Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers.
The linear first-person narrative experience is one of my favorite experiences in video games. After all, titles that fall into this realm, for however bland the misinformed want to make them out to be, always seem to contain some of the most immersive storytelling there is. While Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture made for a decent experience, though nowhere near what the majority of players hoped it would be, we’ve yet to receive this year’s definitive first-person experience…until now. After experiencing SOMA, a game that our reviewer considered good but not great, I find myself enraptured by the directions in which its narrative has the potential to go. The combination of mystery, tension and revelation has made for some of the best narrative design that I’ve experienced in quite some time. What’s more, this is a horror title that has the potential to terrify you without having to use cheap scare tactics geared towards generating YouTube clicks, instead opting for creating a mysterious world in which every step makes you more and more uneasy.
If you were to spend any amount of time with me a few years ago, you’d probably hear all about how Fringe was the most underrated show of all time. There’s something downright fascinating about entertainment media that shows us what the world would look like if the impossible and borderline impossible were major parts of everyday life. From alternate universes, to laser weapons to scientists coming back from hundreds of years in the future to simply observe our behaviors passively before taking over, Fringe was completely ridiculous, but it had an uncanny way of leaving viewers on the edges of their seats. This was likely a result of the idea that anything could have happened in any episode, so the idea of an upcoming twist was always surrounded by mystery. Why bring up a five-season show in a discussion about a first-person horror game in 2015? Quite simply, SOMA gives off a similar vibe once you reach the first moment that its story starts to make sense.
We often see games where the classic writing phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” (you know, the one that your fourth grade teachers told you over and over again) doesn’t seem to apply at all. There has to be constant exposition in the video game medium, for better and for worse. Sure, there’s something awesome about a massive amount of world-building, but when too much is told to the player, a threshold of apathy can be passed. There’s something to be said about how SOMA creates a horrifying world that fills players with unease without having constant text flood the screen. Sure, there are certain audio logs that tell certain human stories from when PATHOS-2 was a bustling research facility that slowly slipped into mechanical madness, but for the most part, environmental storytelling is the name of the game here. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen a world that manages to tell the most interesting parts of its story without uttering a word, as Frictional Games has found a way to capture the environmental narrative prowess that made Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us so special. Every inch of SOMA‘s level design is meant to get under a player’s skin, which allows the actual narrative itself to be that much stronger.
The big twist in the first few hours of SOMA revolves around the idea that humans in the station are attempting to download their consciousness into a computer in order to launch a virtual planet into space. Yeah, it’s ridiculous, but when you consider the fact that computers have gone from weak machines that take up an entire room to world-opening devices in the palms of our hands, is it really that far out of the question to think that we could find ourselves in a similar situation? At some point in the future, we will be having the same debates that the scientists on PATHOS-2 had: will we still be human if our brain functions are mimicked by machines? This illustrates the most brilliant aspect of SOMA, as it’s a game that will scare the crap out of you all while driving you to continue thanks to its core philosophical debate.
There’s a reason why SOMA has received positive review scores; it’s a smart horror game that strays away from the jump-scare heavy titles that seem to populate Steam. Sure, there are moments that will leave you absolutely terrified, but the secret here is that Frictional Games seems to have discovered that the secret to scaring players is not in shocking them, but in invading their minds. SOMA is one of the only games in recent memory that understands that terror is a far more effective narrative device than pure horror. After all, with the desensitization of society, horrifying imagery isn’t nearly as effective as it once once; however, we’ll always be at the mercy of our own brains, and it’s wonderful to see a game that not only understands that, but embraces it.