Experienced Points: SOMA is Something Unique in Gaming

By Shamus
on Oct 26, 2015
Filed under:
Column

My column this week is on SOMA.

The other thing I didn’t talk about in the column is how gorgeous the game is. Well, assuming you think, “Lavishly designed ruins of an undersea base in a bio-mechanical future” sounds like something you might call “gorgeous”.

The worst parts of the game are when you’re dealing with monsters. They’re not scary, but they are frequently time-consuming. I’m not sure how to fix this. Removing the monsters entirely would take away a lot of the atmosphere. It’s the threat of monsters, not the presence of monsters that makes the world feel tense and interesting. If they were removed entirely, you could sprint and bunny-hop around the place and it would feel a little too carefree.

I think the problem is that a few of the monsters overstay their welcome. A three points in the game I found myself trying to solve a puzzle while a monster hovered nearby.

  1. Your goal is to repair a keypad on a door, which is a multi-stage process. The monster patrolling the area is supposedly blind, but he’s also a cheating bastard that makes a beeline for the keypad as soon as you approach, even if you do so in complete silence. You can’t distract him by throwing some noisy junk in the distance and working on the keypad while he investigates. Instead, you need to do one step of the puzzle, run away, and wait a minute and a half for him to give up looking for you. Then return to the keypad and repeat.
  2. Another monster just stood over a required item. I think she was bugged. I could only get past her through exploiting glitches, which is about the most tedious, un-scary thing you can do.
  3. There is one monster near the end of the game that has a moving patrol route, so you need to evade him multiple times. Around the sixth time, the magic was gone and I felt like he was just deliberately wasting my time.

Basically, the worst parts of the game are the parts that self-consciously tried to be too much like Amnesia.

Still highly recommended.

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  1. I feel like I’m the only one who thought SOMA was entirely underwhelming. The first act was nice and the third act has actual things happening, but everything in between is this repetitive, boring slooooog of a game that suddenly rushes as fast as it can to wrap everything up and end abruptly. Meh.

    Sorry, but meh.

    • Alex says:

      It’s not just you, thought my reasons might be different.

      What I dislike about SOMA is that beyond a certain point, grimdark is self-defeating. Horror is only horrifying if I give a damn, and a setting like SOMA’s with its universal bleakness denies me a reason to care.

  2. Christopher says:

    I also vouch SOMA is really interesting and highly recommend it.

    Also, I got so frustrated I cheated, I flipped on god mode. Though, funny story with that.

    When you flick God mode on you just cannot be hurt by the monsters. They’ll walk up to you and stare at you but not do anything.

    During a scene, the third point in the game you can die, I kept dying to a monster, so I got frustrated and flipped god mode on, especially after the monster seemed to violate a rule the game had set. Or so I thought. Turns out I actually hadn’t, but thinking I was in god mode caused me to EASILY beat the section by simply sprinting by the monster waving both middle fingers at it, and only realizing later that I was not in any way invincible.

  3. Wraith says:

    Definitely agree that the monsters were, unusually, the weak point of the game. I found myself jumping at shadows and ambient noises far more than I was horrified by the monsters, though the cat and mouse was as always tense. The atmosphere is the strongest part of the game, and it applied to me especially because I have a deep-seated fear of the ocean. I had to quit the game twice during the Abyss hike sequence because I couldn’t handle it.

    By the time I hit Theta the monster encounters were annoying me because they interrupted my exploration of the level and causing me to miss elements of the environmental storytelling. The problem is oddly the opposite of one of Amnesia’s biggest problem. While Amnesia relied heavily on scripting monster encounters, meaning most of the time monsters disappear after patrolling a set route for a minute or so, SOMA went to the other extreme and made monsters patrol a route or area indefinitely. While this greatly increased the tension for me at first, it got old after a while because of the problem I mentioned above.

    I feel SOMA would be improved if there was an element of randomness involved in most of the monster encounters – they appear after a random amount of time, patrol for a random amount of time, and then disappear again to leave you free to explore the area. It would make the game much more unpredictable while also allowing the player to fully explore most or all areas of the game free from danger if they choose to spend enough time to do so.

