I’ll say this as directly as possible: SOMA is one of the best video games I’ve played in a dog’s age. Wielding a hauntingly beautiful aesthetic and appropriately terrifying gameplay, SOMA really pushed my buttons with its thought-provoking plot, dialogue, and themes. As a bona fide sucker for games with unique stories, I found myself positively captivated by this short but sweet survival horror game. It might sound like hyperbole, but honestly; not since the glory days of Silent Hill 2 or MGS2: Sons of the Patriots have I seen such fresh and complex complex ideas conveyed with such succinct boldness. When games are this good, I’d argue they’re much more entertaining and enriching than even the best movies and TV shows.
SOMA stands as a testament to what this medium is capable of. Both as a work of science fiction and of philosophy, SOMA deserves mention right alongside such icons as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. From my perspective, the way this game handles storytelling represents a high water mark for the entire medium of video games, and I don’t say that lightly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Developed by Frictional Games, creators of the Amnesia: Dark Descent games, SOMA will seem very familiar to fans of this genre. SOMA is a survival horror/sci-fi game that, gameplay wise, will likely remind players of last year’s compelling-yet-flawed Alien: Isolation. In fact you might say that SOMA is derivative of A:I, since both feature heavy sci-fi plots adorned with claustrophobic level design and horrific set pieces. Much of your time in the game will be spent, like in Alien: Isolation, exploring a vast and horrifying research station in some dark, remote location.
It’s in the actual plot, pacing, and setting departments that the A:I comparisons end. While A:I had the advantage of being an adaptation of a signature film series, the character design, story, and atmospheric detail of SOMA are all original. The game takes a risk with a heady, dark storyline that packs surprisingly few twists and turns. Rather than resorting to cheap ‘gotcha’ moments like a stereotypical M. Night Shyamalan movie, SOMA has the temerity to follow through with its basic premise unflinchingly. Without spoiling anything, even the broad strokes of this game’s plot feels bolder and darker than most games out there; and without a forced “edgy” or hackneyed feeling to boot.
In SOMA, your character has a very clear goal from its opening moments, that stays in the center of the game’s focus for the duration. This goal, which is tied up to some very big with a capital B ramifications, requires your character Simon Jarrett to explore every nook and cranny of the mysteriously abandoned PATHOS-2 station. Along the way, you might bump into some ‘friendly’ inhabitants of the facility. You want to avoid these ‘friends’ at all costs.
Getting from one area to the next in SOMA requires some puzzle solving. Simon spends most of his time on PATHOS-2 searching for whatever hidden path, item, or sequence of events is needed to progress further; while dodging those horrific looking enemies along the way. In terms of its puzzles, the game rarely holds your hand; which comes as a welcome reprieve to the standard modern model of markers and HUD-cluttering objective reminders.
Most of the puzzles in SOMA require little more than a dollop of common sense and focus to overcome, so you’ll likely waste little time wandering around lost or confused. I’ll admit a few puzzles took a while to crack, yet most of these cases were invariably due to me overlooking a key clue, or not thinking through the task at hand clearly enough. Some may find the game’s puzzles more intuitive than others. That being said, SOMA feels like a step up from A:I in the puzzle department. I was pleased at the lack of repetition in the game, which is more interested in crafting a compelling story and atmosphere than in artificially inflating your gameplay time. (I’m looking at you, MGSV!)
Why I love SOMA’s pacing
That’s one of the things I loved the most about SOMA‘s presentation: it progresses in a relatively straightforward fashion, with unrelenting focus. The game’s narrative has a definite start, middle and end, and it never breaks its attention on atmosphere and on gradually increasing your encroaching sense of doom. As the game’s narrative progresses and intensifies, so do the levels themselves become harder and more tense to play through. This leads to a highly immersive, highly scary overall experience that feels perfectly paced. Remember when video games used to feel and play like this? You know, self contained narratives that were content to just do one thing really well, rather than try to be everything for every one? I had nearly forgotten. Playing SOMA reminded me of Jim Sterling’s great video on the Spencer Mansion from Resident Evil – practically everything Jim says here regarding the charm and simple beauty of self-contained level design can be applied equally to SOMA.
