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Hands-On: SOMA Seeks Deep Scares

During E3 I had the opportunity to meet with Ian Thomas, one of the level designers working on SOMA, an upcoming horror title from Frictional Games. Many of you might recognize that Frictional also developed the fantastically creepy Amnesia: The Dark Descent. As Amnesia is one of my favorite horror games of all time, I was understandably excited to be able to see what terrors SOMA would unleash. 


Booting into the demo took a little bit longer than might be considered comfortable as the build is still in beta. Thomas assured me that the final release will have much faster load times. The demo began in an enclosed metallic structure. From the extensive live-action marketing campaign, I knew that the facility was likely underwater. I moved through the lovingly rendered hallways slowly, trying to soak in as much of the game as possible. Thomas and I talked about the game as I explored the creepily deserted corridors and areas that just felt a bit… off.




Ian Thomas: This is a level that we’ve chopped large segments out of just for the show floor. You’re about an hour and a half into the game. Unlike Amnesia, you know who you are, but the main character doesn’t know quite why they’re where they are now and is still trying to figure stuff out. It is very much an exploration, pay-attention-to-your-environment game than it is a run-around-and-jump-up-and-down game.


The one control mistake that everyone makes, because we are- again, Amnesia, Penumbra if you played that kind of stuff, very much into physical manipulation of objects. So rather than X being action, it is interact because sometimes you have to hold down and grab things, so X is interact for terminals, doors, objects, and stuff like that.


Jack Gardner: What made you guys want to make a leap from fantasy horror to science fiction horror?


IT: That’s actually a really good- fantasy is a really great way of putting it. Because what we can get away with in Amnesia- because it is a little bit fantastical, we can get away with magic. Which means we can make curtains shake when they shouldn’t, you know? So we tried to be much more grounded in a reality here. It’s kind of drawn from things like Philip K. Dick’s books, the guy who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Yeah, I think we have all been mad fans of sci-fi, but Thomas [Grip] particularly designed the game, [he’s] very much into that.


What we were basically trying to do with this- in Amnesia you had a very, very horror environment, which I hope we still have in a lot of places, and you had a lot of horror stuff happen to you. The big difference that we want to make here is when you put the controller down and walk away, we want you to still be thinking about what happened. We want the real horror to come from the questions the game raises in your head.


JG: Okay, yeah. What sort of questions are you asking?


IT: They are some fairly fundamental questions about the nature of identity. The game is really about identity and our place in the world. So yeah, I guess the step from Amnesia isn’t so much to do with setting, although it is very much more grounded in reality setting, but it’s to do with asking a whole bunch of questions and sci-fi was a good way to do that.


JG: What made you want to tackle these questions specifically? Consciousness and…?


IT: That’s… I have to say that’s really a question for Thomas. It’s the horror aspect of it. There’s a lot about the identity question that just kind of leaves you- I can’t spoil it too much, but it just kind of leaves you going “Aww s**t, really?” [laughs] You know? Some really good questions and I don’t think we’ve seen them raised in a game before, at least not in this way.


JG: Did you have anything to do with the teaser campaign around SOMA?


IT: I personally didn’t, but the whole company got involved in some way or another.


JG: Why did you all decide to go with the live-action vignettes?


IT: I can’t say too much about the live-action except to say that you haven’t seen the end of it yet. It was kind of experimental. It was, let’s see what we can get out of this. Have you seen things like the early Mockingbird video?


JG: Yes.


IT: They kind of hit home in a small, tight package as to what we’re trying to say, some of the questions. Obviously you recognize the stuff there. It is kind of at the root of what we’re talking about.




While Thomas and I talked, I briefly interacted with a damaged robot flailing slightly on the ground. It seemed to be convinced it was human, but incapable of seeing its own robotic limbs. It begged me to find a doctor. Not quite sure what to do, I moved on. I located a nearby switch and pulled it into the off position. All power in the immediate area went out and the robot nearby began screaming in apparent agony, as if being tortured. I quickly flipped the switch back into the on position and ran over to the robot. Definitely worse for the wear, he continued to moan for a doctor as the protagonist attempted to apologize.   




