Out of all the horror games I have played this year, I was perhaps the most nervous about SOMA, a video game initially released in 2015 by the same people behind the Amnesia series of video games. My community certainly didn't help with this, as according to them, SOMA was the scariest game on my list.
It turned out they were right, but not for the reason I expected.
SOMA tells the tale of Simon Jarrett, just your average man living in Toronto in 2015. After surviving a car accident and sustaining brain damage along with cranial bleeding, he undergoes an experimental brain scan that he hopes can help him. While the scan is going on, he blacks out and regains consciousness in an abandoned facility that we come to learn is underwater. As Simon explores, he learns this is one facility out of several. The year is now 2104, and some sort of apocalyptic scenario has occurred on the surface of Earth. Traveling through this underwater landscape, Simon attempts to figure out how he came to be there and what became of humanity.
While SOMA is a horror game, it does not rely on jumpscares to frighten its players. Instead, the game attempts to blend survival and psychological horror. Sometimes it works, but other times it just falls short.
The moments of psychological horror are brilliantly done, many of these moments coming from the variety of robots that Simon encounters that don't think of themselves as machines. Despite Simon's (and the player's) initial impression that these robots are being controlled by someone from a distance, he soon learns that these robots are running a digital and identical copy of someone's mind. While slightly anthropomorphized (a few of these robots have red dots or something similar where the eyes would be), the majority of the robots he encounters aren't human-shaped at all. Many are rusted and boxy and in varying states of disrepair, leading to a sort of visual disconnect between "human" and "machine."
In my opinion, this was a brilliant decision. When presented like this, it leads players to question what makes someone human. Is a person's humanity their consciousness, the fact that they're made from flesh and bone, or something else entirely?
While the game won't lead you to any particular answers, a variety of things you encounter in the course of play (many of which I can't elaborate on due to spoilers) let you explore what other characters in the world of the game think about such things, including several instances where Simon himself verbalizes his thoughts on the matter.
Being able to question that made the moments where we had to make decisions surrounding the aforementioned robots particularly heartwrenching. Many of these robotic encounters end with us needing to interact with them in some way that might effectively "kill" that robot and the human consciousness within it by extension.
I agonized over several of those moments, horrified both by the choice being presented to me, and the consequences of that choice once made. One moment in particular (which, again, I can't elaborate upon due to spoilers, but trust me when I say the moment is honestly a lot more effective when you experience it in play) had me almost near tears, apologizing aloud even as I took an action that I knew I would want someone to do for me if I was in that position. And it was in moments like that that the horror genuinely worked.
Where the horror of SOMA almost fell flat, however, were the more survival horror elements.
Now, I will say that being locked into a first-person perspective helped aid in the overall horror experience of this game. With our perspective limited to what Simon could see directly in front of him, it made navigating the areas we were in that much more terrifying, especially when we couldn't easily see behind us or what something was up ahead. The game even gives us the capability to peer around corners, a mechanic I especially liked as doing so added an extra layer of terror to trying to figure out where monsters were every time I did it.
Because yes, like most traditional horror games, SOMA has monsters.
Visually, the creatures of SOMA hit the nail on the head in terms of what you'd expect from a game like this. They are twisted and grotesque, clearly shaped by their environment, and become significantly more terrifying when you realize they look more human than you might have expected. Many of them can even open the doors you can close to try to keep some distance between you and them.
However, problems arise when you realize stealth is Simon's only real weapon against these creatures. Crouching makes it harder for them to see him, but I often found myself crouched in a shadowy corner as a monster started to walk in my direction and would just freeze there, staring at me, only to wander a few feet away and come right back to stare at me in the corner without actually doing anything.
At one point, it occurred to me that since the game allowed me to pick up random objects in the world, I might be able to throw those objects to distract them, but unfortunately, that's not the case. Although I admittedly didn't think of trying this until towards the end of my playtime, using this effectively required very specific throws that needed me to get into a specific position painfully close to the creature before I threw things to try to direct their attention in the direction I wanted. I can't imagine this would have been a viable tactic earlier in the game given that.
I think if tossing objects to distract creatures was something that could have been used in a less convoluted manner, SOMA on the whole would have felt more effective to me as a survival horror game. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and ultimately, I felt the psychological horror elements worked better overall.
All that said, however, I was genuinely surprised by just how much I enjoyed the time I spent playing SOMA when it was over.
Yes, it was absolutely terrifying, and no, I don't think I would willingly play it again.
However, despite the survival horror not quite living up to my expectations, I enjoyed the story of this game, and, surprisingly, the psychological horror that went with it.
SOMA posed several questions that I'm still thinking about days after completing it. I'm not sure I'm any closer to answering the question of what it means to be human or what can even be considered human, but the fact that this game allowed me to question that at all was unexpected and almost beautiful. The quieter moments where Simon and his eventual travel companion are discussing these kinds of things are the moments that still stick in my head, and I think those were some of the most meaningful moments in the game.
If you're interested in a horror game that will make you think while simultaneously trying to break you emotionally, you should give SOMA a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
SOMA is available on Steam, Epic, Playstation, and Xbox.
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