This week, Zero Punctuation reviews SOMA.
You can learn a lot about a person by taking them to a self-service buffet. Some people want to try a bit of everything - pineapple and rocket and crusty rolls stacked shoulder-to-shoulder. They're like Double Fine - always wanting to explore new ideas. Other kinds of people just get a bit pile of the same ravioli they had last time, they're like your Ubisoft - they found one thing they like and they're going to stick to it for as long as they can, probably making a little radio tower out of breadsticks. Then there are the people who immediately grab the entire bucket of chicken wings and then sell them back to the other customers for 99 cents each, and that's why you don't invite EA to the buffet.
But I digress. Frictional Games, the Penumbra and Amnesia: Dark Descent lads, is in the ravioli club. So if you were to say, "Yahtzee, here's a new first-person survival horror adventure game where you can't fight and spend half your time crouched in shadows avoiding looking at monsters and the other half clumsily flinging physics objects off shelves looking for documents and puzzle solutions, also it's by Frictional Games!", I would reply, "Why did you just say precisely the same sentence twice?"
SOMA, besides being the thing you say to open a conversation with your mother, is a game about an everyday schlub protagonist named Simon Jarrett, who wakes up in his everyday schlub apartment and goes to a laboratory to undergo an experimental brain scan as treatment for his everyday schlub terminal head injury. As the scan goes off, he is mysteriously transported to a spooky undersea complex one hundred years in the future that I guess caught "Everything's Gone To Shit" disease from hanging out with Rapture too much. And I immediately did my little pouty face and said, "If this turns out we're dreaming and that this messed-up undersea complex is representative of our dying brain, then I'm going to everyday schlub your kneecaps off, Frictional Games." I don't want to spoil anything beyond this, so I won't say if I was right, but I will say that I wasn't giving the game enough credit.
SOMA is a rather effective and well-told chunk of good old-fashioned hard sci-fi dealing with philosophical questions of identity and consciousness, and that's a hard sentiment to make funny, so I just arranged the words into the shape of a big willy for you. You'll note that one word conspicuous by its absence from this big willy is "Horror". And we'll come back to that. The story has that trademark Frictional Games denseness to it, but it works because we see it through the eyes of Schlubman Jarrett, who doesn't know any more than we do. He learns as we learn and pontificates aloud about the twists, and at times, you really feel for the guy. Especially when...ugh, this is gonna be really hard to do without spoilers, isn't it? Especially when certain things happen and he learns things about the thing from before. However, he did lose me a little bit at the end when he got really surprised and angry because a thing happened despite the exact same thing having happened about an hour previously, and he had an identical reaction to the thing you'd think he would've remembered. But all those things aside, I came away from the game quite satisfied with how the story turned out. I can confidently state that that aspect of the game works well. Whoops, better call the hotel porter - we've got a loaded sentence needs unpacking!
You see, despite being ravioli fiends, you can tell Frictional want to at least poke their heads out of their comfort zone to see if they can maybe find a bit of Parmesan. For one thing, it's sci-fi rather than some old-timey Lovecraft-style environment from before they invented colours other than brown. Plus, the main character doesn't have a posh British accent. But then someone said, "Are you gonna do something new with the gameplay, then?", and like a small child in a school play who wasn't quite ready for an audience, Frictional Games burst into tears and had to be hustled back to their comfort zone by Mrs Henderson.
So, of course there's monsters and occasionally the exploring and puzzle-solving is broken up by having to sneak around one of their patrols trying to figure out if the weird squelchy noise they just made means that they spotted you, heard a sound that you made, or had too many kippers for breakfast. And as with Frictional's previous games, you're discouraged from looking at certain monsters, which worked perfectly well in the panicky dungeons of The Dark Descent, but in this game just made me ruminate on how unreasonable it is to ask that the player simultaneously avoid going near to monsters and avoid trying to determine where the fuck they are.
The problem is that the monster stuff just doesn't gel with Simon's story very well. It feels like they came up with a really contrived reason for there to be monsters and then had to come up with another contrived reason for why they're trying to kill you. Contrivance upon contrivance for no better reason than to have the hunty gameplay again. It's like watching weird porn - I can just about accept that every random woman we run into immediately wants to fuck in a pond, I just find it hard to believe that they'd all coincidentally have penises instead of nipples.
The thing is, Simon's story just doesn't have a horror feel to it. I never get the all-important sense of being alone. Partly 'cause Simon had a tag-along sidekick to talk to. But even besides that, Simon feels more like a companion to, rather than an extension of the player, 'cause he'll be carrying on a philosophical debate about the nature of being, while I'm using his hands to see how many loose physics objects I can balance on a dead scientist's buttocks. And in between the monster-hidey sections, he always talks about the ordeals with the same tone of voice one would use to describe the time you had getting through Bay Area traffic at four in the afternoon.
SOMA feels like a decent melancholy sci-fi mystery story living next door to a sci-fi horror B-movie whose dog keeps escaping and jumping in our swimming pool, what a little bastard. And you can really feel the game struggling to mesh the two right up until the end where it blows a little raspberry and gives up trying. On the way to the final area to conclude the Simon story, a new character literally appears from nowhere, pops his head around the door and says, "Sorry to interrupt, player, but before you tie up the main plot, could we borrow you for five minutes to tie up the shitty monster plot as well?" So you follow him into a little room, press one button labelled "Resolve Shitty Monster Plot", and then get on with what you were doing. I'm only slightly exaggerating!
So I suppose if Antoine de Saint-Exupéry were here, he'd ask, "Would SOMA be improved if they took out the monster stealthing altogether and got by with exploration, puzzles and environmental hazards? Also, didn't I die in 1944?" Well, I'd say so, Antoine, but if they took out the scary monsters, what else are the streamers and Let's Players supposed to obnoxiously overreact to? "AAAHHH! IT'S SO EXISTENTIAL!"
- Bottom feeder: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Personally at buffets I go back and forth from the dessert stand to see if there's any mileage in the concept of a gummi bear sandwich
- Do the nipple penises have testicles? That opens a whole new can of worms