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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Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing EscapeBeyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t know much about Scientology before other than it seemed to be a “church” based on ridiculous beliefs that was taking advantage of its tax-exempt status in what should be a criminal manner in order to fleece its followers. And the internet started a war against them and a lot of suing happened, but not much else. I saw the title of this book and I knew that people had reported non-stop harassment for even casual curious inquiries into the “readings” and whatever else, but I thought to myself it was a little dramatic to label quitting as an “escape”. Couldn’t you just stop going to the “services” or whatever equivalent they have and just ignore the harassing phone calls and letters asking you to come back?

Boy, have I been educated.

This is the story of the niece of the man who took over leadership of the church, so her family was buried quite deeply in the organization, in the “Sea Org”. Essentially where the sun doesn’t shine, and associating with non-scientologists is considered a crime. You get a good look into the depths of the church – maybe not the actual heart where the decisions and rules are made, but the inner layers where the officers are trained. It’s also a fascinating look at how brainwashing works. I knew Scientology was known for brainwashing techniques, but this is brainwashing 101.

Jenna describes her entire life from very young ages all the way up to early 20s-ish or so when she finally manages to leave. I started reading and was thinking “This isn’t so bad… I mean, it’s bad but not completely unusual for fanatical religion.” And then it got worse. And worse. And worse… and … okay it’s pretty fucking bad.

What I found really interesting is the potential glimpse into the motivations of the church. I thought it was 100% a scam designed to pry every last penny from its followers – and it’s certainly that – but it almost seems like the church was designed as a money making scheme and it’s slowly been warped into an entity that, on some levels, actually believes it’s doing the right thing. Some of the decisions made make absolutely no sense if the only goal is to make money. In a lot of the decisions I can’t even see what the goal WAS. The church may have actually brainwashed itself at this point… fascinating.

The book is definitely not well-written, but when you look at the background of the author it’s easily forgiven. The sentences are stilted and dry, and often lack any emotion, but, well… it seems pretty damn representative of what the church attempts to do to a mind. Definitely worth a look if you’re curious.

I hope I don’t get sued for writing this “suppressive” review!

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent

I think Amnesia has gained enough popularity that I don’t really need to promote it, but it is my favourite game that I am too scared to play, so I feel like I must give it a nod.  Plus, I’ve spent a fair amount of time recommending it to friends, so I have some material already typed up that I can cannibalize for this review.  It really should be something I post around Halloween, but with any luck we’ll have Machine for Pigs by then and I can proceed to be too scared to play THAT, instead.

The guys who made Amnesia made the Penumbra series before it.  They’re a very similar style of game – first person, wander around, solve some adventure-style puzzles, scare the shit out of you.  The failing of the Penumbra games is that they included combat.  I’m relatively certain you aren’t supposed to engage in combat, but it’s an option in the game so people immediately pick up the nearest rock and try to bash a hell hound over the head with it, die horribly, and then say “This game sucks” and quit.  Possibly because they learned from this, Amnesia contains no combat at all.  It has monsters, yes, and those monsters want to fucking eat you, but you have no offensive options against them.  And the game is so much better for it.

I love reading discussion about Amnesia because invariably someone will come along and do the internet tough-guy thing.  “This game isn’t scary I don’t understand why everyone gets so scared by this game it didn’t scare me at all.”  You most certainly can boil the game down into its components and realize that if a zombie catches up to you in a video game, you won’t actually die in real life, so jeeze if you get scared by that you must be some kind of pussy!  Or, you can play a game and lose yourself in the atmosphere.  Because if there is one thing Amnesia does, it is atmosphere.  Amnesia has taught me that I apparently do not scream!  I curse.  So instead of screaming it’s more like “AAH FUCK FUCKOFFYOU#!#@!#%^$^$@!@#!#$%^&#@!@#$” as I run for my life…

The premise of the game is that you wake up in a big abandoned castle with no memory. Shortly thereafter you find a note from yourself telling you that YOU wiped your own memory. And then you find out there are ghosts who are mad at you. The story is suitable levels of fucked up and if you enjoy psychological thriller movies, you should really enjoy trying to unravel what went on. There are also multiple endings.

You wander around in first person and almost everything in the world is interactive, and you have to use objects in your environment to figure out how to advance. This includes things like sliding open drawers and cupboard doors, opening shit, smashing down walls… all with mouse gestures rather than point and clicking. It feels very fluid. Embarrassing note: I got stuck for like 15 minutes because I was clicking on a door and thought it was stuck, when I really needed to slide the mouse to pull it open /facepalm. The physics are fun, although sometimes when you grab objects they go flying around like you’re actually superman and chucked them with superhuman force.

