If you come to SOMA with a sadistic urge to spend a few hours having your heart rattled against your ribcage, you’ll leave disappointed. SOMA’s story – not the pants-filling horror we expected from Frictional Games – takes centre stage. You’re Simon Jarrett, arriving confused and scared at a research facility deep in the Atlantic Ocean. With little choice, you plunge into the darkness.
Pathos-II is a joy to explore: an homage to classic sci-fi films complete with whirring machinery, flickering lights, and a cast of robots. As you move from room to room – through cramped living quarters crammed with personal affects to glass walkways revealing the living ocean around you – the story of the base’s terrifying past slowly reveals itself. It’s filled with scribbled notes between now-dead colleagues and haunting audio recordings, each offering new information.
It unfolds at a slow pace, but you’re never in one place long enough to feel bored, as the game whisks you between sections of the base via abandoned rescue boats, shuttles, and the ocean’s open floor. SOMA’s theme makes it all the more intriguing. Without giving too much away, it asks the question: what does it mean to be human? If that sounds too lofty, don’t worry. It’s made believable by the setting, and by the occasional robot characters that fill it. Aside from the flat protagonist, it’s well acted, and superb sound effects make the world come alive.
But remember: this is a horror game. Your time spent poking around living quarters, solving satisfying computer and physics-based puzzles are interrupted by drawn-out horror sequences that lend a sense of foreboding to the entire game. It’s the right kind of horror: slow-burning, short on jump-scares but filled with anxious glances over the shoulder. Every time your screen flickers with static – a sign a monster is near – you’ll want to cower in a corner, turn the sound down, and cry until it all just goes away.
But after a while these segments frustrate. Your enemies are easily fooled, and will leave you alone if you look at a wall long enough. They’re repetitive, too: they vary in appearance, but at their core these sections are just variations on a theme. Worst of all – and this is a sign of just how good the story is – you feel like you’re missing out on the wider game. You go from learning something new in every room to thirty minutes scrabbling around in the dark.
Every time you see that static, your heart sinks. Not just because you know you’re about to reveal how much of a coward you are, but because you resent the fact you’re being taken away from SOMA’s wonderful world. The result is an unhappy marriage of horror and narrative exploration, but – by the end of the satisfying story – you’ll be glad you stuck it out.