SOMA and the horror of perception

Horror games shouldn’t scare us. We should, in theory, be able to take a step back whenever things get too intense and remind ourselves that whatever’s frightening us is artificial. Obviously that isn’t how things work out, though. If a scary game is well made, the fear we experience—even through the distance of controller and screen—feels real enough that it doesn’t matter that it’s an illusion. A good artist knows how to override our sense of separation from the experience, tricking our brains into freaking out over sounds, images, and ideas that are unable to affect the player on anything but a mental level.   

SOMA, developer Frictional Games’ upcoming release, fully recognizes the existence of this remove. It’s a game about robots and mechanical contraptions that speak in human voices—of lifelike machines that play with our sense of reality and force us to question the limits of our consciousness. It’s scary not just because creepy things lurk in the darkness, eager to do harm to the player, but also because it’s invested in undermining the trust we place in our ability to accurately perceive the world around us.

elements all work to remind the player of the tenuous nature of the real world

Frictional Games is probably best known for 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a horror game that requires the player to manage the protagonist’s “sanity” in order to survive. The Dark Descent’s main character Daniel has a hard time maintaining his grip on reality as he explores a haunted castle—when he sees monsters or hides in the dark for too long he begins to hallucinate, the screen temporarily distorting or the sound of far-off creatures echoing through the halls. Both the player and the character she controls begin to imagine things more horrendous than the reality presented by the game as they get more and more scared. SOMA, though different in many important ways, continues the developer’s preoccupation with (and skill at manipulating) the fragility of human perception.  

The way this manifests in SOMA is a thematically subtle (at least in the first few hours represented by the game’s preview), but pretty explicit in its presentation. The loading screen is a topdown MRI scan of a skull that flickers between different layers of the brain, showing the surfaces of the human mind in flipbook cutaway; when Simon, SOMA’s protagonist, is hurt or in danger, the screen glitches, the environment’s colors separating and the lines of physical objects sliding slightly out of alignment. There’s the story’s concern with artificial intelligence, too, and the manner in which the use of technology can dissolve the distinction between physical and virtual reality. These elements all work to remind the player of the tenuous nature of the real world—of how easily (and imperceptibly) our fickle brains can allow us to slip outside of it.

This is a scarier concept than any monster, but not on an immediate level. SOMA moves away from the outright fear that characterized so much of The Dark Descent, largely favoring low-key tension and a sense of impending dread instead. Part of this is due to the fact that many of its robot enemies are less spooky, their mechanical design suggesting the sort of logic that unearthly hellbeasts exist in complete defiance of. But SOMA’s story and audiovisual design compensates for this by encouraging a lingering fear—one that, given its focus on the fallibility of perception, is conceptually large enough that it takes up space in the mind far longer than the impossible creatures and ghosts of Frictional’s past games.   

corridors and abandoned control rooms of the complex combine the sexual and industrial

The plot delights in revealing itself (and constantly disorienting the player) through dramatic twists, interactions with the preserved memories of dead characters, and questions of transhumanist consciousness. But it’s the game’s environment—a perpetually dark and thoroughly devastated sci-fi facility called Pathos-II—that makes the biggest impact. The corridors and abandoned control rooms of the complex combine the sexual and industrial in a way that recalls the slimy grit of H.R. Giger’s art and David Cronenberg’s films, putting the audience in close proximity to technology that seems to have emerged not from a sterile laboratory, but as an extension of some horrible alien body.

Oily black liquid drips from broken consoles, pattering on the ground like rainfall; thick, ribbed power cords flop out of robotic bodies like octopus tentacles; phosphorescent papules and dark, organic-looking growths hang from walls and ceilings like invading tumors; health stations vaguely resemble fantastical anuses, buffeted by pulsating alien tendrils, and Simon can only use them by hovering his finger just above—or, grosser still, plunging his fist within—their puckered openings. Everything is a perversion of both body and machine—a hideous amalgamation of the nastiest characteristics of the organic and mechanical.

The unease that SOMA’s environments elicit is, in the tradition of Giger’s Alien creature, more the reflection of the player’s imagination than a direct representation of anatomy or disease. The game is more than content to allow its audience’s perception to fill in the blanks intentionally left in its design, inserting whatever they conjures up as most distasteful. This seems like a solid echo of the narrative’s concerns, the aesthetic matching the narrative in a way that comes off as a continuation of The Chinese Room’s industrial Amnesia sequel, A Machine for Pigs, just as much as Frictional’s own The Dark Descent. Like the former, which downplayed haunted house scares in order to emphasize the more profound dread of the industrial era’s impact on 20th century human atrocities, every aspect of SOMA seems in service to its look at the limits of consciousness. Exploring its world may not feel as immediately threatening as Frictional’s past work, but the impression SOMA makes is harder to shake. It gets under the skin gradually, preferring to spook its audience with concerns more durable than escaping the sort of monsters we can easily see.