This (relatively) minimalist approach makes SOMA feel divorced from modern trends and fads in game design, which is a massive plus. After MGSV, which felt overstuffed with fads and simply didn’t know what it wanted to be, playing a game of such singular vision and tight focus really hit the spot for me. I found myself falling in love with video games all over again with SOMA, which shines like a ray of black sunshine in a field otherwise overrun by crummy micro-transactions, season passes, and forced online components. Instead of kowtowing to bland design trends like those, SOMA is content to be its own thing uncompromisingly. That deserves a lot of praise, in of itself.
The philosophy of SOMA
But my adoration for SOMA goes far, far beyond its uniqueness. More than just being ‘its own thing’, this is a deeply philosophical game with a fascinating story. It also happens to be very well designed: its level design left me with a mix of awe and terror. From its hard-right-turn opening all the way to its closing moments, SOMA isn’t stingy with dispensing nightmare fuel. Nor is the game a miser about coming up with ideas and dialogue that really gets your mind racing. This review has to be vague to avoid spoilers, but without giving anything away I can say this game deals with the Mind/Body problem better than any book, essay, article, or film I’ve ever encountered. And it’s not just philosophy nerds like myself who will find a lot to love about SOMA. The concepts are presented clearly and directly here, in a clear cut way that doesn’t talk down to the audience or insult our intelligence. Rather, the game respects the player’s intelligence by including us in the game’s philosophical riddle. If this doesn’t make any sense yet, trust me: it will once you play the game.
Here’s an appetizer to SOMA‘s seven course meal of food for thought: is the mind a machine, or is there something non-physical (like a soul) in there making you who you are? This question, known to philosophers as the mind-body problem, has beguiled thinkers for millennia. If you’ve seen sci-fi movies like Ex Machina or Blade Runner, you’ve encountered this quandary before. But you’ve never seen the issue explored so provocatively or beautifully as it is in SOMA. This is a deep, deep game that isn’t pedantic or condescending in the presentation of its own ideas. SOMA will really make you think, even as it scares the living daylights out of you.
In a few weeks, after most people who will ever play this game have finished it, I want to go into more detail about the game’s implications and masterful execution of its philoso-sci/fi narrative. But until then, most of you reading probably just want to know whether SOMA is worth checking out. In case this glowing review wasn’t obvious enough, I’ll say it directly: it is. Granted, I have a background in the Philosophy of Mind, so the concepts SOMA plays around with are my bread and butter. But even if I set aside my personal investment in the game’s narrative, this still feels like a high watermark for the medium.
Video games in general get a lot of flak for being indulgent power fantasies, typically of the male-centric variety. Though most of my favorites of 2015 – from The Witcher 3 to Arkham Knight – are guilty of this to some extent, SOMA avoids being quite so typical. Along with this year’s also-excellent Life is Strange, SOMA works to evolve video games beyond their usual faire into a wider, more diverse and intellectually enriching field of media. Though I love slaying fiends and saving Gotham as much as the next person, it’s downright refreshing and exhilarating to play games like SOMA; games that push boundaries and ask questions, instead of falling back on those same, tried and true cliches.
I suppose from a gameplay perspective, SOMA hardly reinvents the wheel: if you’ve played Amnesia, Outlast, or Alien: Isolation, you basically know what’s in store here. That being said, SOMA‘s unique sci-fi concepts, setting, and characters boost the game into a league of its own. This is far from an Alien clone, though detractors will likely call it such. Though the gameplay is admittedly similar to A:I, SOMA brings to mind Bioshock and Deus Ex in equal measure. In fact, you could argue that SOMA in some sense perfects the gameplay style of A:I; since the former contains none of the latter’s repetitious minigames, and paces out its stealthy, hide-from-the-monster moments more effectively.
Conceptually, this is a monumentally singular game that feels like the next logical step for video games into narratives of deeper and deeper meaning and weight. It pays homage to sci-fi greats like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson in a way that would likely make those luminaries proud. SOMA proves that video games can actually have something to say about the world while also being damn fun/ terrifying to play. If you’re okay sacrificing a sense of immense power and agency for a darkly terrifying, darkly brilliant story then SOMA is for you. The pacing, writing, and atmosphere on display here are truly brilliant.
Just take my advice: don’t play this game alone at night. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
SOMA belongs in the MOMA
Plot - 10/10
Gameplay - 8.0/10
Design - 10/10
SOMA is a remarkably great game. Though its basic mechanics are reminiscent of other survival/horror titles, the game is a masterwork of atmosphere, story, and pacing. SOMA strikes the ideal balance between terrifying sci-fi and heady philosophizing, as it wraps deep concepts regarding the nature of the mind in a beautiful, minimalist package.