    Once the true nature of your character is revealed, however, the unanimous hostility of the monsters starts making less sense because the monsters are all “influenced” or outright controlled by the WAU. But the WAU created your body, and actively helps you throughout the game by healing you. It causes something to be lost from the rather ambiguous late-game moral decision of whether or not to poison the WAU, because it seems like all of the WAU’s creations are complete failures and the only point in WAU’s favor is if you make the logical leap that the WAU has been learning from its mistakes and will only become better at creating a semblance of new human life from now on. Just an odd way I noticed the mechanics of the game work against its story.

  4. James Schend says:

    The standing still monster I believe it intentional, or at least if it is a bug, it’s a bug that affects 100% of people.

    You can grab the item without exploiting glitches by moving towards her step-by-long-step, which takes ages. And is what you’re supposed to do, I believe. Or you can just run in, grab the item, just be resigned to take the hit, then dodge her until she gives up, which is what I did. One hit won’t kill you, and I was sick of trying to approach her the “legit” way.

    BTW what bugged me most about the game is the security guard the game basically forces you to “torture” to obtain an access code and then, even worse, does not allow you to take his memory card to the Ark! Basically the game forces you to be an asshole to this guy for no reason at all! The memory card’s sitting right there, your helper even says “you can do whatever you want with him”, but the one thing I wanted to do, the game wouldn’t let me. Great, now I’m a murderer– thanks game.

    • Wraith says:

      He’s already in the Ark. The one you’re talking to is just a backup copy.

      • James Schend says:

        Really? I must have missed an explanation of that.

        • Wraith says:

          It’s not explicitly said IIRC, just that all the scans they took before the suicide epidemic shut down the scanning were put into the Ark

          • James Schend says:

            Right; but his was the only one left on the shelf, making me believe it was *left behind* when the others were taken to the Ark. I’m not saying you’re wrong, maybe you’re right and I completely missed it. But the real problem is that the game developer didn’t anticipate the extremely obvious: that the player would want to take the memory card with him. The worst-case scenario is there’s two copies of him in the Ark… I mean, I can’t have been the only one thinking that way. They must have had like 10 play testers comment on exactly that… right?

    • Galad says:

      You aren’t forced to torture the guard – you can use a lever in another room to shut down the electricity, which would effectively turn off his copy peacefully too, but that also forces a grunt to start patrolling this area. At this point I thought I couldn’t continue, and being relatively new to horror games, I couldn’t proceed so I resigned to doing the same thing you did and still regretted it.

  5. Spammy says:

    I just got done playing DreadOut recently, and I think it actually made monsters and the threat of death work. All the non-boss encounters were unique and made you do different things, and the combats really just provided bursts of tensions during the atmosphere dominated explorations. Also the annoyance of dying is mitigated because you don’t technically die, you go to Limbo and return to the land of the living, which means that dying keeps you in-game and gives you a breather before you return to combat.

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    It’s just that it’s hard to explain why without getting into spoilers.

    I never understood this sentiment.I mean,I get that something can be hard to explain without spoilers,but if thats the case,then by all means,go into spoilers.If you have to write a whole block of text that tries to not spoil a thing,and all it amounts to is “This is awesome!Check it out”,then why not just write “I think this is awesome,you should check it out before reading the spoilers.And now,here are the spoilers”?I really dont get the whole thing about not wanting to spoil a thing when you clearly state that you think people should go into it blind before going into spoiler territory.It just needlessly stifles what you want to say about it for no good reason.And if anyone doesnt care for going into it blind,and would rather just be spoiled,no amount of warnings and urging will change their mind.

  7. Chiller says:

    It’s an excellent game, mostly because of its setting and the subject matter.

    What did surprise me the most, however, was that monster encounters were way better than I was expecting. I guess that is because I was expecting them to be the same as Amnesia’s, which were awful.

    However, in SOMA, on the first hit you get crippled rather than outright killed, and the positions are reset a bit but not going back to a full reload. This changes gameplay tremendously: as long as you are in good health, suddenly it’s mechanically scary to be hit and you have an incentive to avoid it, rather than going into Amnesia’s “it either doesn’t spot me or I’m dead” mindset, which was a very effective way of killing all tension.

    It also helps that looking at them is only a minor annoyance rather than giving your character a heart attack.

    (Incidentally the first Penumbra also handled this better by giving you the ability to kill the more common enemies, but only with clunky weapons which were hard to use effectively, or traps)

    • I liked that mechanic, the game basically bitchslapping you and saying “you screwed up, don’t screw up again”.
      The cripple thing is annoying but then you got the healing anuses (no idea what else to call them) all over the place to fix that, I’m guessing that is primarily why they are there.

