Opinion – Soma’s Safe Mode Proves Horror Games Can Work Without Danger
Horror games rely on conflict. Grotesque, bloody monsters are often front-and-center, and your relationship to them (whether it involves gunning them down with limited ammo or sneaking by them unharmed) is how horror games instill dread and fear into players. With the addition of “Safe Mode,” Soma (Amnesia: The Dark Descent developer Frictional Games’ 2015 follow-up) challenges that idea, opting to let players remove monster encounters entirely and focus on exploring underwater station Pathos-11 at their leisure. The mode isn’t without faults, but is ultimately the way to go while also proving horror games don’t have to test players to entertain them.
Although Soma is one of my favorite games of 2015, its monsters frustrated me. Soma’s story, which raises questions about the nature of A.I., consciousness, and end-of-the-world scenarios through insightful conversations between characters, moves at a brisk pace. These conversations, their implications, and how developer Frictional Games weaves them into interactive moments not only deepen the atmosphere, but offer terrifying mental spaces for players to venture into without resorting to gore or violence. But having to crawl into vents and wait for monsters to walk by didn’t mesh with these threads, and slowed down the momentum of the plot.
These encounters usually weren’t challenging, but they still revealed how frail of an illusion horror game monsters often are. As in most horror games, dying to Soma’s monsters even once dispelled the dread and tension I’d built up to that point wandering the dimly-lit halls of Pathos-II. At that point, as in most horror games, I was more concerned with outsmarting or circumventing the monsters chasing me in a way that removed me from the world entirely. It’s a constant rub between me and horror games; the moment a monster kills me, it’s lost all of its power to scare me.
As annoyed as I was, at the time I wondered if my issue with its monsters was a “the grass is always greener” scenario; would transforming Soma from a creepy stealth game to a creepy first-person adventure ruin the experience? After playing through the game again in the newly-added Safe Mode (which prevents the game’s various monsters from harming you), I don’t think the hide-and-seek encounters added much to my initial playthrough, and in many ways, the more passive experience improved the overall mood of a horror game like Soma.
Without monsters, the more high-brow aspects of Soma come to light. I was free to pour over the myriad computer terminals, dead bodies containing short stories, and dense environmental storytelling Soma executes so well. In the tension of a heated chase with monsters, I was more prone to run past bits of story I would have otherwise sifted through. Running from monsters might be more true to the horror experience, but these little bits of info did more to immerse me in Soma’s dreadful world (make me more concerned with the sometimes scary questions it asks) than any monster chase.
Safe Mode does fumble in a few ways. Shortly after the game released on PC, a mod that not only prevented them from harming players, but gutted the monsters’ aggression drive entirely became popular; with it installed, monsters simply roamed the halls avoiding you. In Safe Mode, monsters are still aggressive, but simply don’t deal damage. While I appreciated my newfound immortality, these encounters made me think I was “breaking” the Soma experience more than playing a mod which literally did break the experience.
Additionally, it does rob a few sequences of their tension. At one point during my second playthrough, I need to reboot a mainframe so I can access new modules to convince an A.I. to give me a cipher (it’s a long story). After flipping the switch in the server room that reboots the mainframe, I need to wait about 30 seconds as it boots up, then press a button before the whole sequence resets. The problem is that a Proxy (a horrifying mix of human, robot, and a sickly goo called Structure Gel) is roaming the server room, eager to pounce on anyone who might want to do some quick tech support.
Except it’s not a problem in Safe Mode. I’m free to simply run up to the terminal and wait out the timer. When the Proxy finally finds me it pounces, but all it can do is make my screen turn red for a few seconds. I press the button, reboot the mainframe, and go about my day without even a slight panic.
Despite these tepid moments, I think having monsters around without letting them hurt you is the right call. While the monsters may be annoying, they do tie into the game’s narrative, so removing them entirely would do the game a disservice. And even if they can’t hurt you, the monsters augment Soma’s desolate tone. I also have to admit that even though I knew they couldn’t hurt me, I did instinctively hide from monsters a few times. Those moments may be the best of both worlds; getting the player to play along with the haunted-house charade most horror games shoot for without tipping over into frustration.
For horror purists, it might be heresy to imply that horror games could use less monsters. I don’t think that’s the case. As often as I died in my time with Alien: Isolation, for example, I don’t think it would work without a Xenomorph to fear. I do, however, think Soma’s Safe Mode is a good case study about where horror games could head; farther away from jump scares, viscera, and monster chases that have come to define horror in other mediums, and more towards experiences that, while creepy, seek more to make you fear a world that doesn’t exist than monsters that are ultimately powerless.