Video games have bewildering creative potential. Since their relatively recent inception, their ability to exponentially impress, year after year, is almost peerless within the world of entertainment and technology. Since release, The plot-heavy Metal Gear Solid V has grossed more than the two biggest films of 2015 combined (Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron). A feat that’s all the more amazing when one considers that currently, the narrative element of the medium’s potential is just on the cusp of actually hitting its stride.
No matter how attentative and immersed one gets in a fantastic film, nothing cinema produces can challenge the innate sense of being there that games can offer. Far from simply an exercise in spectator empathy, the player takes the journey for themselves. That’s probably why it was following a twilight session of Soma that Gamertroll endured an intense, shit-the-bed nightmare as a result.
Considering the unique experiences the medium of video gaming has the capacity to deliver, it speaks volumes that even as the most avid player, Gamertroll can’t recall having too many nightmares about games in the past. That could, to some extent, be a result of becoming personally desensitised to horror and violence through them, or more likely a case that most game creators just aren’t that good at telling a story in an interactive form yet. That’s ok though! Cinema has less modus operandi for storytellers to get their heads around and still it took 53 years from the first theatre being built to when Citizen Kane turned up.. so gaming has some time yet.
So it was thanks to Soma that unspeakable monsters invaded Gamertroll’s sleep, giving inexorable chase with the goal of visiting brutal, bloody, murder. That night Soma’s additional contribution to the classic nightmare chase format was to plunge that hopeless terror down to the bottom of the bleak, crushing depths of the ocean and compound it with the niggling suspicion that entire human race is already over a century dead via an extinction event comet. It even renders Bioshock’s darkly twisted City of Rapture a positively cheerful hunting scenario by comparison.
Whilst the first person perspective, horror theme and undersea settings draw obvious comparison between Bioshock and Soma, that is where the similarities end. Bioshock is primarily about shooting, and Soma is primarily about its narrative, making them poles apart.
A mere two weeks after Gamertroll slapped Everybody’sGone To The Rapture’s virtual cock on the chopping board for being a lazy, unambitious bitch; a handy demonstration of everything that was wrong with The Chinese Room’s game has arrived in the form of Frictional games latest effort. EGTTR had an unfinished, threadbare plot, bad pacing and it’s only redeeming schtick was an 80’s aesthetic which it wore with the grace and subtlety of a chicken feather stuck up it’s arse. That novelty alone was left to float the entire concept. It’s the sort of thing that was ok years ago when the concept was new in games like Dear Esther, but nowadays, it positively reeks of half-arsed game development by numbers.
It’s precisely due to that sort of lethargic, uninspiring game design trope that the term Walking simulator is most often used as a derogatory by both gamers and critics. Steam Greenlight is brimming over with walking simulator shovelware, each of which do nothing but nudge a gamer to walk around a graphics demo filled with off-the-shelf visual assets in a quest to trigger off sporadic audio logs which tell a story; a sodding boring, second-rate one in most cases.
The greatest portion of them, like Crapture, don’t deviate from that rigid formula, one iota. They simply elect to rely on the chosen graphics engine and the basic functions of walking and looking to allow the player to involve themselves in the plot. It is fair to say that so far, the greatest failure of environmental storytelling games is that too many of them rely solely on often static environments to expose their narratives.
Typically there’s a common issue with clichéd storytelling devices in these games too. The meatiest plot events of mediocre genre examples are inherently lacking in dynamism; owing largely to the fact that the player is left having to scrape around in the dirt, piecing together what happened, past tense. Something amazing has always happened, yesterday.
With that sort of stale fart smell wafting about, is it little wonder that so many gamers are turned off the moment they hear that a game might be a walking simulator?
Somewhat confusingly, you’ll also see people refer to them as an environmental storyteller, first person puzzler, narrative driven exploration, Art game, Zen game, First person ‘feels’… whatever, but they all belong to a burgeoning genre that is still struggling to be defined. It’s a confusion that is warranted when you realise that games like Flower and Journey also easily fall under the same genre bracket.
