think about the word "helpless" a lot when I play Soma.
It comes to mind most obviously when I'm hunkered down in dark corners, waiting out my enemies while my vision blurs wildly. I curse its name when things go wrong, horribly wrong, and my well thought-out plans are meaningless. But I feel it most keenly when I'm faced with difficult decisions; sometimes, even the "right" choice isn't a choice at all.
Soma is the latest from the bright minds over at Frictional Games, the developer responsible for the night terrors I got from 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In Soma, you play as Simon Jarrett, a perfectly nice, normal Canadian guy who awakens confused and alone in a strange place. You quickly learn that he is in Pathos-2, an underwater research compound where something has gone very wrong.
It's a standard horror trope that instantly grounds you. Here you are, a seemingly amnesiac hero expected to complete what I'd call rather incredible feats of bravery. The ship is dark and full of terrors, and that's not even counting the murder-y kind. When danger nears, Simon's heartbeat quickens and the room swims. There are plenty of dark corners to duck into, but the real feat of strength is pulling yourself back out of them and continuing on. It's a testament to Soma's story, clean, quick and without fluff, that makes the continual ache of stress worth it.
Soma will feed you a basic narrative if you're a passive player content to engage one main objective after another. But so much of what makes it special comes from the stories you seek out. The different facilities are littered with little pockets of information in the form of journals, pictures and audio recordings. It's doubtful that you'll grow any real attachment to the dead, but you'll start to see them as something more than decorative. If Soma's true horror has any effect on you, you'll start to see them as people.
I like to call Soma the thinking fan's horror game, because at face value, it's not a scary game. Like Amnesia, it isn't about fighting back. The monsters themselves are a puzzle resource, best used to force you to think critically about how to proceed. The real terror, for me, came during the quiet moments of reflection. It asks you to make choices and live with them; not because the game will remember them, but because you will. Humanity — what defines it, and what robs us of it — lies at the heart of Soma. The details are tangled up in its story, but I came out the other side knowing myself a little better. And I didn't always like what I found.
My favorite video games often make me feel powerful, like a goddess wielding death and destruction with no remorse. Soma made me feel very small and, in many ways, cruel. It reminded me of how it feels to be human, even in a virtual world. It's a simple, yet surprisingly powerful concept for a video game.
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