So after procrastinating against starting to play it, then all of my attempts at DIY and flat improvement taking priority, precedence and – frankly – my interest, I finally finished playing ‘Soma’ yesterday…on Easter . Since the game is an entry of hard science fiction, exploring the ideas of whether you remain human, or which copy is the “real you” after you make a file copy of a hyper-detailed brain scan…the irony of completing it on the day I and my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not lost on me. It was also completely unintentional.
Just to make clear, I did not celebrate my personal favourite holiday by playing ‘Soma’. I celebrated by cooking delicious roasted chicken and we had a jolly group of 4 eating a delicious and beautifully presented meal. I was so happy with how the table looked with the wine glasses and serving dishes that I took photos! After that, we had delicious apple pie as dessert. I did all this after attending the local church.
I’m partly wondering if this earlier scene is somewhat responsible for my personal emotional dissonance that I feel towards this game. But considering how a lot of my feelings are very similar to the various reviews I’ve read of the game, I’m thinking the game itself is actually responsible for the weird emotional dissonance. Completing it did not feel particularly fulfilling, as if it had suddenly become anti-climactic at the end. Although I can’t really think of a better way to end it, since the game does feel like it’s trying to be 2 different games at the same time. That does not help.
Now, before I review 'Soma' properly, I was going through my entries from 2016 as I thought I had written about 'The Talos Principle'...it turns out I only devoted a paragraph to it as part of my year-end review and never wrote about it in full. So I suppose it's only fair I compare these two games now: there are 3 reasons, the first being the PS4 releases were released a month apart ('Soma' was released on my 28th birthday, the other game a month later even though the PC release was older), the second reason being they both had approached the science fiction topic of transhumanism and the third that I tried them both out at Gamescom 2 years ago. Granted my chance at playing 'Soma' was very limited unlike the hour or so that I lost trying 'The Talos Principle', simply because of the different ratings and my time in the 18+ zone was limited (everyone's was, it wasn't an exclusive problem for me). So immediately 'Soma' has a disadvantage since my only interest in it was its setting: a deep sea base. So few stories are set there. 'The Talos Principle' was a game I warmed to a lot easier as it is about a series of puzzles and the scenery is just...so...beautiful, with a soundtrack that is just...so...beautiful. The soundtrack in 'Soma'? Yeah it had one...I can't remember a single track from it since it's mainly used as a device to warn the player to be scared or to react to a scene.
So with those basic aesthetic comparisons out of the way, I'll put 'The Talos Principle' to one side for now as I wish to focus on the game I just got done playing. Let's talk gameplay.
Now, 'Soma' is a game by Frictional Games who are famous for games featuring first person characters wondering around a scary place, being forced to duck, hide and not look at enemies, then running away when they spot you and screaming your head off like a lemming because you're Let's Playing or streaming and you need to give your audience a reason to laugh at you somehow. Their most famous example is 'Amnesia: The Dark Descent', which was a PC/Mac only game, so I didn't get to play it...I suppose I could have played it on my laptop if I really wanted to, but considering I discovered it via a Let's Play that was mocked, my introduction to it wasn't the best. Out of curiosity, I then watched Lanipator's Let's Play and I sometimes wondered who got more annoyed: him or me. From the very outset, the game's mechanics just don't make sense (if you're in the dark too long, you go crazy, but don't light up everywhere otherwise the monsters attack you!) and as Lani correctly pointed out: WHY CAN'T YOU HANDLE A WEAPON!? If you're alone in a scary place, the most human reaction is to pick up a stick. Anyway, one good thing about 'Soma' is that you quickly learn weapons are useless (I'll get to why when I explain the story). So the gameplay itself is usually walking around in first person view, exploring the surrounds, interacting with objects, solving puzzles then listening to logs and reading reports to figure out what the hell happened in this sea base. Puzzles aren't too hard, usually fiddling with the thing or leaving the room to explore another room reveals the solution. The downside is there's no sense of achievement with solving each puzzle.
