The ocean is one of the most terrifying places that we know about. Don’t believe me? Ever seen pictures of deep-sea angler fish? How about giant squid that can reach 46 feet in length? The mere fact that we STILL don’t know everything that lies at the deepest parts of the Mariana Trench, and that what exists there could conceivably be some horrible underwater monster, blindly wriggling around in the darkness should be enough to instill fear in anyone even remotely familiar with the works of Lovecraft.
So when I heard that Frictional Games newest effort would be horror based in an underwater research facility, I was on board before you could say, “Youtube jump scare compilation.” One of the few times when I’m truly scared in a nightmare is when I find myself deep in the salty brine, staring into the inky black nothingness and waiting for something to come out of it. Was Frictional Games able to tap into that primal fear and translate it into a digital format? Before we get to that, let’s go over the basic premise.
The game opens with protagonist Simon Jarrett needing to fulfill an appointment for an experimental brain scan. He has recently suffered head trauma from a car accident that claimed the life of his friend Ashley. The scan is intended to provide more information about his condition and hopefully provide a solution to the cranial bleeding that he experiences. During the scan, something goes awry and he wakes up in a place that he doesn’t recognize. He appears to be in some facility with no one around. Of course, there ARE things still lurking around, and it’s up to the player to discover and subsequently evade the residents of the facility. Along the way, Simon realizes that he’s in an underwater research station where everything has obviously gone awry.
The Swedish developer’s style of lurking horror waiting somewhere in the dense atmosphere of the landscape, followed by frantic chases through subterranean caverns and corridors has worked well for them through several franchises. It’s back in force here, this time with more of an abundance of creature styles and strategies needed to overcome them. As fun as these sections are, if this is all that had gone into the game, I would have been pretty disappointed in their lack of maturity. Fortunately, this time around they’ve decided to go a bit more high-brow with their overall concept, and the story explores some philosophical ideas mostly centering around what it means to be human.
At one point the player encounters an immobile robot that immediately begins complaining of its injury and pleading for help. Simon engages in conversation with the robot, who clearly believes that it is, in fact, human. Simon is skeptical at first but eventually begins to question his initial impression. Could this being be a human mind in a robotic shell? Does our body determine who we are? Does our environment? Are we a whole person if we are displaced and have no general rules of life to live by? What happens if we encounter ourselves outside of our own mind? There is a good bit of body horror built into the story, but it’s less in-your-face than the typical torture porn present in a lot of horror movies. It’s more of an existential body horror, and much more subtle than, “OMG look at that dude dangling from his guts and spewing blood everywhere! Isn’t that scary?!”
If it seems like I’m being vague on some of the specifics of the story, it’s because I am. It’s difficult to write about some of the concepts explored in the game without giving away major spoilers. What I will say, with much relief, is that if parts of the game make you think that the proceedings are barreling towards a lame “it was all a dream” ending, you can rest assured that this does not happen. The ending is logical, and there’s an extremely important part that occurs after the credits, so stick around for that.
The gameplay is actually pretty slimmed down from Amnesia. There is no inventory system and no resource management. You won’t be sitting in the shadows hoping that your flashlight won’t run out of battery power. These omissions work quite nicely however, as the narrative is stronger than previous Frictional Games’ entries, and the environmental cues and computer notes found about the station do a good job of keeping the player engaged, and hinting just enough at what might be around the bend without giving away too much. There is the occasional puzzle to solve, and most are fairly logic-based. There was one that I felt was particularly obtuse, but I wasn’t stuck for very long.
The art design is a bit stronger than the graphics themselves. Honestly, the graphics are just fine; hardly any games really look “bad” these days. The occasional low-res texture does reveal the indie resources available to the studio, but nothing ripped me out of the experience. Some of the monsters are downright terrifying, and I sure as hell wasn’t halting my pants-filling sprint away from them in order to berate them on the quality of their presentation. “Look at this knee-joint! You are just a frightful mess! Please stop eating my face.”
One of the places where this studio usually shines is the audio design, and they haven’t disappointed here. Every sound comes together to immerse the player. Groaning metal hulls, robotic whirrs and muffled underwater screams all come together to make you wish you hadn’t played this with headphones (but you still totally should or I will make fun of you).
If I have one complaint about the game, it’s that they didn’t quite capitalize on the aforementioned deep-sea terror. There are plenty of sections where the player has nothing protecting them from the salty brine and thousands of pounds of pressure other than a diving suit, but most of the danger occurs in dry hallways. There was some real potential here to capitalize on tentacled writhing masses reaching for the player from the dark, but aside from a short portion near the end of the game, this potential is largely wasted. It’s probably my own psychological quirk, but this was the part of the game in which I felt genuinely unsettled and almost didn’t want to continue. My character stood there in the deep ocean current, sand and silt kicking up everywhere, obscuring my vision and relegating my awareness to a few feet in front of my face. I DID NOT want to know what was going to emerge from behind the sandy curtain. I don’t get to experience that emotion from horror games very often and so I applaud this portion and hope that either DLC or a quality user mod can focus on this aspect. Fear of the unknown folks. It was terrifying when we were primitives, and it’s terrifying now.
This is Frictional Games’ strongest experience so far, but may not receive the same attention due to less reliance on jump-scare horror and more on the philosophical fear of feeling out of one’s own body. It’s hard to convey that fear via 30-second Youtube clips, and the less patient gamers may pass this one over as too pretentious. Take my advice and give this one a go, or at least watch some of the longer gameplay videos to get an idea of what this game has to offer. Alternate Fire is still in the process of uploading videos of a full play-through of SOMA. The first part can be found here.