A watery grave: the melancholy underwater horror of Soma

A survival horror game about the meaning of survival


Horror has always been intertwined with tragedy. But if tragedy stems from a fatal flaw, horror assumes that terrible things appear without reason or justification, to anyone unlucky enough to stumble upon or create them. Soma, the new game from Amnesia: The Dark Descent developer Frictional Games, takes this idea to frightening extremes. It’s a deeply melancholy piece of horror, a survival game about what survival is actually worth.

Part of the pleasure of Soma is experiencing its narrative twists, but the game is based on a classic genre premise: an everyman protagonist is trapped alone in an abandoned location with a dark past, trying to find answers and escape. In this case, it’s Simon Jarrett, once a bookstore manager and now a resident of deep-sea research facility Pathos-2. Pathos-2 isn’t exactly deserted, but it’s nearly destroyed, a mess of crushed metal and flickering lights. Most of its former inhabitants are either dead or, in ways that soon become obvious, changed.

Soma Game

Survival horror protagonists exist partly to simulate the terror we’re supposed to feel in a game; they assert themselves most strongly as characters when they’re in a state of unthinking fear. Simon fits this mold effectively: when danger appears, his vision blurs and his heart pounds; when he’s hurt, the camera lurches to mimic a limp.

But unlike many of these other horror characters, Simon isn’t silent. In fact, he’s one of the most vividly realized first-person protagonists in recent memory — not an avatar for the player, but a specific and independent human being. He spends the game’s (relatively) calm stretches talking with one of the few survivors on Pathos-2: Catherine, Soma’s version of video games’ ubiquitous "voice on the radio." His dialogue delivers a believable combination of curiosity, gallows humor, sadness, and bewildered frustration, and his conversations go beyond exposition or gameplay instructions. They’re the tentative attempts to build trust and swap stories that you might expect from two people brought together only by their grim situation, complicated by the fact that one of them seems to know much more than she’s telling.

They also raise the stakes of Soma’s gameplay, a combination of stealthily avoiding some enemies, frantically running from others, and solving puzzles to move from one place to the next. Amnesia could be fairly called an adventure game, but Soma’s puzzles have a distinctly faster pace, more practical than cerebral. The game has only the simplest of inventories, and instead of finding and combining objects, there’s a lot of rebooting computers and rerouting power sources. The trouble isn’t figuring out what to do, it’s staying alive long enough to do it. If anything, it’s a sophisticated version of the switch-flipping and keycard-finding that once abounded in first-person shooters, but without the safeguard of a gun.

Despite the lack of weapons, Soma can feel surprisingly like a shooter. Sometimes, it’s specific elements: its decayed industrial environments and moments of body horror would fit right into Dead Space, and its underwater setting invites comparisons to BioShock. Sometimes it’s the flow, tighter and more purposeful than a pure exploration game. It’s got the effortless linearity that defined Valve’s Half-Life series — the world feels open even when you’re clearly in a scripted sequence on a set path. It’s even got health packs, although they look like something designed by David Cronenberg.

But Soma doesn’t require shooters’ awkward compartmentalization of story and gameplay, where killing can only be tragic in cutscenes and quicktime events. Every single death — human and otherwise — hits hard. You may not have a gun, but Soma will ask you to hurt things, and it’s coy about how much agency players actually have. Most of the game is clearly linear, but every time I justified doing something in the name of escaping, I wondered if I could have found an alternative if I’d just looked harder.

Soma game

That worry is exacerbated by the constant background noise of the game’s monsters. Soma can’t quite match Amnesia’s uniquely grotesque creature design, especially in the early sections. And their full, fascinatingly creepy implications are never fully explored. But the enemies are numerous and unpredictable, with a penchant for sneaking out of the shadows during Pathos-2’s frequent power failures. It’s not safe to linger over a drawer full of photographs or backtrack to look for more tools, not when the station’s creaking could be covering one monster’s mechanical footsteps or another’s eerily human hacking cough.

The derelict corridors where these creatures hide are reminiscent — arguably too reminiscent — of underwater films like The Abyss or survival horror games like System Shock 2 and its various successors. But between these sections, Soma opens into beautifully alien underwater landscapes. The game’s earliest trailers suggested that it was set on some kind of space station, and though there’s water instead of vacuum outside the walls, trekking between the Pathos-2 compound’s buildings feels just as lonely. Sea spiders and fish wind their way around a shipwreck, while vegetation begins to overtake a power station that looks like a field of hot air balloons. It evokes the feeling of being somewhere that can’t even be called "abandoned," because humanity never managed to colonize it in the first place.

Despite the futility of that colonization attempt, Soma isn’t about the hubris of disturbing things that should have been left in peace; it’s about, as the genre’s name suggests, simple survival. Every action is overshadowed by a sense of defeat, a feeling that the best possible outcome is just the least terrible one. Simon increasingly questions his actions, especially as Catherine reveals more about the facility’s final experiment. Catherine, whose archetype’s usual role is to authoritatively dispense instructions, doesn’t seem much more confident — although her drive to keep Simon alive at all costs results in some of the game’s most conceptually horrifying moments.

At the same time, there’s no condemnation in the plot or gameplay, no moral "gotcha" that tells you, the player, to feel like a bad person. Soma isn’t about obviously awful choices like starving a child or arresting a dissident, it’s about the kind of evils we consider mundane or even necessary, like picking which plants and animals we’re willing to kill and eat to stay alive. As the plot moves more firmly into science fiction, it pushes our definitions of life and humanity into the theoretical, then slips questions about how much we should value those lives into every step of the game. And someday, it suggests, the lives we’re weighing will be our own.

Soma will be released on September 22nd for PC and PlayStation 4.

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