I can’t stop my eyes from glistening and it’s either too late or too early and the glips and shloops of the computer fan wuzz and this isn’t where the fingers trembled before, is it? I hear the closets opening and the cabinets filled with their items shake out, manic or docile, we have excruciating waves of anything, the shadows mostly calming along the way, and stare at the feet, stare at the feet, and ask if you where you say you are, alone as you say you’re alone.
Just in time for the holiday of darkness and light, ghouls and schizoid knife-wielders, Frictional Games releases the spiritual successor to Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. I was a fan of both titles, the former which I played halfway through before being too afraid to go on, the latter watched under the security blanket of YouTube. The next title, SOMA, brings us into a new level of darkness that I proudly completed but proudly became maddened by. This title is by far Frictional’s most ambitious foray into horror yet, and the representations of horror come in many forms.
The formulations of the serpentine chill that goes from shoulder to ego. I have been here before. I have breathed this before. The heart does beat in a way I have heard it beat before. I beg for the signal. I look for the symbol. Hearts race as we know ourselves. But we know not ourselves until we have asked the question.
Glassy or not, rough and worn. Each window a new window. Each circuit a new circuit. I have been here before. I hear the echo. I am reminded. Reload, restart, replay. Press key to find yourself in new place. Shudder at the thought that so many have come, you have heard the screams of each rival existence beating into the walls. Pressing. Invisible imprint. Dusty weaves or coils. Where are you and why are you here now? Who is that watching, from the future, or the past?
If you are experienced in the “survival horror” gaming genre, SOMA will feel familiar in its environments and gameplay. Unable to fight (or wield weapons of any kind), protagonist Simon is a helpless wretch who has to creep around corners and avoid monsters (dubbed entities of The Wau, a mysterious strain of mutation that takes over the human form) while continuing to explore and figure out just what he’s doing in the first place. At times the game feels like Bioshock–not a direct ripoff, but a derivative. But there is more to be afraid of in silent hallways lacking light than those that are plagued by mutated, masked psychopaths.
Things are not so much crazy as they are hollow. To be filled. It is a scary thing, to do the filling. You are the one, or the many, wielding the knife. You have the computer mouse in your hand and you create the action to tremble, to proceed, to manipulate. Water bubbles found around the edges. Deep impact zone. A long hallway. Cursing and curiosity. What would happen if you found your copy? What would you do if you had to make a decision? Most importantly, would you choose to remember or forget?
Excision. The grand experiment. The grand ideas of those who came before, but fell. Would you fall? Would I? How to know without clicking run. Following the leader. Following the cheers of the mechanisms that were built to respond to you. We know you, the machines say. Viruses do not. How much sound can you hear in a pit of water? How much rustling around is worth the effort? Isolation is equal parts erotica and desolation. There is the lying down and the simple refusal. Or there are sequences of light that carry you toward your salvation, toward your epiphany.
Other obvious influences include films The Abyss and Sphere, which share similar environments: underwater facilities where shit simply goes wrong everywhere. The Alien movies, and any film featuring rogue AI will also feel familiar in SOMA. The creators don’t bat a lash. But what comes off as an unoriginal space for a horror game in 2015 is actually fresh in its blend, its mixture. There are so many reasons to be afraid, so many reasons to feel compelled to push through the hallways and understand what happened to the world Simon has been forced to visit.
So droop your head low and stumble around blindly. Act the fool or the ignorant if it helps you sleep. Or be spoiled and notice the lush captivity of new worlds and their pleasure. There was hope and now it’s hope for you too. Optimism. You can be multiple. You can be everything and more, but separate, but equal. If the electricity doesn’t get to you first. If the scraggling around doesn’t come to chomp and shrump your wiring and turn you into load screen ooze.
You’ll listen to what your told, the same way the voice is always heard, acknowledged. There is no periphery. There is no choice but the challenge in front of you. You will succeed, or you will fail. There will be a linear brutality that has your name on it. And you will forgive yourself for being the only thing you can be: reasonable, human, understanding, curious. Your autonomy shrouded in the impossible tasks before you. And there will be laughter on the other side of the airlock. There will be the scraping of nails as that which awaits is ready to slice you into subsections. Better for digestion. Better for reciprocity.