JG: Do I need to leave the power off there?


IT: It is entirely up to you. There are a bunch of different answers to different problems in different levels. We are not totally linear by any means, and those kinds of decisions do have some fairly major effects on the world.


JG: So, you say it has major effects on the world. Is this a branching story?


IT: There are branches in it. The overall thrust of the story doesn’t branch majorly, but within each section there are smaller choices to make and they affect the environment around you. [An inert robot lies on the ground, apparently dead. Interacting with the fallen machine begins a brief audio recording.] What you are experiencing here, you can actually access the last ten seconds in a bunch of different data centers. Things like comm. links, deactivated robots, even humans have this little thing called a black box which is a chip stuck in the back of their heads which is used for monitoring their position and making sure of their well-being. The side effect of that is you get the last ten seconds before they die. It is kind of our answer to audio logs, but hopefully the last ten seconds of someone’s life is quite an interesting thing.


JG: [Laughs] Well, I’d hope so! I think it is a more interesting and thoughtful approach to horror than just going for the jump scare.


IT: We hope so. I don’t personally consider that Amnesia was just jump scares by any means-


JG: No, no-no-no-no, but that’s usually the first place most developers go and I like that you guys have moved beyond that and have been pushing beyond that-


IT: Certainly what we are trying to do. Oh, what you are starting to see here with Carl [Note: Carl was what the functional robot I had encountered earlier had called itself.] and you just found something signed “A” over there. There is, I suppose, a mini-substory going on here about Carl and Amy and the time they spent in this space. A lot of the game is uncovering things that have happened here, but it is not just exploration because it is kind of going, “Okay this is what happened. Now, based on their experiences, how do I change my story?” It pushes you forward.


JG: I assume asking where I am in the game is a bit of a spoiler?


IT: I think pretty much everyone knows that you are at the bottom of the sea.


JG: Yeah.


IT: Yeah, okay. This is a research station, one of a bunch of different research stations that all form part of the same complex. Some of them have a fair distance between them so you don’t spend all of your time indoors. We try to change up the environments quite a lot and we also try to change up the creatures you encounter a lot. They’re not all necessarily set up against you. Some of them change. Some are good guys, some are bad guys. They all behave slightly differently. In Amnesia we had a limited selection of monsters. Here we have… a huge variety, actually. This is Site Epsilon which is the first major site you spend time in.


JG: Is it less something hunting you in SOMA and more just trying to escape the facility?


IT: Uuuummm, I wouldn’t say that there aren’t sequences where things hunt you. I think you’ll find there are a reasonable selection of those. But we try to mix and match it. Different spaces have different things going on. There are some pants-wettingly frantic sections. There are sneaky sections there are explorer sections.


JG: [I picked up an object sitting on a table, a small black transmitter.] This is one of those black boxes?


IT: Yeah, you can’t do anything with it in this level. It is just there for the demo, but it is showing you what is going on. We tried very much to make sure that everything has a reason for being there and you can piece together logical stuff from the environment around you.


JG: Yeah, there is some really good environmental storytelling here from what I can see in the few minutes I’ve played. What did you personally have a hand in?


IT: I work on level design and level scripting. That’s the main thing. We’re quite a small team so everyone does a little bit of most things. Primarily level scripting and design, though.


JG: How big is the Frictional Team?


IT: I think we are at about fourteen? Something like that. There’s ten Swedes, one Spanish guy, three guys in the UK and then we have a lot of contractors that come in and do things like- we sub-contract some of the animation. We sub-contract some of the sound work, mostly the voice work. No central office, everyone just works from home.



At this point, I entered a room with a note next to a giant lever. The note warned in no uncertain terms that pulling the lever would lead to irreversible results. However, I needed to pull the lever to open the path to the communications center for Site Epsilon. So, I pulled it. The generator spun down, putting the facility into a low-power state. In the distance, I heard a mechanical roar and a heavy, thumping sound that came closer and closer. Using the shoulder buttons to peek around corners, I spotted it: A hulking mass of wires and metal that appeared to be searching for me in the now darkened corridors. In an attempt to distract the mechanical monster, I tried throwing a canister. My throw fell short. The sound caused it to turn toward me.


