Soma isn’t much of a horror game. It’s less scary or horrifying than unsettling. When I think about what “horror” means, I end up with a few dismissive definitions; strip the “horror” elements from Soma (preferably using a bleach solution), and you’ve got a mix of adventure game-style puzzles and a mild interspersing of stealth sequences. It lacks jump scares almost entirely. There’s no long-term fear of running out of oil or sanity, as in developer Frictional Games’ last effort, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Maybe the grim trappings, the blood-soaked viscera in unlit rooms, really are all that makes horror what it is.
Whatever your definitions, Soma is at its worst when it applies horror tropes where I’d rather they’d not appear at all. Like when I’m hiding in an air vent between two monsters, who’ll turn around and start hobbling towards me the second I leave the vent from either end. Or when I’ve missed a cue earlier on about what I’m supposed to do because I was too busy running from a monster and wind up stuck in a mental block. These parts aren’t enjoyable in any way. They don’t induce adrenaline in me, because the stakes are so low. I dread these segments because I’d rather die of trauma than boredom. Although not getting to choose the way you die might be the fundamental basis of horror.
I guess I shouldn’t get too hung up on these moments. They are thankfully uncommon, and Soma is as much a horror game as the film Ex Machina is a thriller: by definition only. In the long stretches between encounters with monsters, I travel among abandoned space stations, tinkering with computers for several minutes, reworking microchips and systems to do things they probably weren’t intended to do. The passive moments far outweigh the attempts to create tense ones, and the pacing is such that I don’t miss the feeling of barely getting past monsters. I could be alone on these stations for a long time. The horror is more set dressing here, and Soma is better for it.
The comparison between Soma and Ex Machina goes a bit further, too; I came to both with genre-specific expectations, but left pondering their subject matter thanks to the way they methodically explore the consequences of sufficiently human A.I. programs. It’s nothing even the pulpiest science fiction hasn’t dealt with before, but the way it handles its topics, introducing bits and pieces of a complicated quandary and continually stirring new arguments into the mix, is a cut above what I’m used to. It asks us to ponder the nature of consciousness, and how important the act of experience is (or isn’t). Then, in a few rare, ascendant moments, it plays with those concepts through the moments I experience first—hand, rather than through the posthumous, anthropologic characterization we’ve gotten used to in first-person games. And when these moments happen, I start thinking about just how much potential this medium has to touch on important topics, even if most games tend to skim over them.
Soma blurs a lot of definitions. “Fixed” versus “broken.” “Physical” versus “digital.” It asks Big Questions, and it forces these topics in some less-than-subtle ways. It’s single-minded in a way that can be off-putting, as it constantly wrestles with the definitions of one thing versus another. You’ll hear a dozen or so voices throughout the game, and their delivery hits home as often as it fumbles, often making serious topics seem trite. The game gives us a companion, the way many games do, and we have a lot of ponderous conversations about said topics. These too can feel about like hammering the point home excessively, but the conversations work to elucidate how different people view the topics the game constantly wants you to consider.
And I did consider them, eventually. I thought about the things Soma asked me to (and it does literally ask, at one point) while I wasn’t playing, and in that alone it succeeds where so many other games have gotten nothing but cold dismissal out of me. I want to talk to others about not only their experiences with Soma, but also get their opinions on these topics, maybe have someone I know play through it and see if it sparks similar conversations. Here is where Soma most succeeds as a horror game: when it catches me, it doesn’t let me go for a while.
This is also where developer Frictional Games’ trademark physicality sends me deeper into chin-stroking mode: as in Amnesia: The Dark Descent I open as many doors by swinging or sliding them open with the mouse as I do by pressing nearby buttons. This works on drawers, too, and objects will slide around in them if I’m too hasty. I grab wires and insert them into their proper sockets by hand. The physicality is important in Soma, moreso than in The Dark Descent because of the way physically touching something and manipulating it physically (though still in the very digital “object floating in the air” way) enforces the game’s central themes on the nature of consciousness. Moving these parts around makes everything feel more real.
The physicality works, too, as I engage with computer systems time and again, and witness the highs and lows of technology. In Soma, nothing seems to fucking work the way I want it to. It’s a typical comedy of errors, where the elevator is broken, the chip I need to fix it is in a locked room, and then it needs to be formatted to be compatible with the elevator itself. But then it finally does work, the way we tend to take for granted most of the time. Watching the machinery work is all the better after spending the time to make sure it did. In these abandoned stations, my excitement when the doohickey finally does the thing it’s supposed to isn’t life-affirming, but it’s a relief. At least I don’t have to fight with monsters for my digital life for a while now.
Soma isn’t much of a horror game, but that’s not a big loss. It uses horror trappings as a jumping off point to find more intelligent and interesting trails to follow. Its follow-through, save for a few instances where I felt it succumb to the bindings of its genre, is impressive. When it talks about something, it goes for it, and the results are rarely pretty or happy but almost always intriguing. And most importantly: it asks us to consider questions that might become relevant sooner rather than later. It takes a stance on them, I think, but that could just me contorting my interpretation to align with my own views.
After I insert the formatted chip into the elevator, by the way, it breaks down. But that doesn’t matter. I end up finding a way out of that broken elevator, and get to keep going by some other miracle. What matters is that I tried to fix it, and that I experienced it. Or hell—any experience matters, as long as I get something out of it. Definitions are ultimately the most boring thing in the world. What does it matter whether the elevator is “fixed” or “broken” if it gets us where we need to go?
Soma was developed and published by Frictional Games. It is available for PC, PlayStation 4, Mac and Linux.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who acknowledges that an actual broken down elevator would be a very real problem. He’s written for Paste, GamesBeat, Vice, Playboy, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.