SOMA: Great game, not horror.

Hi everyone,

I’m back today to discuss my thoughts on SOMA, a recently released video game from Frictional Games, the studio behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, among others. For starters, I’ve been playing on the PS4, but won’t be talking much on the system specs, because the forums show ALL the versions of this game have terrible bugs, and despite the 1.04 patch, I got jammed up several times. I know I’m not the only one.

Before I launch into this, let me say that I’ll be trying to avoid spoilers (no promises!) and that I do love this game. It’s beautiful, fairly unique, and overall, I’d give it 8.5 out of 10 stars, with points lost due to the bugs and the often repetitive “Oh look, an enemy, let me hide for ten minutes” stealth mechanic.

As a gamer, I love a good survival horror experience, and when this game was marketed as one of the most pants-wettingly scary best scary games on the market, I had to check it out. Problem is, the writer in me can’t overlook some glaring flaws.

Let’s start off with the obvious one: nothing about this game is actually horrifying. Sure, there were some moments where I was backed into a corner, praying something wouldn’t hurt me, but the original element of the stealth–the fact that looking at an enemy can cause them to ‘see’ you and attack, even if that enemy is blind–takes the fear out of it. These are some grotesquely beautiful creatures that inspire disgust even when holding still, but the player doesn’t get to feel that disgust, because looking at them causes distorted vision and near-immediate death. Let me tell you, kids, staring at a wall gets awful boring, awful fast.

Now, to the story itself. (All this takes place in the trailer/gameplay teaser, so it’s not a spoiler).

Simon, the protagonist and playable character, worked in a bookstore up until a car accident that took the life of a coworker and potential love interest. (Aside: There’s a plot hole here, in that it appears he crashed because he was distractedly looking at the radioactive tracer fluid he’d need to take for the upcoming brain scan… a scan he didn’t need until AFTER the crash, meaning he wouldn’t have had the tracer in the first place.) He goes in for the brain scan in 2015 and wakes up in an underwater base full of sentient machines in 2105, roughly. While it’s possible to get knocked out within the first few minutes, most players will be smart enough not to open the door where, if one listens, a pissed off machine is clearly rampaging inside. (I, as a virtual masochist, opened it anyway).

Whether you get face-punched or not, the first real robot you encounter is peaceful. It has a female personality (we can argue about whether or not robots really have genders later), and appears to be injured. Simon can try talking to it, but it only speaks when he unplugs its life support tentacles. When it protests, begging him not to pull the second, he doesn’t respond; the player has no choice but to pull the second, killing it.

Maybe it’s the science nerd transhumanist in me, but the LAST thing I would do is kill off a sentient machine, especially if I was in an unfamiliar environment. He kills off the first potential ally he meets–and that’s not counting the fact that, to him, this should be a medical marvel, a technological breakthrough that, in his day, would’ve become a global phenomena overnight. What a fantastic way to alienate the gamer and show that this generic male protagonist isn’t really invested in anything but his own progress.

Now, let’s try a fair approach: he probably assumed it was just a fancy robot, much like the Construct that tries to kill him in the next room. However, when he meets Carl Semken, another robot, which can talk and clearly believes itself to be human, he either kills Carl by turning off the power so he can escape (a move that brings the Construct back, complicating his progress), or by overloading a circuit, causing Carl terrible, unending pain, but allowing him to move forward unobstructed. Simon’s options are to go sociopathic or Kevorkian, and he only briefly dwells on this while talking to Catherine, a researcher at another base trying to assist him. Neither is a good choice, both completely ignore whatever Carl might have wanted, had the robot known the options, and Simon has about ten seconds worth of regret before shrugging it off.

Horror has been defined and redefined by countless people throughout the ages, but to me, it boils down to this: Does the story, or do the monsters, trigger an actual, emotional reaction? Do you feel horrified? Because this game never once made me think, “SIMON, NO! THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!” (Except for when he says to Catherine, “How could you do this? You’re fucking disgusting!” because he can’t grasp basic and already-made-clear scientific principles.)

Truly horrifying moments abound in a wide array of games (spoilers do follow here). Take Silent Hill 2, when we learn James killed his wife; Silent Hill 3 has plenty, like when Heather’s father is murdered, or the god devours her from within if the player messes up at the church, or she kills the detective in one of the alternate endings; Bioshock, with the Would You Kindly? reveal; The Walking Dead, season one, when Clementine (potentially) kills Lee; The Last of Us, when Ellie is kidnapped; even the Arkham games, which aren’t technically horror, have horrifying scenes, like in Asylum, when Titan turns already dangerous superhumans into insane, rampaging monstrosities, or City and Knight, when The Mad Hatter brainwashes Batman and rips away his control (briefly).

That’s not to mention that, in all those instances, you can actually look at your enemies. Especially Pyramid Head. *shudders, runs*. I’ll come back to some of those games in later posts, because I didn’t particularly like SH2’s James Sunderland either, and Bioshock’s protag is almost entirely without identity, but at least the real tipping point came at the very end, whereas Simon, of SOMA, never gave me a reason to like him in the first place.

Like I said above, excellent game overall. There are some tense scenes, beautiful graphics, and thought-provoking discussions of whether sentience is synonymous with life, as well as (obviously) if taking something off life support qualifies as killing. I do recommend playing this game, I just wish these studious would take a little more time giving us memorable characters. Nothing says true horror like coming to love one of the characters and seeing their whole world fall to pieces.

And damn it, let me see the monsters!

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