• SOMA: Existentialism, robots and horror at the bottom of the sea!

    I started playing SOMA a little over a month ago. I finished it last week. Steam clocks my playtime at around 22 hours, but some of that is time spent in the pause menu or at the start screen. My Youtube Let's Play series is around 13.5 hours. Thirteen and a half hours is a decent stint on a game whose chief mechanics are walking, running and hiding. But I can honestly say it was a superb experience and one I will never forget.

    The game starts off very normal. Very terrestrial. You're a dood in his apartment, there are shelves and cupboards to rummage through, desks to poke around in, notes and emails scattered about for your reading pleasure - lots of exposition about the player characters life, albeit a snapshot of it. You play as Simon Jarret, and straight away you learn that you're not a well man. A car crash has left you with a very serious head injury resulting in brain damage - the extent of which isn't clear. But rather than conventional treatment, you're planning to meet with a post-graduate guy who offers to scan your brain and create a computer simulation of it, which he can then bombard with different treatments to find one that will work before applying that treatment to your actual brain. So off you go, and when you arrive, there's more desks and notes etc which present the opportunity to be a nosey bugger. You progress, you sit in a chair, you get your brain scan.

    Everything goes dark.

    Then your eyes open and the guy isn't there. You're not even in the same room. You're in some dark, creepy facility and there are robots lying around in pieces, machinery rumbling in the darkness, black goo leaking from the walls and ceiling and weird biomechanical growths protruding from the various points. WTF you may think to yourself. Then the Nopes come thick and fast when one of the robots wakes up and disappears amid tearing metal and clanging.

    Rather than staring at Point A and progressing one letter at a time, you're plucked form Point A and shoved slap-bang right into a space somewhere between point S and T with no clue what's going on. Straight away, my highly-developed gamer senses kicked in and I knew I had to be cautious and quiet. So I timidly venture forth.

    The movement and interaction mechanics are solid and very tactile. Everything has palpable weight to it, from your footsteps clunking on the metallic floor as you walk to moving objects around. The world feels connected too, as doors are activated by nearby panels, usually accompanied by a light switch. Doors generally slide open with suitable clanky sounds paired with noisy gears working inside. Some doors are hinged, so you have to click and pull the mouse to heave them open. Some switches are levers, so again you click and pull the mouse back to yank the switch. There are valves that need turning - click and hold then make circles with the mouse to turn the valve. All good fun, and it makes things frantic when you have to accomplish such things under duress when things are looking for you or outright chasing you. There's plenty of clutter lying around the environments which give the areas a great lived-in and practical feel; it's a shame the game doesn't make more use of these items but an inventory system is all but absent. Certain items can be picked up but disappear, only to return when you click on the appropriate world object. For example, a needed computer chip disappears when you click it to pick it up. But exploring and finding the appropriate terminal and clicking that causes the chip to be inserted.

    Tasks you'll find yourself doing are things like powering up systems, rerouting power to access sections of the facility, using the computers to do similar things or access information to help you progress. Later on, you have to scrounge around for specific items to repair systems. When a monster is present, you'll be sneaking around trying not to look at them while also avoiding bumping into them in the darkness. There are no weapons so it's a case of running and hiding, though I never run if I can help it! Better to sneak away and not give away your presence. Sometimes these encounters can outstay their welcome, but overall they're usually tense and fun. One encounter saw me accidentally pissing off a monster and have it chase me to a ladder. I was a total wreck, shrieking and swearing as my character climbed onto the bottom rung and began the agonisingly slow climb - I guess only I knew this THING was right behind me and speed was of the essence!

    There's no inventory grid to view and rearrange, no management is involved. Given how awesome the environments are, I personally would have liked to manage a limited inventory like in Resident Evil - travelling back and forth to moved items and use the right component in the right place would have necessitated a familiarity with the areas beyond moving through them from point A to point B. This is something other games have successfully implemented - the most obvious which comes to mind is System Shock 2, a game with which SOMA shares some of its DNA. The decks of the Von Braun are large but not sprawling, and are very dense both with rooms and corridors but also items. And since you can't carry everything, it's integral that you remember where you've dropped things as you may need to come back for them later. This element would have been very welcome in SOMA as the areas are a joy to explore and simply exist in.

    The sound design is fantastic. Machinery hums and beeps, liquids drip and gurgle, air circulation equipment breathes and pumps, and things can be heard moving around in the distance, in the walls, in the ceiling, everywhere. And while the environments can be very lonely, there are voices to be heard, usually through audio recordings or data buffers which act as snapshots of the last person to communicate via these apparent intercoms. The only complaint with the sound for me was that at times it was hard for me to get a sense of where certain sounds were coming from - the odd monster (yes, there are things after you!) could be heard nearby but it was often awkward to decide if they were behind and to my left or right. But it never detracted from the experience, it merely made me cower for a spell longer than I'd have liked. The voice acting in the various recordings are very good, some better than others, some not so good, but on the whole they're perfectly fine. Many of them have little in the way of emotion, but that's not something that bothers me. How many times have you received a voicemail or a message on your landline from a friend or relative that sounded monotone and boring and simply to-the-point. In the real world, not everyone emotes the bejeezus out of everything they say. They simply tell you. A quick message is sometimes all you need to get your point across - it's not Shakespeare. "Hi - I think I left a light on, have a look before you leave. Bye for now." That's it, that's all you need. Not "Hello my darling... I just had to contact you. <SIGH> I hope this message reaches you in time. <GASP> If you can manage it, there's something I need you to do... <DRAMATIC PAUSE> Just get to the point, and make sure you sound like a real person, not an actor in a radio play. When the emotion is needed, it's there and its really good. Enough to make you feel that much lonelier once the audio recording ends.

    It's hard to refrain from writing about the story here, since it's so bloody awesome that even touching upon it can ruin the potential experience. The game ponders some big questions and ideas. What it means to be human. What it means to be alive. Choice and free-will. Duty. Responsibility. Mortality and immortality. Ethics. Sympathy. Empathy. You learn about the world and it's history as you play. If you like science-fiction games with stealth and horror elements and absolutely superb environments to explore and a brilliant, truly fascinating story, give SOMA a go!

    Alternatively, check out my Let's Play: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?lis...s3Mf9V0uqH1bVi
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