Developer: Frictional Games
Released: September 2015
Played: complete in 8h:42min
Played: complete in 8h:42min
Simon Jarrett gets a brain scan to determine how to help him recover from a car crash. He wakes up a hundred years later, disoriented and alone, in a damaged underwater facility populated only by confused robots and strange hostile creatures. As Simon tries to discover what happened to him, to the people on the station, and to the rest of the world, he's forced to confront questions of who he is and what it means to be human.
SOMA earned positive reviews with scores averaging 84%. Reviewers praised the deep and complex philosophical story and writing, the voice acting and sound design, and atmosphere. Many reviewers disliked the monster and seafloor sequences.
SOMA received a couple of patches to resolve bugs and add mod support through the Steam Workshop.
As a huge fan of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I was very excited to play SOMA. Unfortunately life got in the way and I didn't get to play it as soon as I wanted to, but I finally got around to it and I'm very happy I did.
Based on what little I'd heard about the game going in, I assumed that it would be about robots and that it would be a big twist that Simon was now a robot. I was pleased to discover that that isn't a twist at all, and while there's a lot of stuff about robots, that's more setting and worldbuilding than core story.
I'll come back to the story - first I want to talk about everything else.
To get one thing out of the way, I experienced no noticeable bugs except for one near the end where the omni-tool wouldn't put away. It fixed itself when I interacted with a health node.
I'm happy to see a game set underwater that actually lets you explore the seabed and really deals with the implications, dangers, and consequences of being under the ocean. Underwater content in games is usually just a small aside to add variety, but SOMA's world and story rely heavily on the station being underwater. I like how it alternates between indoors and outdoors sequences, and the outdoors bits are great: you feel slow, your vision doesn't go very far before things start to get dark and blurry, and the seabed and particle effects are convincing - there's a lot more to the visuals of being underwater than a blue tint and minor wavy distortion like in a lot of games.
The worldbuilding and backstory are phenomenal. The range of characters' reactions to global catastrophe, dwindling resources, and difficult moral and philosophical questions is great - the records of what happened in the station feel real and urgent and desperate despite the fact that it's already done and no one is left. The atmosphere of the station is thick and heavy, and it's a very different sort of post-apocalypse than I'm used to.
Gameplay is enjoyable; I love exploration and discovery in games, so uncovering the mysteries and dealing with the questions the narrative raises is very intriguing. I'm happy with simple gameplay when it's doing its job by getting out of the way and letting me experience the story. However, there was one weak point: the monsters.
I loved Amnesia, but in SOMA it sort of feels like the monsters are only there because horror games are supposed to have monsters. I think the atmosphere and narrative are unsettling enough that the game doesn't really need to chase you down the hall to make you feel tense. Even in the large majority of the game without monsters, I rarely felt safe or relaxed. Yes, the monsters did scare me when they showed up and created some tense sequences, but I felt that as soon as I got hit or spent more than five seconds in one place hiding, the tension drained away and I just felt annoyed that this thing was blocking my progress. And to be fair, the "disco ball" monster with the glowing head was by far the best - if you look at it it comes to kill you, but if you don't look at it you have a hard time knowing where it is.
I wouldn't remove the creatures or change when and how they appear or track the player, but I would make them nonhostile. Unlike a lot of horror monsters, the design is creepy enough that I don't think I'd lose any of the effect by being able to stop and examine them - especially if the screen distortion effect remains unchanged, I'd still want to avoid getting too close to the things. I think it would make the atmosphere even more disturbing to have these haunted, half-living, half-human creatures aimlessly wandering the halls with no understanding of who, what, where, when, or why they are. And actually, there is a mod for this - somewhat condescendingly titled Wuss Mode, but I really don't think it makes you a baby to want to bypass the tedious frustration of some of those monster encounters.
That aside, SOMA's greatest strength is easily its story and the philosophical and moral questions it raises. SOMA goes very in-depth into the issues and consequences of copying human consciousness. As a brief overview: if I were to exactly copy my consciousness into another body, which one is the "real" me? Both minds experience continuity of consciousness and both feel real. It's easy to say that the me in the human body with the human brain is the real me. But the copy is also a self-aware person who experiences continuous consciousness. The copy may be data on a computer, but when it's an identical mind, does that not make it real? Is it really an original and a copy, or just two people? And what about when you copy the copy - is one "more real" than the other? Is the first copy somehow more real or valuable than the second copy? And finally, if you copy your mind into a computer and safely send it away, but you're still trapped and doomed, does it even matter to you that you saved a copy?
These questions aren't just there for the sake of being clever. SOMA also ties some decisions to these issues. None of them have achievements or consequences tied to the outcome, but somehow that just makes the decisions feel even more weighty. I won't say what they are because spoilers, but damn - it's very rare for me to think so long about a decision point in a game.
And the ending. I love it. The game pulls a neat trick at the end by getting you used to a certain outcome and then gut punches you with a different one. This really is a story that can only be told as a video game because it so heavily depends on perspective and continuity and decisions, and the ending is the culmination of all that.
Before I wrap up, I have to address one other criticism I saw when reading around after finishing. A lot of players think Simon was stupid for repeatedly failing to grasp a certain concept that's repeatedly explained to him. Now, sure, I understand the argument, and I do agree to an extent - it's a little frustrating for the character I'm inhabiting to repeatedly miss a point that I got the first time. On the other hand, there's more to it than that. It's hard to talk about without saying too much, but I think I'm being vague enough to say that Simon's experience parallels mine as a player: even though I got the concept that Simon didn't, I was still floored by the ending. Not in the same way as Simon, but then, I'm me and not Simon. If that makes sense. And there might be an element of conscious disbelief - Simon is holding on to one desperate hope and refuses to let anyone take that away from him. But that might be too much detail.
To wrap things up, I have to say, SOMA is something special. I've played hundreds of games and it's very rare for one to get me to stop and think so frequently and so deeply. The moral decision points have no rewards or penalties tied to them, so I focused solely on what I thought was right - or less wrong - based on the context. While the monsters did get tedious towards the end, they didn't ruin the game, and there's a mod to make them nonhostile. SOMA's horror is cerebral and existential and has an impact that lasts beyond the credits. SOMA is definitely going on my recommendation short list and you should absolutely play it.