A little more on the story: Simon, your average man from Toronto who mysteriously has a date with a doctor to solve a certain physiological ailment (of which little is explained). Following the treatment, which involves sitting in a malevolent chair and letting this strange, hardly-professional scientist perform his job, Simon passes out and wakes up in a strange underwater universe unfamiliar to him. At this point the game follows in its predecessors’ footsteps: Simon moves about, alone, slowly creeped out by strange sounds down each empty corridor of significantly large, and significantly abandoned research stations. An emptiness of all life, Simon is in search for a humanity that exists by proving his own.
Who you are doesn’t matter so much as why you are. And what iteration you are. And what failures you create before you find your success. The watching happens as soon as you open your eyes, and it will not stop. You are in the spotlight as much as your spotlight is pointed into the corners, searching out the final piece of information to make history. But you are history. You are the frightening return. And when you realize that, you will become the violence and mystery you so dearly pursue, and so dreadfully protest.
There is nothing pleasant. There is nothing worth clawing through. Hold your head and die. Feel the box spring as your final breaths arrive. Your avatar is useless. Your dexterity numbing. We will have just the place. There is no place. Sit in front of us, and watch us erupt. As you are paralyzed, so too are you stored into the perfect locked box. An imprisonment fit for such disconnection.
Simon is likable, which makes him the perfect catalyst for the root of fear and psychological antagonism, but he is also strong, which makes him the perfect catalyst for insanely horrific monsters that make insanely horrific screaming noises that make Greg run upstairs and turn on all the lights in the house. Simon’s endurance physically and his need to understand how he came to be at the PATHOS station allow are enjoyable to play through, and I have seen no better companion to control and move through truly scary gaming horror.
The only truth as that which you create. But truly the architect as responsible. Leading the path, as we always have. From simulation to mere mirroring the behavior of, to fully existing as you would have existed moments earlier, moments before. These things are basic. These things you have fouled. You have become the antagonist and you do not even know it yet.
Ask yourself questions. Loom into the storm of the aquatic underbelly. Solutions, answers, and solitude. Grow steady, as though you already died. But know it. Know of your death and embrace it. Find your own calling and claim it. And then watch yourself become slowly, slowly torn apart as we bring you back into the realm of exposure.
But Frictional Games is already capable of creating scary environments, and SOMA is their trump card. With everything done so correctly and thoroughly, a universe crafted to please all the fanboys and their cups full of Mountain Dew, Frictional goes ahead and fills in gaps most games never even touch upon: the Why. Why both create a universe, a game world, a reality, like this? Who created it and why? Where is it and why? Who are we to be privy to it and why? Perhaps I am biased, as the majority of the concepts Frictional poses in this existential nightmare I have encountered every time I’ve toked sativa in my adult life.
But there is no reference. There is only cruelty. Blank pages waiting to be filled. You’ll never find what you’re looking for. You’ll never be able to justify, to explain, that which you’ve seen. You will try to make comparison, elevated claims, but you will be smoldering in a pit, deeply entrenched in fiery carcasses and ashen whispers. Things you cannot comprehend, and that is your place.
You cannot back out even if you want to, for it is already here. The true shade of meaning. The undeniable explanation of existence. And non-existence. There will be a moment where your flickering assumed anonymity will offer you security, but its spark will lighten the room for the moment long enough to see that which is criminal, grotesque. That which will disembowel you, lobotomize you, scoop your matter onto a platter and convert you into zeroes where once ones haunted.
This post is an invitation. This post is an initiation. It is also an introduction. It seeks to not ruin the experience of entering SOMA. It seeks to drag you in and have you flail a bit. SOMA does well to bring you the ambiance, the look and feel of what will make you feel afraid. It will make you jump when you turn a corner and notice a proxy in the beam of your flashlight making the worst screams you’ve ever heard. It will make you utter more what-the-fuck moments baffled by the sheer complexity of humanity’s best attempts to save itself. And it will force you to consider what is real, what is reality, and the painful fear that goes with each matter of existence we face.
There is nothing more for you here. There is only quotations and fixations. The slam of the doors shut, security locks battled, and an image of constant reproduction of loss. Forgive yourself and embrace that which would otherwise chill: that which is abyssal is here to stay. The length of the gaze elongated by the shadow of eyelid. It is your turn to test out, now. It is your turn to flow down the drain. The one that leads into the ocean.
When you find the answers, when you and Simon make your decisions, what will you look like? Like the hellish reality of Event Horizon, a power of such deep destruction is similar to my own fate of knowledge and loneliness within a the confinement and dark beauty of SOMA.