“Do you trust me?”
These four words might be the most recognisable, memorable lines Disney’s Aladdin. It’s a simple four words, but it underpins so much of the relationship between Aladdin and Jasmine, and the themes of the movie as a whole.
Now you may not be a gorgeous Arabian princess (or maybe you are, what do I know?), and I’m certainly not a handsome rogue with a genie and magic carpet, but dear reader, I ask you: do you trust me?
If you do, stop reading this review and go buy Frictional Games’ SOMA right away. Trust me when I say it’s an excellent game that everyone - regardless of whether or not you like horror games - should play, and look no further into it, because the less you know about SOMA going in, the better it will be.
If you don’t trust me quite enough, that’s alright - we’ll get there (I know a good relationship counsellor). In the meantime, allow me to try and convince you; to tread the razor’s edge between explaining why SOMA is so damn good, and not ruining those moments best discovered for yourself.
If you’re not familiar with Frictional Games, they’re the studio who developed Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a 2010 survival horror game that’s considered by many to be one of the most terrifying games ever made. SOMA, while still very much a horror game, takes a very different approach. While it has its jump-scare moments, and Amnesia’s core mechanic of evading monsters that you can’t fight back against is present, SOMA is more focused on atmospheric terror and existential dread. It’s not “scary”, per se, but is deeply, powerfully unsettling.
SOMA begins with one Simon Jarrett - you - waking up in some sort of bizarre, undersea research facility called Pathos-II, with no memory of how he got there. As far as he can tell, the place is abandoned, with strange, biorobotic monsters the only “living” things left to wander the halls; halls that are full of rundown technology pieced together with some sort of strange organic matter and black goop.
Obviously, there’s more to this place than meets the eye, and as you explore and make your way through the facility, you’ll slowly piece together what happened to the facility, how you got there, and a whole lot more besides.
It’s not “scary”, per se, but is deeply, powerfully unsettling.
It’s a thought-provoking journey, to say the least. One of the oldest philosophical conundrums sits at its core, and from there, the story goes to some fascinating, confronting places. What makes us human? What’s the line between human and non-human? What does it mean to be alive? SOMA confronts you with questions like these, while constantly shifting the goalposts and blurring any answers you think you might have reached.
Monsters are scary, and monsters that you can’t fight back against even more-so. But staring your mortality in the face, trying to piece together this strange, fragmented notion of “human”, and carrying the weight of your actions on your conscience? That sticks with you in a way that jump-scares and “traditional” horror can’t match.
One of the things I found most impressive about SOMA is the way it throws a spanner in the works of “player agency”. The game industry seems obsessed at the moment with “open-ended” (I use that term loosely) narratives driven by player actions, and while there’s a place for such things, this isn’t the only approach, or even the best one. There’s a lot of storytelling power to be found in not letting players be in control of all things at all times.
SOMA’s story is strictly linear; no branching plotlines or multiple endings. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I found everything that happens in the game - particularly in those moments where you have to make some sort of moral choice - far more powerful. Without any narrative consequences for your actions, you’re just left with your own conscience. You’ll never get confirmation that you did the “right” thing, or made to feel bad for doing the “wrong” one. It’s just you, this world, and your interpretation of and reaction to it.
One of the great things, though, is that SOMA has plenty of scope for emergent gameplay, even within its relatively limited mechanics, that add to the game’s sense of place and atmosphere. Personally, I don’t handle scary games well, and so the tense atmosphere often had me on edge. So, I would take a breather by, say, finding a trashcan and shooting some hoops, or collecting pillows to build a fort. Little things like this mean that, even if you can’t really influence the narrative directly, you are very much a part of it.
On the other hand, Frictional haven’t shied away from making the game uncomfortable and even frustrating for the sake of immersion. This is a puzzle adventure game, essentially, and while objectives are usually pretty clear, how to actually get there typically requires a lot of exploring. It can get tedious and even frustrating, but this is a good thing. It all adds to the atmosphere that the game works so hard to create, dialling up the tension and anxiety. Admittedly, there are a couple of moments where I found it went too far, pulling me right out of the game instead of dragging me further in, but thankfully, these moments were rare.
There’s so much more that can be said about SOMA, about how cleverly it approaches its various themes and plays with the expectations of the player, but not without ruining what’s best experienced first-hand.
And so I ask you once again, dear reader: do you trust me?