Since this is a Frictional Game, their way to attempt to make a solution feel rewarding is to force you to solve a puzzle while an enemy stalks. That's annoying! I would rather just explore and solve puzzles, or get away from enemies - not at the same time! So rather than getting scared, I just got fed up and either committed suicide by running into them or decided: eff this, I'm looking up a guide. I can't be arsed to wander around figuring out a puzzle or where I can find collectibles if I'm constantly looking over my shoulder (or waiting for the screen to go fuzzy - explanation coming!). I think the game has failed at scaring you if this is the mindset I get >_>. Saying that, I am someone who does not get scared that easily, thanks to that moment when I played Metal Gear Solid 2. However, to be a convincing horror game, it has to suck you in and immerse you, as a player, in its setting, through its atmosphere. If the atmosphere is convincing, I'll fall for it - even if the trick is obvious. It happened during 'The Last of Us' and many admit it's not the scariest game. So initially, 'Soma' was effective. You play as Simon, who is very likable, so I am concerned for him when, as Simon, I suddenly wake up in a ruined, broken down, lights-not-fully working and partially locked underwater base, so I am constantly moving very carefully and cautiously. Except, suddenly I remembered: wait, this is Frictional, I don't have to be scared of anything until I get a trigger. So suddenly I wasn't very cautious until the "trigger" told me to be. Keep my point about atmosphere in mind, though.
The last thing I'll point out is the controls. Admittedly, one key difference between console and PC gamers is that PC gamers will always modify the controls to whatever suits them best...console gamers not so much. So I remember finding it awkward that R2 or the lower right shoulder button is the "Action" button. When I mentioned this after getting half way through the game, I was asked if I could change the controls. You can't always on a Playstation console (of any generation) but most games do allow you to tinker with the controls. Since I had sort of gotten used to using R2 as the default action button by this point, I saw little reason to change it. What was more fiddly is that, like in 'Heavy Rain' or something like that, when doing a mechanical fix, you have to hold R2 while using the joystick to pull something out or push something in. I personally found this fiddly and when under pressure to do it quick and bolt, it becomes a million times harder. Saying that, I never failed at these challenges, so maybe they're not as bad as I thought?
Right, plot. So like I said, you play as Simon. The part where you wake up in the undersea base in the future happens in chapter 3 (or 2 if you count the first bit as a prologue). So when you first play as Simon, you're playing as a young man living in Toronto, Canada, with severe brain damage after a traumatic car accident. His prognosis isn't good and you learn things about him in the apartment he wakes up in. So he goes to get a brain scan with some revolutionary technology, when the scanner lifts up, he's someplace else...At this point, I'll simply explain the full plot and not as how Simon/you discover it. Essentially, the experimental treatment didn't work and Simon died about a month later. 90-ish years in the future, all of humanity (I'll get back to this point!) is wiped out by a crashing meteorite, so all the surface land is engulfed in flames and poison. The undersea base the plot is set in is called Pathos-II, where different bases serve different functions: medical, power, scientific observation, etc. So soon after this cataclysmic event, the central computer that runs and maintains everything, the WAU, reassesses how to keep the 50 people on the base alive. The trouble is, the WAU does not have a clear definition of life, individuals, or being alive, so it starts experimenting with the structure gel and people and fish start getting mutated. The WAU then obsesses over keeping itself alive and taking over the station, meaning more and more people are killed off, while trying to maintain some sort of control over the mutants and monsters it created, keeping corpses animated, putting the saved brain scans of people into helper robots (and transport ships?), with the only people left alive being Sarah Lindwall on life support guarding the ARK, Johan Ross even though he is badly mutated and can barely be called human (still lucid and polite though), Catherine Chun stuck in a robot body but actually aware of it (unlike others who think they're still human) and then Simon. Simon was actually a WAU experiment, since it took the dead body of Imogen Reed, in a dive suit, stuffed it in a pilot/scan seat with the head removed and a robot cortex stuffed in, stuck together with structure gel and Simon's 90-year-old file downloaded into this. See why transhumanism is a theme? Oh and what's the ARK? It's basically a probe that can serve as a monument to humanity as the files of brain scans inhabit the virtual reality and simply "live". The ultimate goal of this game is to launch the ARK. But you have to avoid monsters because they generate an EMP pulse that disrupts Simon's senses...'cos he's a robot too!
That's a lot of plot, don't you think? And here I've skipped all the origin stories of key iconic monsters, the little plot point of how Catherine died and what it means for her and I also forgot to mention that Johan Ross is obsessed with shutting down the WAU. Yeah that.
And now I will compare this to 'The Talos Principle': the plot is that you are a robot doing puzzles, but you are a blank slate learning what your beliefs are as you go, with a very basic personality, which forms and changes as you progress. While you are collecting written pieces regarding humanity, culture, then learning about the human race being wiped out by a disease, you have the opposing forces of Elohim and Milton (stand-ins for God and the Devil) telling you what to do and you attempt to discuss/debate/argue against Milton as you try to figure out the point, figure out what the intended goal of this project is. Much better!
