SOMA: shake up horror

By now, fans of horror games will be uncomfortably familiar with the insides of lockers. Ever since Frictional Games so effectively made hiding or fleeing your only recourse in 2010’s  Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the act of cowering in a closet while your pursuer lingers outside for just too long before it moves on has become standard practice. But familiarity can be the enemy of a good scare and Frictional’s follow-up, Soma, is entering a genre defined by its predecessor. 

“When we were promoting Amnesia, we released a gameplay trailer where the player is chased by an unseen monster and hides in a closet, waiting for it to go away,” creative director Thomas Grip tells us. “At the time, that felt really fresh and was a simple way  to get people interested. Five years later, it’s no longer very special. That’s a great motivation for trying something else.”

Still, The Dark Descent did stand out at a time when the genre was becoming focused on action, a directional shift led by  Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space. But it was more than just a game of deadly hide-and-seek. “I feel there’s been too much focus on the ‘hunted by monsters’ aspect,” Grip says. “There are other features that I also felt made the game special, but that have been hardly adopted at all. For instance, we tried to create puzzles that fit with the flow and thematics of a horror game, such as the water monster encounter or the ones connected to torture devices. I also think we had a pretty strong focus on story, while many of the recent horror games hardly try to tell a compelling narrative at all.

“I think this might have set up slightly wrong expectations for Soma, because many people remember Amnesia as a game where you run around screaming ‘OMG! OMG!’ while monsters chase you. But in reality, only 20 per cent or so is about that.”

Soma does feature a take on monsters, but the real horror comes from its exploration of consciousness and the self. Trapped in PATHOS-2, an undersea research station, protagonist Simon must establish why he is there and why the machines around him are starting to exhibit human qualities. There are other staff trapped down here with you, too, and you’ll happen across ocean life, but also face something entirely unexpected: humour.

“It really comes naturally from the world we have created,” Grip explains when we ask him about an encounter with a robot that acts like an injured human, and is frustrated at your apparent lack of motivation to help. “Some of the things you encounter are so bizarre at first that it’s hard to not also find them a bit comical. We've tried to keep it at a reasonable level throughout the game we don’t want the characters to crack jokes all of the time and make it arise naturally from the creepy nature of the subjects. We found that if everybody was just super-serious, it removed some of the authenticity to it all.”

Ensuring that you never know whether to laugh or scream introduces a fitting wave of discomfort for a game that deals in themes of identity and body horror, but Frictional’s attempt to go beyond traditional videogame horror tropes has made explaining exactly what Soma is a bit of a headache for Grip.

“If I try to promote  Amnesia , I can just tell you about peeking through a door to see what is making that noise, or how you can make a barricade to avoid being killed,” he explains. “In Soma, we try to evoke a sense of dread in other ways, but these are much harder to talk about. Hard Candy is a movie I found really scary and disturbing, yet it is hard to explain exactly why without spoiling it. Compare that to Paranormal Activity, where I can easily sum it up as ‘a poltergeist tormenting a family and its activities are captured on a camera’. While there’s much I love about Paranormal Activity, the horror is not exactly subtle. Soma still has monsters chasing you, but that’s a secondary part of the horror experience. It’s just there to build up a certain mood in the player. The payoff comes from a different direction.”

Terror incognita
Grip is a fan of games such as Outlast and Alien: Isolation, but feels that too little is being done to move the horror genre forward. “A pet peeve of mine in many recent horror games is the problem of players getting used to repeated use of similar mechanics.

I think too many [devs] look for an answer at the lower level. For instance, there many games now that try to give a spin to the hunter and hunted mechanic to make it feel fresh, but I think that’s approaching the problem in the wrong way. Instead the solution should be found at a higher level in how the narrative is structured, the story background, or the entire setup to the situation. In Soma, we don’t show the monsters to the player very much, so there is never really any time to figure out how
they work.”

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