For purpose of clarity, these games by their nature are primarily vehicles for specifically conveying a storyline, experience or emotional perspective. The interactivity and gameplay is typically somewhat ‘light’ in touch, and never challenging in terms of physical dexterity. Their chief unifying concept comes as the requirement to discover how to progress through a narrative and experience the accompanying atmosphere. With examples like Soma, you might spend a good portion of your time standing around, listening to exposition and rudimentary, non-taxing puzzles will usually feature. Gamertroll likes to think of these games most succinctly as the innovative successors to the old school point and click adventure.
It’s sad that with so much pretentious, overhyped and unengaging bilge being pimped about, many gamers don’t realize how much they might enjoy an accomplished example of this exciting and emergent genre. Any day now, a game with equivalent quality scriptwriting and gameplay as The Secret of Monkey Island could easily appear in this wondrous and vivid format.
The low skill, high reward attributes of these games have other benefits. That sort of quick and easy gratification lends a power to appeal to broader audiences far more so than many other niche genres. Play your cards right and you’ll be the protagonist of a great story without having to pull off 3 headshots in a row or monotonously restart a pedantic time trial. The traditional barriers of fail states and the obstacle of demanding skill thresholds are largely negated here without the feeling that things aren’t worth interacting with. Come what may, the player is responsible for driving the plot forward and that is inherently rewarding.
Whatever anyhow, it’s high time Gamertroll brings all that background reference digression to a close and gets about the review at hand. All that chuff will serve sufficiently to lend anyone unfamiliar with these games enough background context to grasp the following reasoning behind the most important thing Gamertroll really wanted to say about Soma:
It’s fucking Great.
Moreover, it is a paragon, an exemplar of the genre and easily the best one Gamertroll has played, even topping Frictional Game’s excellent earlier efforts in their Amnesia and Penumbra series. Soma represents the most polished concept evolution from arguably the best Developer of these games.
Take the Graphics for example: Most indie games that are considered pretty, still only look good for an indie game. Whereas in Soma’s case, we have an indie title that looks good set alongside anything. The numerous underwater research stations and sea beds are laden with detail that looks to logically belong, with most objects having taken a palpable forensic journey to their end location, as opposed to just being distributed to simply furnish the environment with something to look at.
The resulting effect of these carefully constructed environments is that they regularly conspire to produce views that had Gamertroll instinctively reaching for the share button. Such was the compulsion in fact, that in just one playthrough the share file ended up containing over 200 screenshots!
Superbly conceived graphics cannot help but confer a depth of atmosphere and Soma’s are pitched spot-on. Here’s a great opportunity to draw the curtains or play at the dead of night, turn up the surround sound or plonk on that fancy 7.2 headset you use not nearly enough. This is a rare beast, a horror game that doesn’t rely on jump scares. Although there’s the occasional potential for unpleasant surprises, Soma instead cultivates a steady release of malevolent, nervous horror. The Bioshock/Dead Space-cued aesthetic vibe is wonderful to navigate in this altogether different game concept.
Happily, just as with previous Frictional Games, the sound is no slouch either. There’s not exactly an abundance of music, most audio comes as well executed sound effects; but on those rare occasions a few chords of the score are heard, they are poignant and struck with confidence. If the aim was to enhance the emotion of important moments of exposition without overly intruding on the experience, someone at Frictional scored a bullseye.
Then we come to Soma’s plot, which is as ambitious as the title’s definition would indicate. There’s none of that frustrating, vague ambiguity that we are so often fobbed off with these days. It’s tight, intelligent and innovative. Here we have a game with exposition on a par with cult Sci-fi films like Sphere and Event Horizon. It’s while attempting to jury-rig failing equipment, pushing forwards and attempting to ‘survive’(note the inverted comas), that somehow Soma manages to invite players to wonder what it means to be human. A definition of the word Soma is afterall used to describe the body as distinct from the soul, mind, or psyche. It’s top-drawer subject matter for a sci-fi game.
Now, Gamertroll earnestly promises that he’ll get to highlighting some negative aspects of the game in due course, but with Gameplay being the next topic on the agenda, it’s just another red letter day for Soma. Traditionally the flattest attribute of this genre, the gameplay found here pleasantly complements actions and exploration to a higher than expected standard. Examining, manipulating and throwing objects is a far slicker and tactile experience than we’ve come to expect from these games, with touches like the analogue opening of drawers and doors congruent with other myriad environmental interactions and switch throwing variants.