What I'm demonstrating is that, with most games, simplicity of the plot is key. The reason being that the interactivity of the video game medium means you can expand and develop smaller parts to help create a whole. There are of course sprawling epics with tons of details and long stories, but 'Soma' is a shorter game, so there is not enough space for all the extra detail. Especially since, the extra detail simply makes me ask: what about the humans in the other undersea bases? What about any space stations or space colonies? They don't even address any of this. I can't help but think a slight improvement to the story would be if the Pathos-II station had simply been cut off from the surface and the ARK was just an attempt to send a message in the bottle to the surface...or something.
So I will admit, after a certain point in the game, it did start getting to me. You see, in order to deal with most of the monsters/enemies, you have to be really patient, so either you have to wait ages for them to leave an area, or you are moving really slowly around them, or something. All of this while dealing with blurriness and static appearing on the screen (some enemies even force a high-pitched whine when you are close) so oftentimes I found myself stopping the game after hour-long stints because I felt like my eyes were too strained. 'The Talos Principle' I could play for hours due to the lovely scenery and the sense of achievement from the puzzles! Sorry, tangent. So yeah, when I reached Omicron base I came across Johan Ross as a phantom. So I knew pretty quickly he would not hurt or attack me (it wasn't obvious it was Johan at the time) but while I was thinking rationally, I definitely felt my heartbeat increase and my hands shaking. Why? Remember when I mentioned the importance of atmosphere? Well, every time the phantom appeared it was in a particular room, preceded by static on my screen, the ambient voice of him trying to talk to me, and he kept flashing messages at me whenever I interacted with a computer. This is effective!
The joke I made with someone is that Frictional seemed to develop a game with a very interesting story and setting, but then also created some really cool monsters that they had to put in you guys!!! Personally, I would have preferred it if there were no monsters, except for the mutated fish later in the game and Johan Ross' phantom (and maybe the WAU?). The philosophical musings are already there with Simon's situation, his conversations with Catherine (then with the other characters later), what you - the player - is sometimes forced to do when faced with certain choices. For atmosphere, it is already scary enough finding ruins, wreckage, dead bodies and the knowledge that the creaking, cracking base around you could collapse at any minute. Much more preferable.
As it is, with 'Soma', when Simon has the ARK transported to the launcher in station Phi, he meets with Johan Ross, who guides him to the heart of WAU, where I chose to poison it because YAY! All the monsters are finally dead (or soon dead). So this is where the plot became too cramped and too uneasy with itself. After facing off and evading all the enemies, seeing the dangerous mutated fish, I finally have my "stand-off" against the WAU, which then reacts and has its Leviathin eat Ross and chase me. So I'm racing through the dark depths of the sea (awesome) reaching Phi and then, suddenly...no atmosphere. The base is mostly unharmed, I'm talking to Catherine and just assembling the machinery. Then the ARK is launched, with Catherine and Simon copied into the ARK, but the last scene of the game is Simon realising one version of him is still in the Phi base, shouting at the other Catherine copy and the place overloads. Place goes dark, Catherine sputters out under the stress, he whimpers pathetically: "Don't leave me."
That should be bloody powerful!!! Instead I just...I was just confused. I had an epic stand-off against the misguided mastermind, a race against a giant mutated fish (or squid?), then...tinkering, finding out how Catherine died, then very quietly, the probe goes into space...
I just have these very disparate scenarios jostling in my head and they can't quite fit or settle.
Compared with 'The Talos Principle', you find out there is a disease against which there is no cure or immunity, so all of humanity makes peace with itself, then creates a project for robots to inherit the Earth, but they have to be people. They have to understand what it means to be able to solve puzzles, understand ethics and morality, understand the importance of questioning, rebelling and concluding, of empathy, of becoming their own person. So...after a very long time, you play as the very first robot to finish the program and become a new person. The ending, where you see what the Earth after humanity looks like, is very rewarding. Partly an abandoned ruin, partly beautiful; a true reward!!! :) (And I felt fulfilled by the ending!)
In short, the exploration of transhumanism and sticking to its themes is done much better in 'The Talos Principle', the philosophical arguments and representations of what it means to be human is well thought out, even endearing and hilarious at times. There's also a love and appreciation of what individualism and humanity means. 'Soma' is far too focused on the "conspiracy-style investigation" plot and survival horror aspect to make a truly focused story, meaning you can sympathise with Simon and his plight, but I feel like the situation is never truly allowed to be appreciated: I want to explore the base and all its sadness and ruin, plus appreciate the marine life, but the monsters keep interrupting me.