that the storyteller doesn’t have to tell me, ones that I figure out a few steps in advance and the story knows I’ve figured them out.
Given the lack of conventional gameplay, what makes Soma work so well compared to Firewatch, which similarly tries to tell a story with minimal interactivity? The world of Firewatch doesn’t fit the story of Firewatch. The hemmed in levels and linear progression do very little to evoke the wilderness and passing days it needs to tell its story. Firewatch is betrayed by its own space and time. But Soma expresses the vast dark indifference of the sea and the progression of depth as the light fades, as the bulkheads get thicker, as the walls and ceilings close in. Soma squeezes as it goes. Whereas Firewatch was unable to express its wilderness setting, Soma expresses the juxtaposition of crushing depth and dizzying vastness. Soma understands the sea. It is deeply immersive.
In terms of characters, I can’t help but think of Firewatch again. Soma and Firewatch are both about a guy interacting with a disembodied female guide. That relationship is a central part of both games. Simon and Catherine in Soma, Henry and Delilah in Firewatch. The subject of Firewatch is loneliness and regret. It’s the stuff of inner lives best expressed with insightful writing and/or an actor’s performance. Firewatch has both of those things, but the act of playing its guided tour, of moving Henry from waypoint to waypoint, of obeying Delilah’s obligatory “go here”, is a forced delivery system for the writing. The main reason you’re walking somewhere is to create space for the dialogue. Playing Firewatch detracts from the concept rather than adds to it.
Conversely, the subject matter of Soma is perfectly suited to the first-person perspective of a videogame in which you walk from the beginning to the end, interacting with the environment along the way. The point of Soma’s disembodied woman isn’t how the two characters feel about each other, but about how their perspectives contrast. The conversations are rarely about subtext or subsumed feelings. In fact, sometimes the conversations in Soma are too on the nose, a little too obvious. Soma isn’t pretentious, which takes a deft touch given the subject matter, but it is given to pontificating. And compared to games like Last of Us, Uncharted, or Firewatch, the voice acting can be disappointingly flat.
But the Simon/Catherine relationship drives the game much more effectively than the Henry/Delilah relationship drives Firewatch. There’s a stretch in Firewatch when Delilah won’t talk to Henry over the walkie-talkie. It’s an effective contrast to the rest of the game for how it makes you — and Henry — feel. Soma takes full advantage of this idea of severed communication, of radio silence, as a constant dynamic, as pulses of tension and relief. Simon has to communicate with Catherine using a computer chip. Unless he’s at a terminal where he can plug the chip into a local network, they’re cut off from each other. Significant stretches of Soma are spent in total isolation, with no one telling you where to go or what to do, with no one to say ‘here, let me unlock that door for you’ or ‘hey, go over there and plug that cable in’. The relief is palpable when you reach a terminal and you can talk to Catherine again. She’s not a Cortana always in your ear or an Elizabeth always at your heels. She is a presence keenly felt and keenly missed.
Soma is the Greek word for body, specifically in the context of the duality of body and spirit. The game’s name is a reference to the worldview that there is something separate from our physical selves, that we are formed from two distinct entities, one of which endures beyond death. For instance, if a lumberjack has a favorite axe, and he replaces the handle this week, and then replaces the head next week, he will still say it’s his favorite axe. That axe has an identity beyond its physical components. Similarly, if our cells completely replace themselves over the course of seven years (they don’t, but go along with me here), what makes a seven-year-old the same person when he’s 14, 21, 28, or 72? Soma is also a term for the cells of our body. It gets at the idea of a whole created from a collection of discrete organisms. Soma refers to the existential relationship between something self-contained and something interdependent.
As with any thoughtful storytelling, Soma works on multiple levels. The exploration of an underwater base is the most obvious. The deeper level is a metaphor about identity. I/you/we are each isolated survivors trapped in an outpost, looking out at the vast dark indifference of the sea, at the tragedy of a ruined world, at the unlimited possibility of the stars. Through a porthole, darkly, we are manifestations of fear, loss, and hope, at once abandoned and redeemed, saved and doomed, drowned and soaring.