Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
It took me a while to get into SOMA. I was initially a little disappointed that the protagonist wasn’t the Asian woman I had seen in all the marketing, and instead seemed to be a generic-brand 20-something white guy. I admit, I didn’t like Simon Jarrett at first.
Simon has suffered some kind of brain trauma due to a car accident that he still has nightmares about. The opening scene has him waking up in his bland apartment, in the present, and preparing for a brain scan appointment. Here you find out how to interact with the world. You can pick up photographs and notes and just about any object, and sometimes Simon will make a comment. Unfortunately he can’t really put things back where he found them—I was sort of put off by the fact that I could pick up his toothbrush but couldn’t make him brush his teeth, and then in my attempt to put it back I ended up tossing it in the toilet. Simon didn’t seem fazed by the mishap, which could be commentary on the difficulty of doing daily chores with a brain injury, but also ended up making me recoil at his ambivalence toward his own lack of hygiene. My main complaint about this opening sequence is that, while it did a good job of setting up the game’s mechanics, it immediately broke immersion. Simon blunders through his apartment Surgeon Simulator-style, and we don’t really get enough of his personality via personal affects to make it worthwhile.
My disappointment was short-lived, though. The game truly begins when Simon wakes up for the second time. His brain scan seems to have catapulted him into an unknown place and time—there are no other humans, and the claustrophobic environment is filled with dilapidated machinery dripping with black ooze. And, the occasional blood stain, just in case you were under any false impression that things are a-okay. In this new place, it doesn’t matter that Simon throws things around, because he’s mildly panicked, and who wouldn’t be? His confusion is more relatable than the take-out in his refrigerator.
Simon grows on you. As he wanders through the horrific, empty (well…mostly empty) underwater PATHOS-II station, you get little bits of empathy from him. I think I was supposed to see myself in Simon, but the game managed to do something more useful for me–I wanted to protect Simon. I’ll never be able to relate to a straight male protagonist the way straight guys probably can, but making a character likable enough that I want them to succeed regardless is something surprisingly few games manage. It took me a while to get there, but at a certain point I realized that Simon was important to me.
A lot of that is largely thanks to Simon’s interactions with Catherine Chun, who at first is simply a voice over the intercom dictating instructions. Catherine is the woman in the marketing, the one who I had hoped would be the main character. As it turns out, she is. She may not be the player-protagonist, but she’s a far more interesting and well-rounded personality than Simon. She isn’t a Strong Female Character by any means, but she’s strong in the original meaning—she’s a person. Which, fittingly, is the question behind all of SOMA: what is a person?
In the interest of not spoiling the entire game, I’ll shut up about the plot. But suffice it to say, the story is why you play. There’s nothing wrong with the mechanics, though I’d say if you’re looking for a truly scary horror game SOMA isn’t that. Not that there aren’t any heart-pounding moments, but the horror is always entwined with the overall sadness of it all, and the point isn’t constant fear. (I would also offer that if you’re impatient with hiding, like I am, some sections get dull fairly quickly.)
The gameplay is much like the original Amnesia: the Dark Descent. Monsters aren’t there for you to fight, but rather to avoid. Each entity offers a different way to skirt around it—maybe you can’t look at it directly, or maybe you have to avoid the darkness. Meanwhile, you have to guide Simon through the underwater maze of doors and ladders and tramways to his destinations. These are puzzles, in a sense, but none are terribly difficult. My only complaint here is that when you do get stuck (and it’s usually on something simple that you missed) there isn’t any system of hints or previous saves to give you an out. Something like Simon muttering “hmm, maybe there’s a plug-in somewhere” would’ve helped immensely after 20 minutes of running back and forth wondering what I’d glossed over.
While the gameplay isn’t difficult, per se, the questions you have to ask yourself are. These are questions of morality, and humanity, and ethics. They’re also questions like “okay, but what would I actually do in this situation?” You know what Simon will do. But Simon isn’t you. And even Simon isn’t ever confident that what he’s doing is right. None of these questions are answered by SOMA, but the important thing is that they’re asked. Struggling with the ideas about artificial intelligence and robots versus humanity isn’t necessarily anything new, but SOMA does it well.
In the end, the thing that thrilled me the most about SOMA was that the game never spoke down to me. You think there will be a bunch of big reveals, and you can see them coming from miles away, but the game treats its players with respect. It assumes that they’ve figured it out, and it works that understanding into the narrative in ways that make sense for Simon and for the player. And the reveals you do stumble across aren’t drawn-out “who would’ve thought!” moments, they’re more a slow acceptance that this is the what happened—this is the way things are.
Finally, I will warn that I hit one major game-breaking glitch, luckily early on. I got Simon stuck in a wall about an hour in and had to restart, so I had to dock a few points for that. Aside from that instance, though, the game ran smoothly. The graphics and music do a good job of creating atmosphere. The voice acting, done by Jared Zeus and Nell Mooney, is phenomenal and well-edited. I was thrilled that this was a story with more than one Asian character in a starring role—this is virtually unheard of in North American properties, and especially when neither are stereotyped caricatures.
All in all, Frictional Games took an idea that would’ve been easy to mess up, and instead they took it to new places. Despite a couple of missteps, SOMA is an good game and an incredible story.
Parents should be warned that SOMA is rated M for Mature, for violence, blood, nudity, and strong language. I will note that the overt violence is—for the most part—in the past, and that Simon does not fight his enemies. Many of the concepts in SOMA are inherently violent, though. (I’ll also note that I don’t recall coming across any nudity, so that content is minimal.) This is a very adult story, but I suspect that mature teens will benefit a lot from discussing it.