Last year I spent an hour with SOMA, the latest horror game from Amnesia creator Frictional Games. Its quiet (and not so quiet) encounters disturbed me, but at least back then I could hang my upsets on the game itself.
Upon returning to Frictional's work, however, I've found myself mulling on something entirely unexpected: Am I actually a monster?
Before I dig into my existential crisis, it's worth noting that Frictional's sci-fi horror game has seen some changes. The demo I played this year at E3 echoed my first experience with it; I wandered through a derelict, seemingly abandoned ship, in search of a way to communicate with those outside. But unlike before, when I encountered an angry, injured robot, the one I found this time was reasonable. Pleasant, even, though still hurt and asking for help. It was here that my conscience started to fail me.
While I searched for a way to power up parts of the ship, I realized that I could juice up — and then unlock — the doors I needed by rerouting power. It seemed like the easiest, most effective way to move forward. Moments after I finished inputting the necessary commands, a loud, pained screamed filled my ears. It was the robot I'd encountered earlier, now suffering because of my actions. Horrified, I fixed the power and ran in to check on him. He was understandably pissed, but still alright.
Am I actually a monster?
I started to search for another way to fix the power. And yet as I looked, I started to think about how easy it would be to reroute it again and move on. This was a robot, right? It didn't matter. I had places to be.
And so, with only slight hesitation, I returned to the circuits once more. This time, when he started to scream, I ignored him. I swiftly unlocked the door I needed. When it was done, I rerouted the power once more, freeing him. But when I returned to speak with him, I got only pitiful murmurs of pain. It was too much for him.
Upon finishing the demo, I chatted with designer Ian Thomas about this choice and, make no mistake — there was another option here. Thomas informed that while this "sub-story" won't have a Telltale-style effect, instances like this in SOMA will be referenced later. Which, it seems, means that players can look forward to internalizing the consequences of their actions.
"What we're trying to do with all of these little sub-stories — and a lot of the spaces we're playing with have these sub-stories — is to play on the big things that we're trying to lay out in the game," Thomas told me. "They are echoing those things. So, hopefully, the internalization that you take away from that will be all adding another little stitch in the tapestry, which is the overall feeling we're trying to evoke."
That relates heavily back to the point of SOMA. Where Amnesia: The Dark Descent used violence and scary creatures, Thomas said, SOMA wants to pick at your brain on a deeper level. The game is heavily influenced by Philip K. Dick, particularly from Total Recall and Blade Runner, in the sense that Frictional wants players to step away with a feeling of "what the hell just happened?" Thomas then throws in another reference for good measure.
"I want to say Inception, but it's not all a dream, it's nothing like that," he said. "But when you come away from something like Inception, you go 'What's really going on? How did that all fit together?' It's that kind of question which I'm leaving with. That's what these sub-stories are trying to build towards. "
SOMA launches for PlayStation 4 and PC Sept. 22; from what I've seen so far, it's working toward that goal successfully. I can say, at the very least, that my second trip through the game has stayed with me. Before I left the demo, I asked Thomas how many people brutally sacrificed the bot, as I had.
"I'm seeing about one in five," he replied.
If I had a heart, I think it would be hurting.