      I also like how it seems you’ve been “out cold for a while” when you awaken after getting attacked. If you are lucky the monster is nowhere near (but by the looks of it there is a chance you’ll wake up with it right next to you).

  8. @Shamus having seen some let’s plays on youtube it seems like some have issues with the handle/keypad/computer puzzle the first puzzle where you need a employee ID to login.
    Depending on whether you did or did not turn off something earlier seems to change whether the monster appears or not. if you run through the steam (taking damage) the monster will not come up later, if you turn off the steam (so you can pass unharmed) the monster is able to come up. No idea if all monsters have similar possibilities or not.

    In at least one lets play I’ve seen that sometimes if you try to explore everything then you might actually miss some narrative (from the main female character) since you basically skipped ahead in your puzzle solving. No idea if that is a bug or intentional. Would be cool if it’s intentional as that would imply you really shouldn’t run off on your own with no clear goal (she acts as your sole quest dispenser after all).

    @Everyone (major spoilers, while the end is not spoiled the following does spoil a major plot point (I think).
    At one point you have to change from the diving suit to a deep diving suit. What I love is that the old suit/body is left behind and you can choose to let it be or shut it down. What I wish was possible (and what I would be if I was the main character) was to talk to my “old” self.

    @Everyone (more spoilers, regarding who you are and the scans of people)
    I wonder how many times the legacy scan of the main character has been used. Is it the basis forth the WAU? Also, is this the first time “you” have been here/trying to launch the ARK? Could some of those monsters out there be other yous that failed? How many “you’s” have Catherine awoken?

    One thing for sure, SOMA is a great way to touch on existentialism. Especially considering that in like 11 years or so all cells in the human body has been replaced, so 11 years ago a 100% different “you” existed.

    • Primogenitor says:

      That “11 years 100%” thing is incorrect. Every 11 years is THE EQUIVALENT of replacing all the cells in the body in terms of number of cells i.e. new cells created > total cells in body. This comes about because some tissues grow faster than others (e.g. gut lining, blood) so they divide many many times in 11 years, and others don’t divide at all (e.g. nerve cells).

      A clear counter-example is that females are born with every egg cell they will ever have. They are never replaced, and last more than 11 years. Plus there are many non-cell things that last longer than 11 years – bones for instance, but also your eyes lenses, ear hairs, and other things that tend to cause problems for older people.

      • Aren’t those you mentioned non-living cells though?

        I quit smoking a couple years ago, it will take about 11 or so years for the lung tissue to repair/replace fully from the smoking (unless there is scar tissue in which case any scars will remain though). Cells in other parts of the body are replaced in a period shorter than 11 years.

        Also “Women may make new eggs throughout their reproductive years—challenging a longstanding tenet that females are born with finite supplies, a new study says. The discovery may also lead to new avenues for improving women’s health and fertility.”
        http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/02/120229-women-health-ovaries-eggs-reproduction-science/

        Hairs regrow as long as the haircell is not too damaged. If the root of the hair cell is burned or otherwise too damaged then it will not be regrown (basically scar tissue).
        Hair itself and bones is AFAIK non-living cells (hair is made of the same material as nails for example).

        There was a time that they thought brain cells do not re-generate/clone themselves, yet they do.
        And I too have heard and believed the females had a limited amount of eggs, but clearly that assumption is also false.
        And recently on QI I heard that the liver (I think it was the liver) can fully regrow even if only 1/4th of it is remaining.

        Other fascinating things is that the only around 10% of the cells in the human body is human cells, the rest are bacteria or microbes etc.
        Then consider that the human body have around 60% water.
        Which means that the concept of “I” for a human only truly apply to 6% of the human body, the other 94% of the human body is not “human”.
        The human body is a giant symbiotic collective of life, a true microcosm.

  9. I’d also like to say that SOMA would probably work well as a movie adaption.

    There’s enough dialog between the main characters to tell the story and carry the plot, enough monsters/tense/scares to make it feel like a thriller (SOMA is more a thriller game than a horror game).

    I can’t recall what the last thriller game was before SOMA.

    EDIT: Correction. I’d class SOMA as a Sci-Fi Thriller (I love Sci-Fi so that’s very important).

