At an off-site location during GDC, Frictional Games invited us to check out Soma for the first time. Rather than give us a spiel about the studio's goals with its follow-up to the underground horror hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent, writer Mikael Hedberg simply handed us a controller, turned out the lights, and walked into another room. We played the game for an hour, exploring three different sections of the game with zero guidance or influence.
Since the demo dropped us into the middle of the game, making sense of the story at this junction isn't easy. That being given, rather than offering a play-by-play account of the demo, we're breaking down everything we could glean from our hands-on experience and a guarded follow-up Q&A session with Hedberg and creative director Thomas Grip.
- Frictional built its name on survival horror, and Soma continues down that path, albeit with a much different setting. Whereas Amnesia was set in an Edgar Allen Poe-like fantasy setting where the studio could take liberties with the fiction, Frictional wanted to set Soma in a much more grounded, believable world. That said, the game has a decidedly science fiction tone.
- Like Amnesia before it, Soma stands out best for its suffocating atmosphere and tension. Whether we were wandering though a derelict industrial building, exploring the ocean floor, or roaming the flooded halls of a shipwreck, a sense of foreboding never left thanks to the sparse lighting, creepy sound effects, and decaying environments.
- Players take the role of Simon, who we know little about at this juncture. Frictional says this is purposeful. "He's not an amnesiac," says creative director Thomas Grip. "He knows very much who he is, but he ends up in a very weird situation to say the least. But exactly how it all starts is a big secret." Given that Frictional has previously stated that Soma is a deep exploration of what it means to be a sentient being, we have some theories on the matter.
- Figuring out how Simon ended up in this abandoned facility is your first objective – during the demo he speculates that he must have been kidnapped or something. But finding out why he's there is just the tip of the narrative iceberg. Frictional says the game explores larger themes beyond that. "Instead of just asking 'how did I end up here?' it will be more like, 'why me?' or 'how can this be?'" says writer Mikael Hedberg.
- As you explore the environments, you can find black boxes, which are essentially audio logs that chronicle the final moments of a person's life. Most of these deaths seem to be at the hand of a computer system called WUA. When asked if this is some sort sentient A.I. gone rogue like HAL 9000, Hedberg plays coy. "I would stay clear from the HAL comparison, but there's definitely something strange going on," he says. "I don't want to spoil it because that's one of the big mysteries for the setting. There is some sort of programmer or whatever that's working it."
- While exploring the environments, Simon comes across objects he can interact with to trigger an extrasensory experience. We came across two of these circumstances, once with a damaged robot and later when we found a dead body in an electrical room. "Simon is able to pick up on different signals and can investigate them in a more intuitive way," Hedberg says.
- Many of the environments require basic puzzle solving to progress. For instance, to get a door to open, we needed to remove a strange mechanical tentacle from a console and then restart the system turning a series of knobs. In another instance, we had to find a fuse to place into an electrical box.
- To keep atmosphere at the forefront, Frictional doesn't clutter the screen with user interface. With no mini-map or waypoints, you must rely on your intuition to guide you.
- Simon isn't the only living person in these derelict environments. A woman named Catherine Chun repeatedly contacts him via the intercom system, asking strange questions like how he's doing and if he "feels capable." Simon thinks this is strange, asking her why her line of questioning is so weird.
- One of the biggest challenges facing Frictional during the development of Soma is transitioning the narrative to feature a more present protagonist. "We're definitely trying to merge the story a little bit more," Hedberg says. "In Amnesia, we had much more passive storytelling with one very clear goal: Find Alexander and confront him basically, and then depending on how the player sees the back story he will make an open choice. In Soma, it's much more of an active quest; we're trying to keep the player in the narrative at all times. Simon talks in present time. In Amnesia, Daniel didn't speak unless he was scared, and then he mumbled something. All the other dialogue was passive voice where he was retelling something. We want Simon to be there, we want him to interact with Catherine and the characters he comes upon."
- Catherine occasionally offers guidance and asks you to perform jobs for her. During this demo, she tells Simon to leave the abandoned industrial complex, which is called Upsilon, and take the tram to the Theta building. Before he has a chance to leave the comm station, suddenly the room floods with water.
- The demo jumps ahead to find Simon on the ocean floor. Here the game takes a different turn – you can head in any direction, with only some dimly lit lights in the distance to guide you. Frictional says this move from claustrophobic indoor environments to sprawling seabed is made to keep the game from feeling like it's hitting the same note over and over. Grip says the "blanket of oppression" is more effective when you let the player come up for air from time to time.
- After exploring the seabed for a while you can find the hull of a sunken ship, the MS Curie. Upon entering, Catherine warns us to avoid the Jiangshi, which is a reanimated corpse in Chinese folklore. Like Amnesia's protagonist, Daniel, Simon is defenseless when he comes across these types of threats. Since you can't directly confront them in combat, you must use stealth to move around them or hide when they are nearby. The demo abruptly ends when Simon turns a corner and suddenly comes face-to-face with one of these bloated, grotesque figures.
- Frictional estimates the game should end up at around eight hours long, and the studio is intentionally slowing the pace of discovery early on. "It's a bit risky," Grip says. "There's going to be a reward that comes five hours into the game, so it's a very slow burn. Some of the stuff that you see now are just the seeds we are planting."
- When asked if the narrative ties directly into the live-action teasers the studio has been releasing up to this point, Hedberg confirms they are related. "There's definitely going to be some overlap because we want that to feel like they are definitely a part of that universe," he says. "There's a story for both the two characters that appear in the short films – Adam Golaski and Imogen Reed. I don't want to reveal more about that but they have a story and we keep them in mind."
- The game is currently on track for a 2015 release, which is a wide enough window to give Frictional the latitude to make sure the game players will eventually experience is as close as possible to the studio's vision.