SOMA

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is my favourite game that I am too scared to play, so I was pretty excited when I discovered they were releasing SOMA, a similar style of game in a more sci-fi horror setting.  And it released just in time for us to be in a Halloween sort of mood, too!

The majority of the game takes place on a deep sea research station where you stumble from station to station trying to piece together what’s gone wrong and where everyone went.  It has a very Doom 3 sort of feel, actually, except you have no weapons to protect you.  In typical Amnesia fashion, the game has absolutely no combat, and you have to rely on careful movement to avoid notice, and occasionally running for your god damn life when you don’t.

Sadly it does not include hidey holes like the Amnesia cupboards, which were some of my favourite mechanics.  Sitting in a dark cupboard listening to footsteps and groaning outside and sllloooooowwwllllly opening the door to peek through a crack to see if it was safe yet was one of the things that really made Amnesia stand out, to me.  SOMA feels less interactive in that way.  Instead of being able to choose how fast or slow you want to open a door, most things are binary.  It makes sense since most of them are powered so it’s like connect power, open door, *whoosh* as opposed to turn handle, pull/push door in direction, but I feel like that was a loss.  A lot of the tension I gained from Amnesia (the brief amount I actually played it for myself as opposed to watching someone else, anyway) was from moments like peeking, or from dashing to a door in a panic and flailing away at it before realizing I had to pull it instead of push it and oh god I just wasted 5 seconds and it’s coming for meeee nooooooo pull pull open faster god damn you door nooooooo!  And not because of a struggle with controls, either. It just felt like I was fumbling with opening a real actual door because I was too panicked to think straight.

We chose to play SOMA (I say “we” but I suppose for the sake of accuracy I should say: I forced my husband to play SOMA because I was too chicken to do it myself…) on the big screen in the front room, for ease of spectatorship (and also fancier sound system), so he chose to use a controller from the couch.  I was pretty distracted the whole time by just how annoying the controller was to use, and I wasn’t even the one using it!  Every time he tried to interact with things I was thinking “This would be so much easier with a mouse”.  One of the most tense moments we experienced was entirely because the controller fucked us over.  We were repairing an elevator which was a fiddly bit of business, requiring you to put a piece here and then flip a bunch of switches in order, then close the button and activate it.  We figured out the sequence, but as he was putting the pieces together he was discovered by a monster.  The next few seconds consisted of us yelling things like “THAT ONE GOES THERE! FLIP THAT! QUICK CLOSE IT!” and then the elevator opened and he scurried in, only to discover he now had to push ANOTHER button to tell it where he would like to go.  He wrestled with the controller, with the damnable cursor drifting too high to click on it, now too low, and oops too high again, all while I’m yelling “CLICK IT CLICK IT CLICK IT!!!” and him yelling “AAAAAAAH AAAAAAAAAAHH!!!” each time the cursor drifted, and just as he got the cursor into the middle and clicked, the monster charged and we died and had to start the sequence all over again.  Had he been using a mouse we probably would have survived.  Moral of the story: controllers kill.

The game takes about 10 hours to play and has a lot of really good moments.  Some of the levels were really well designed, I thought. And some were… less well designed.  A lot of them are twisty and confusing, which is good if you’re thinking about it in a ‘oh no I am trapped in this horrible place’ sort of way, but it’s kinda bad when it causes you to lose momentum because it results in you wandering back and forth after you missed your turn and you’re not entirely sure where you need to go next.  But they absolutely nailed the atmosphere of most of the areas, particularly the underwater storm.  I just had an overwhelming sense of “oh fuck” the whole time we walked through that.  Atmosphere and dread is what these guys are good at, after all.

What they are maybe not so good at is story.  I enjoyed the story in SOMA, but I felt a few parts of it dropped the ball.  The protagonist comes across as pretty whiny, and there were a few philosophical discussions where I felt like the writers were imposing a viewpoint on the player that perhaps might not be true for everyone.  It still serves its purpose, though, and gives you some interesting things to think about whether you agree with the protagonist or not.  The game also serves up a number of choices along the way that do a good job of making you reconsider your actions.  The choices aren’t hardcoded into the story – in fact you may get tripped up by videogame logic at first and not realize they are optional actions.  Even though the choices ultimately mean nothing for the overall story arc of the game, I felt like they did a really good job of presenting them, making you think about them, and not beating you over the head with their presence.  Bravo on that one.

So in conclusion, SOMA is pretty good and you should buy it.  It’s a great atmospheric experience that sometimes also makes you think about yourself.  And who doesn’t love a game where you heal yourself by sticking your fist into an alien butthole?

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