Before I get started discussing Frictional Game’s latest release, SOMA, I do want to mention that this post will have full spoilers for the entire game including themes and plot. IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED SOMA YET I RECOMMEND YOU BOOKMARK THIS AND GO PLAY THE GAME.
This is your last chance to turn back now, lest the game be spoiled for you.
You’ve been warned.
Ok. So. SOMA! I’ll start by saying that I really enjoyed my time with the game, for the most part. What I found most engaging about the game was the plot and theming of the game.
Let’s start by talking about some of the plot. I thought the opening was particularly effective, especially considering the marketing of the game ahead of time. Opening in a normal guy’s apartment after having gone through tragedy was a curveball for players and set up for a more effective cold open upon the underwater facility where most of the game is spent.
I really enjoyed the doomsday scenario and how it played out with the player character, Simon, coming to learn that what he originally was died a hundred years prior. Setting up the reveals in waves (underwater facility -> 100 years in the future -> his original self being dead -> mankind extinct except for anyone alive in the facility) helps set up the story for the rest of the game. This is one of the few games where a character not knowing about the word around him makes sense instead of just the typical “amnesia” trope.
I thought the themes of the game were particularly effective. There are a few choices throughout the game where the player is given a moral choice that has no effect on the game aside from a few lines of dialogue right afterwards. This was an excellent choice by Frictional because it puts the entire emphasis on the morality of the choice and not the results of what the choice will be. There is a moment where you can choose to delete a scanned person or simply shut them down, leaving them alive but in stasis. Additionally at the end of the game you can honor the request of the last living human by killing her (and therefore the human race) or leave her alive to suffer and linger until her eventual death. Asking the moral question of the player simply for the philosophical thought involves the player and makes them think about the choice itself.
What I love about SOMA is that it asks the philosophical question that we, as humans, have struggled with for centuries and frames it in the context of the possible end of the human race. It doesn’t shy away from asking what makes a person a person. Is it their body? Their mind? Is there a soul? Is it some combination of all of these things? Is living life as nothing but a computer scan of a brain in a matrix-esque computer simulation a life that’s worth living? That’s heady territory where not a lot of games go and SOMA is so much better for it.
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room — the game’s gameplay. This is where it starts to fall off the rails a little bit for me. My number one problem with the game is the enemies you face throughout the game. There’s no clear explanation of what abilities the different enemies have. In fact I’m writing this without having done a ton of research into the true mechanics of their behavior, so I may even be wrong about these enemies as I write about them, but it is what I experienced.
There’s an enemy partway through the game in a giant diving suit in a crashed ship. He’s the guy with the Big Daddy-esque helmet and he seems to only really aggro onto the player if they are looking at him. It seemed almost like a Slender type of mechanic. But there were times where it didn’t seem to use that mechanics.
There were other enemies who seemed to have random walking patterns or patterns that didn’t allow the player any opportunity to safely pass. Early in the game I was in a room with only one exit hiding behind a desk. The enemy kept walking into the room I was in, back out of the room a half dozen or so steps and then would turn around and go back into the room ad nauseam. The only way I could get by him was to get his attention and then play ring around the rosy with the desk and sprint out of the room.
At the end of the game when you are trying to get to Alpha running from the giant swimming worm monster (I wish these things had names that I could refer to), it seemed the best way was to just brute force. After being chomped on by the thing it was hard to tell which way you were supposed to be running and there was one time that I was standing next to a safety light and still got ate by the thing. It was (apparently?) impossible for me to game over so it just led to me trying to run over and over towards the exit until I made it while getting eaten every few steps.
Getting away from frustrations with enemies, the other portion of this game that frustrated were some of the puzzles. I should mention that this was far from all of the puzzles in the game, but just enough to make it a sticking point for me. So, here are a few examples:
Midway through the game Simon is tasked with getting a security code from a scanned person by tricking them with a simulation of their real life. Everything you need for this simulation seems to be in one of two laboratory rooms. You get a memory card with the people on it and a memory card with simulation locations on it. But these alone aren’t enough to trick the person into giving away the information. You have to backtrack back to the person’s quarters. This wasn’t really made clear and I ran around these two rooms for probably about 20-25 minutes looking for something to help me until I finally said “screw it, I’m tired of wasting time” and looked up a guide. This, to me, is not great design.
Similarly was a puzzle closer to the end of a game. You are in a hallway guarded by an enemy (another one of those seemingly random patrols) with a door that says that it needs a charged battery to open. You continue past the locked door that needs the charge into one more room that is a dead end. There isn’t a battery to be found, so I backtracked looking for a battery or a charging station or something with no luck (all while dodging this enemy). Again similarly, after about 20 minutes I got tired of wasting time so I looked it up and found out I was supposed to know to pull a piece of paneling off of the wall to reveal the charging control. You may be reading this thinking that it wasn’t hard to figure out, but the design was just weak enough that it didn’t give enough of a push in the right direction for me.
Let’s talk about one more thing before we go: the ending. The ending had two points that brought it down for me. The first is how dumb Simon is about the “copying of the brain” portion of the brain scan. The whole game talked about people killing themselves to try to get around the fact that it was a copy. He himself being a “copy” of his original self is talked about multiple times, especially once Simon figures out what his current body was actually made of. Yet at the end of the game he is still having trouble with the whole concept of the copied mind? Secondly, when Simon is upset about being left behind with the game closing on him in the dark begging Catherine not to leave him alone I thought it was a very poignant ending. Then after the credits they showed the “second” copy of Simon on the Ark meeting with Catherine and it just took some of the mystery out of the game for me. The player only ever experiences the perspective of one copy of Simon when he is copied the first two times in the game. The final time the player is allowed to experience both perspectives, which I think is a cop out and weakens the impact of the message of the ending.
“So how would I have ended the game,” you ask? After the credits you should the satellite in orbit around the destroyed earth floating off into space just like what was done. And over the top of that scene you hear the Simon who was on the bottom of the ocean still begging for Catherine not to leave him. Maybe follow that up with the crack of the pressure destroying his body while the satellite floats away. It leaves the player to wonder: Is the Ark functioning? Did Simon get transferred after all? What is the Ark like? Are all of the other people there as well? It would emphasize the themes that Frictional Games was going for while reinforcing the heartbreak and demise of the “original” copy of Simon.
All of that said, the first few hours of the game were solidly in “Game of the Year” territory for me, but some frustrations with enemies and slightly unintuitive puzzles knocked it off a notch for me. Is it still solidly one of the best games of the year? Absolutely, but just not great enough to be the best. Anyway, thanks for reading. I’d love to hear about your thoughts on SOMA if you’ve played it (or once you finally do!).