Monday, January 25, 2016

SOMA - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

To put it simply, SOMA is phenomenal. As a fan of Frictional's past work (Penumbra trilogy, Amnesia: The Dark Descent), I'm stoked that they've outdone themselves for their most recent release, and could not be more impressed—or enraptured!—with SOMA's underwater wasteland. While it does little to expand off of Amnesia's revolutionary gameplay, SOMA's philosophical conundrums will linger with you far longer than its scares ever could. At times you may even find yourself thankful you're not living in a reality so flush with robotics; the concept of "humanity" aggressively dissolves when consciousness can be adapted into ones and zeroes, capable of being uploaded, saved, and duplicated.

The most important thing to note is that SOMA isn't exactly pure horror. It's true that there are malformed monstrosities and scary moments lurking down in the depths, but the game focuses far more on oppression, misfortune, and moral grays. In that sense, horror is far from the main draw; perhaps I can best equate it to how fear works within the more action-packed Dead Space, being a tool of delivery for tense encounters. But whereas Isaac Clarke's battle against the Necromorphs is one of physical apprehension, Simon Jarrett's deep-sea struggle is centered around existential dread.

As soon as you (playing as Simon) get your brain scanned, you're immediately transported to a dilapidated sub-aquatic environment. You'll come across no other autonomous humans (there are plenty of corpses) and the only true ally you have in the game can come off as detached and rude at times (I still really liked her). You'll learn that it's impossible to return to the surface, and the only hope humanity has now is to live on in as pioneers in a digital world. And in order to ensure their survival, you'll have to make sacrifices that will force you to grapple with the very nature of consciousness itself. Nearly everything that happens in SOMA is meant to make you feel uncomfortable in a cerebral way, targeting existential anxiety over the more commonly evoked visceral nausea. And it succeeds very well at this.

That doesn't mean that the game does everything right. The monster encounters stay too close to Amnesia's "patrolling in the darkness" design, and the wounded effect is straight-up headache inducing (it's cool, but detrimental to playing the game!) However I can overlook these gripes thanks to how utterly convincing the game's world is. The sound design is lurid and foreboding, the voice acting is uncanny and human, and the art design put into each of the Pathos II stations (and the abyssal endgame areas) are both haunting and breathtaking. Nearly every step of the way is meant to make you feel lonely, separated from the life you once knew, now stumbling upon the threshold of futility. Even the main plot wraps up in a masterfully bittersweet way, prompting a constant stream of conflicting messages and "what if" scenarios in your head as you contemplate questions rare to the video game form (which is surprising given the AI obsession lately).

The scariest thing for me about going into SOMA blind was how/if Frictional could move forward after Amnesia's success. I'd go as far to argue that Amnesia is one of the greatest horror games of all time, yet still—despite the odds—SOMA has become my favorite title of theirs. It's a fascinating experience, gorgeous in a very cold, calculating way, offering forth a future that makes the modern man tremble in his corporeal form. Perhaps what's even more uncomfortable about it is that the questions it poses have the possibility—some centuries from now—not to be seen as frightening anymore, but rather, merely mundane.

(Had I played SOMA in 2015, it would've easily cracked my top five favorites from that year—hopefully I'll leverage my time better in 2016!)

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