Is Soma One Of The Top 50 Games Of 2015?
Frictional Games made a name for itself as the studio behind the 2010 horror hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Soma is the developer’s latest first-person foray into the strange and terrifying, but with a more philosophical angle. Despite never playing Amnesia, I decided to play Soma based on Tim’s review, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I Soma flew under the radar for a lot of gamers, and I think it could use more support in our yearly fight for the Top 50. I challenged Andrew Reiner to spend some time exploring PATHOS-II, and now we can discuss whether Soma deserves a place among the best games of the year.
Joe: Before we dive in, I’m curious: How much did you know about Soma’s story before you started? I feel like it’s one of those “the less you know, the better” experiences.
Reiner: I knew hardly anything at all. Given Frictional’s pedigree, I thought it would be more horror than science fiction. I was pleasantly surprised by the unique setting and tone, which show the developer’s range.
Joe: Yeah, it felt like a sci-fi cross-breed between Gone Home and BioShock to me. I was also expecting something more horror-focused, but I appreciated how sparse the scares were. It is more about the general atmosphere of dread than things jumping out at you. What did you think of the story?
Reiner: Without spoiling too much here, I hated the introduction. Simon Jarrett, the protagonist, isn’t the smartest guy in the world. I cringed plenty of times when he would verbally think scenarios through. Like most great stories, Jarrett takes a backseat (a distant one) to the developments around him. It doesn’t take long for that “I’m not in Kansas” feeling to sink in. Frictional skirts cliches and does a nice job of delivering interesting story threads sewn into hard science-fiction themes. Soma is one of those games that grabs you with the “I have to see where this goes” hook, and you don’t know exactly where it goes until the post-credits sequence. Yes, that’s a long wait for answers, but the payoff is well worth it, and the journey along the way is peppered with fascinating revelations. I loved the story. It was the best part of the game, even with a character as dumb as Joe Dirt leading the charge.
Joe: Yeah, I wonder if Frictional was worried people wouldn’t understand the concepts? I got so sick of other characters explaining the same thing to Simon multiple times. It’s good that the story is so solid once it gets rolling, because it really is the central pillar. It carries the whole experience; Soma doesn’t have any combat, and not really even puzzles beyond “go get this lever and put it here.” It does have monster encounters, though they seem to be one of the most divisive parts of the game. What was your take on those?
Reiner: The monsters scared me like you wouldn’t believe. Yes, the story drives the experience, but through the encounters, Frictional establishes an unnerving atmosphere. Every step is made with trepidation, and the hope that a lit hallway offers safe passage. I guess you could call the game a suspenseful thriller. That feeling of dread gives the mundane exploration some legs. I can’t recall one satisfactory interactive moment. I turned a lot of knobs. Opened a lot of doors. Read plenty of emails. Some of that stuff supports the narrative. Most of it is busy work.
Joe: Though I’m fighting for the game to make our Top 50, I have to say that those monster encounters did not have the same effect on me. The rules of these sequences were too poorly defined to be satisfying for me. Even after finishing the game, I wasn’t sure what determined when the monsters saw me or when I alerted them from afar. Thankfully, these encounters are few and far between, which lets you soak up the setting and mystery – even if you have to turn a few pointless knobs along the way.
Reiner: Whenever I saw a monster, I would run or cower in a corner. That seemed to work okay, but yes, whether it saw me or not seemed to be a dice roll rather than a defined rule. A bigger frustration for me was the directionless mission structure. All too often I would find myself standing in a lab with no idea of what I should be doing next. On the one hand, not giving away too many hints does wonders for the immersion factor. On the other, it took way too much time to figure out how to reboot a server in the game. I almost went online to look at a guide. I also thought about calling Geek Squad for server tips.
Joe: I experienced a bit of that, but it didn’t interrupt the pacing too much for me – though it certainly was frustrating in the moment. The game doesn’t dwell in any one place for too long, so the problems like unclear objectives or baffling monsters are short-lived, especially when weighed against how much of experience has players slowly unraveling a cool (and unconventional) narrative.
Reiner: I couldn’t have said it any better than that. This is a story-driven experience first and foremost. The atmosphere and expected plot developments are the elements that stick with you. Everything else fades away.
Joe: So, it sounds to me like Soma has another supporter for our fight for the Top 50?
Reiner’s Verdict: I’m just a few days removed from finishing up Soma, and I think I’ve recommended it to nearly a dozen friends. It shouldn’t be in contention for our Top 50 list; it should be a lock.