I ran, bolting down the hallway back to the generator room, the beast’s thunderous footsteps echoing behind me. I shimmied underneath some pipes in the generator room, hoping it didn’t come into the room where it would definitely discover me. It stopped just outside, scanning the room with its lone camera lens. It turned away, apparently failing to notice me cowering in the corner.

As it turned to search farther down the hall, I slipped quietly behind it, going back the opposite direction. I became aware of the walls covered in grey, vaguely luminescent slime. I arrived at the door controls for the communications center. I dashed up the stairs as I heard and enraged roar from down the hall. I turned quickly, flipping the switch to shut the heavy doors. Safe for the moment, I let out the breath that I had been unconsciously holding for the last minute. I noticed a strange, grey pustule growing out of some of the slime covering part of the comm. center’s walls. Touching the strange growth shocked my vision and caused the luminescence to dissipate. Confused, I looked to Thomas.   




TI: Those things, you don’t know what they are in-game, but the effect they have on you is that they make you feel better. If you use those they affect the environment around you. It’s almost like making a choice in some cases. There are permanent kills, but if you get knocked down by a creature like that, it knackers you up and you feel a bit worse, which is why those flower-things come into play. They’re a health mechanism. It’s not really like the Amnesia insanity, but there are similar aspects to it without spoiling too much. We’ve stripped a lot out of this room because of spoilers.




Interacting with the primary console in the comm. room yielded a scripted sequence where the protagonist talked urgently with a woman from a different facility. The woman warned that Epsilon was in the process of collapsing, advising me to make my way to the transit area and- The sealed room began imploding, water shorting out the computer and filling the room. It filled and filled and suddenly I was drowning. The screen went dark.




JG: Is this the end?


IT: No, there should be more. For some reason the loading is a little slow here. One of the changes we made from Amnesia was all of the levels stream now. So it should be a lot snappier in the finished build. The whole thing should be seamless.




The screen flickered back to life. “How is this possible?” wondered the protagonist aloud, despite the crushing weight of water. I swam out of the building into the open ocean, earning a view of the entire Epsilon site, a modular collection of halls and buildings nestled on the ocean floor. My arms look to be covered in some sort of suit as I swim forward. At that moment, the camera pulled out and the demo appeared to be over for good.




JG: What are some of the lessons that you took from Penumbra and Amnesia and applying to SOMA?


IT: Ooh, that’s a difficult question for me because I wasn’t actually here for Amnesia. I think it is trying to make the whole thing feel more seamless, trying to strip out the HUD and the rest of it. Try to build a realistic world and work upwards from there, really. Base it on the story first, it’s about designing from the story upwards. Which makes it actually quite difficult to do, because until we have the game in a playable state we couldn’t really test if it was working, if that makes sense. You can’t tell whether the overall experience is working until you’ve got a lot of it built. It’s not like a bunch of mechanics who can test and then just iterate on it and then build out a whole bunch of levels.


JG: Well, I am very excited to see where this goes. I’ve been following Frictional for a long time.


IT: I am a little bit disappointed. That’s the trouble with these kinds of demos; we can’t get the sound that’s in there out to everyone around here.


JG: The sound’s really important and you guys know your sound design.


IT: Because I haven’t been involved with the sound at all, [laughs] I can say that I think it’s damn good.


JG: Well, I will get out of your way and let you get on with the show. Nice to meet you!


IT: Likewise.




SOMA appears to be a very interesting project with a lot of talented people attached to it. It is the kind of game that really is looking to do something different with the horror genre rather than simply going for Amnesia on steroids. It’s pushing for a longer lasting type of horror, the kind of existential horror that many people try not to think about too much. How do we know who or what we are? Do we see the world as it really is? Or is our reality all a charade? Mix these questions with mechanical monstrosities, disturbing body horror, and wonderfully creepy sound design really makes SOMA a game to watch.

Feature originally appeared on 06/25/15

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