The main hook of the game is that you have a sanity meter of sorts, and it works similar to Eternal Darkness where if your sanity gets low, you start hallucinating shit. Hanging out in the darkness will drain your sanity. You can hide from monsters in the darkness. You can see the dilemma. Looking directly at a monster will also drain sanity. Progressing through the game will restore sanity. At least as far as I’ve played, they’ve balanced this very well to keep the pace moving. If you hang around in an area too long a gust of wind might blow out all the candles, “convincing” you to move forward and get back into the light. Solving the puzzles will restore a big chunk of sanity, so when things get dire you have an option to restore it. Running out of sanity doesn’t actually kill you, it just makes everything fucking terrifying, and you might occasionally drop to the ground and assume the fetal position if you let it get too low.
As a veteran of the Thief games, I spent my time skulking around in the shadows looking at stuff and promptly went insane. I’m doing better now but trying to decide whether to waste a tinderbox on lighting a lantern HERE, or wait to use it up THERE is really gutwrenching sometimes.

This was my experience in the flooded archives which is probably the first really “oh fuck why did I buy this game fuck FUCK” moment of the game, fairly early on. (Oh god this is the beginning, what’s coming later??!?!). This is like 30 to 40 minutes in, when the game is reported to last “about 10 hours, not counting the time you spend cowering in cupboards afraid to look out.”

(Note: I describe a couple areas of the game which counts as a spoiler.  It’s a small area, and available in the demo, but if you want to experience the game in a pristine fashion you may need to quit here)

The flooded archives are, well… flooded. Its about shin deep and restricts your movement speed a bit, and you make big splashy noises walking through it. There are lots of boxes and other furniture debris around. As you progress in, you notice you are not the only thing making splashy noises… and also the other thing making splashy noises has noticed you. You can see the splashes coming toward you, but the creature is invisible.

I freaked out and tried jumping on the boxes but I picked one that was too high to climb on and it whacked me once (getting smacked disorients you for a second which is NOT GOOD AAAHHH), then I managed to climb on top of one. The thing wandered back and forth below the box making splashes, but it couldn’t see or hear me if I wasn’t splashing in the water. This is where I sat on the box going “fffffuuccckkk” for a couple minutes, then looked around and figured out that there was a little box-path that I was obviously intended to escape on. So I did that!

Some of the boxes are too far apart and you hit the water, and it comes for you :(. So you freak out scrambling to get back onto the boxes before it catches up. Then I got all the way to the end of the hall only to find out that the GOD DAMN GATE IS SHUT. The switch, NATURALLY, is at the other end of the hall where I came from. So I had to go back. And then the switch was on a timer so I had to rush back down the hall to get back through it, which meant I fell off a lot of boxes. I got through the gate and it slammed shut, leaving the little splashmark of the monster on the other side. WHEW I’m safe.

Oh, there’s one on this side too. TO THE BOXES, FUCK.

THIS room was disturbing, because it was a wide open room with boxes on this end, and a box and a door on that end, and nothing but water and splashy monster in between. It knows I’m here, and it’s pacing around between me and the door. There’s no way I can make it.

There is stuff on my box. Oh good, dismembered body parts! Argh.

So I grab some unfortunate persons’ torso and chuck it as hard as I can into the far corner of the room. It goes sploosh, and splashymonster runs after it. I grab the severed arm that’s sitting there, just in case! Then I tear off toward the door. Splashymonster comes back for me! But I made it before he got to me. Then he went back to the torso and ATE IT.

Now there is a problem because the wheel to open the door is in water nowhere near my box, so I chucked the arm back toward the splashymonster to distract him some more, then dove in and started turning like my life depended on it. (because it did, I guess).

To turn the wheel you have to grab and then make circles with your mouse. I think I burned a circular pattern in my mousepad I turned that fucker so fast. He was coming back for me but I made it through. It was a short jog to the next area from there. The door is a transition to load a new area so I figured I was safe.

Holy fuck was I wrong. The door opened up into another flooded hallway, and a few steps in I start hearing the ominous splashing behind me. There are no boxes to stand on in here, but there’s plenty of debris to block your path.

I think the next few minutes can count as my cardiovascular exercise for the day. Sprinting through the hallway jumping over busted chairs with SPLOOSH SPLOOSH SPLOOSH and horrible monster like gurgling behind me… and ALL THE MOTHERFUCKING DOORS OPEN INWARD so every single FUCKING door you have to stop at and pull backward. The first door I ran too close to and jammed it on myself and had to reposition to get it open and through, and it caught me and got a hit in while I was doing it which took me to “barely conscious” and my vision went all red and blurry for the rest of the sequence… FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

And then I made it! And the next room was a serene little room with a fountain and bright windows and calming music and I was like “FUCK this game”
 

Then I immediately recommended it to everyone I know.