  10. @Shamus

    “If your mind was perfectly copied into a computer – personality and all – would that computer be you? What if the computer was a perfect copy, but it was 10 years out of date? What if you were the one 10 years out of date, and the computer had 10 additional years of life experience?”

    Catherine actually explains how that “feels” while taking the elevator thingy down the abyss, the player character asks her how it feels when getting powered off and on “like that” (referring to omnitool).

  11. Also, who else things that SOMA has a perfect ending but also a ideal setup for a sequel (more like a spinoff or continuation of the universe).

    When the ARK is launched, what will happen to all those copies in that solar powered (I assume) simulator. Will a character wake up (ala The Matrix)? Or will stuff start to malfunction (micrometeorites) and the player character must find a way to fix it (maybe the ARK has a spacesuit/robot thingy for emergencies? Or maybe someone/something out there finds the ARK and starts experimenting on it (letting the player “explore a alien computer system), maybe they get downloaded to a alien robot?

    There are so any ways for the devs to make a sequel that is not a direct sequel but is it’s own thing instead.

  12. MrGuy says:

    I’m not understanding this point:

    It’s fun (but sad) to imagine what would have happened if Frictional was a AAA studio under one of the big publishers. Certainly the publisher wouldn’t want to fund a risky new IP when they already had a proven money-maker. They’d want to bank on the popular name, so the next game would be Amnesia 2: Another Spooky Victorian-ish Castle. It would be mechanically the same, except maybe the monsters would be more traditionally creepy and presentable so they could be featured in trailers. Maybe they’d add some jumpscares and put a fresh coat of paint to the graphics engine, and knock out a sequel in 18 months.

    Doesn’t Amnesia: A Sex Machine for Pig Butts exist? Wasn’t it developed by Frictional? Wasn’t it their very next game?

    The second Amnesia DID have more iconic, better-drawn monsters (they’re even in the title). They dumbed down the gameplay (much to the annoyance of fans) by removing the sanity meter and anything “hard” from the original game.

    Other than it being roughly 3 years later and not 18 months later, what exactly are you seeing that’s “different” from how you fear a AAA house would operate?

    This criticism seems out of left field unless you engage in revisionist history where Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs never happened. I’m not saying you don’t have a point, but if you do it’s poorly made in this case.

    • Nixitur says:

      You’re the one engaging in revisionist history where Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was made by Frictional Games.

    • Shoeboxjeddy says:

      Machine for Pigs wasn’t done by Frictional, so… yeah.

      • MrGuy says:

        Apologies. I was misinformed by reading a Wikipedia article inelegantly. Frictional DID publish and executive produce A:AMFP, but they did not apparently develop it. They were involved and IIRC on the splash screen, however.

        I maintain its weird to mock what an Amnesia 2 might look like while ignoring that an Amnesia sequel exists. Especially since I’d expect the nuance between “produced and distributed by” and “developed by” would escape some people.

        So, fine. This isn’t Silent Hill 3. It’s Arkham Origins.

  13. spleentioteuthis says:

    The one monster encounter I did like was in Theta when you have to fix the elevator.
    That was because I could seal myself safely in the security room and wait for it to blunder into the nearby lab, seal it in there, and no more dealing with Mr. Monster.
    Took a while since I was intent on not going out there before it was safe. I know how these things go. I wasn’t born yesterday. Simon probably was at that point.

    • Arstan says:

      I tried that, but that thingy kept crawling just about a few meters from the door of security room! Even 30+ mins of waiting could’t help. Took a hit from it, and then just had enough time to repair the door))))

  14. Sleepy the Bear says:

    I’ll probably play this game in a few years since my computer sucks. I’ll just hop in here to note that Frictional tweeted some of their influences here, and the list includes some of my favourite authors.

    I’m a great fan of Mieville’s writing, but apparently it sounds like SOMA is heavily influenced by Peters Watts. Peter Watts writes hard sci-fi with an emphasis on consciousness and biology, albeit with the occasional fantastical flourish. The consciousness stuff could come from “Blindsight” which is a first contact story. The undersea setting is straight from the Rifters trilogy. All of those books are available for free on Peter’s website. I hope some of the people here give him a chance, and find him to their liking. /Book Pimp

  15. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    “A three points”

    do you mean “At three points”?

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