The Gameplay area design is tighter than is usual for these explorative titles too. That adds up to some expert pacing where you’ll never find yourself stuck dawdling in one place for too long. The design is by no means arbitrary or universal in its attempt to shepard play, but often Gamertroll was thankful to realise that by shutting off a previous area, the game had helped prevent a waste of time on fruitless investigation for an object or activity.
Other than exploration, plot exposition and problem solving: there are some nods toward action gameplay but they are reserved to evasion, distraction and spontaneously having to run for one’s life. Despite some entertainingly panic-filled sequences, the game is not at it’s best during some of these encounters, but it’s the only way the game ever reaches a fail state and those sections hardly constitute much of the playtime. It is also important to consider that the game’s aura of menace does transmit pretty effectively with the distant threat of an unstoppable nemesis. When you do enter the presence of something threatening, there is a discernible change in pace and the usual noisy and casual rifling through objects and ransacking of rooms gives way to a necessarily more circumspect approach. Here the ability to lean fearfully around corners whilst trembling like a shitting lamb becomes useful. Any time spent fiddling around with objects and computer consoles ends up being punctuated by quick, panicked glances at the exits.
The clichéd device of unstoppable foes is so old now that it farts dust, but unfortunately it is not the only area that slightly lets Soma down. There are also some technical issues that can undermine the experience, namely ones of loading and framerate. The mostly silky smooth display can at times collapse into a painful stutter that seems to manifest especially when close to autosave points. Loading times are even more disruptive and give the impression of not being satisfactorily optimized. Returning after closing the application results in a game resume load that’s slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter. Gamertroll has experienced four gamebrickings (total program crashes) during the first playthrough and two of those were terminally frozen load screens. Arguably not the end of the world, as little game progress was lost, but perhaps just a bastard sign of the times that we’d better get used to.
There have been some odd choices made regarding the default control interface too. ‘R2’ is confirm action, whilst ‘X’ performs a ‘go back’ function. That seems distinctly ass about face to Gamertroll resulting in a 1000 dropped objects and unintended disengagements from console screens before the credits rolled. ‘Change the controls stupid troll!’, I hear you say. The trouble with that is, that you can’t. The controller configuration menus are more of a public information notice than any attempt to provide a customizable interface.
Of course you could change the keymapping using the dash function of the Playstation 4 but that’s a faff and you’d have to change it back for every other game. There’s also a superfluous jump button that you’ll need twice in the entire game: what is it with those lately? The recent Mad Max release also has one that is inexplicably mapped to L2. Also, un-redefinable. Why prominently and permanently configure a jump button that you effectively never use? It’s not as jarring in a game like Soma, which has less actions competing for button space, but the question has to be asked: why no proper key customization?
Another odd, minor quibble worth a mention, is that periodically you can trigger overlapping audio from the same person. It can render both messages incomprehensible and unlike the games pre-recorded audio file dialogues, you can’t just replay them. If you really want to hear one you’ve missed, you’ll need to suck it up and reload the last checkpoint.
Gamertroll’s last criticism is one that Soma can hardly be blamed for, it’s just a characteristic of the genre: Poor replayability. The same footwork that helps make these cinematic games so uniquely compelling, can also rob the will to re-experience them. Watching the standard film edits of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, back to back, roughly equates to the time you’ll spend playing through Soma. While a fan would happily sit through those films all over again after a reasonable hiatus, it’d be a totally different prospect if they, themselves had to carry the fucking ring back to Mount Doom again. It’s not a problem with sprawling RPGs and action games that are designed to incorporate traditional gameplay dexterity hooks, but walking sims don’t have any of that. Adding branching story paths and trophies would be a torturous non-starter that thankfully Frictional games doesn’t attempt. Weirdly there are no Gold or platinum trophies to be had from the game, just Bronzes, each of which are attained during a single playthrough.
Soma is available now for PS4 and STEAM
For hundreds more Gamertroll articles and reviews, check out my game blog Gamertroll.com
SOMA - GAMERTROLL REVIEW
- Replay Value
SOMA is as accessible as it is compelling, avoiding as it does many of traps that even its closest genre rivals still blunder into. The superbly realised environments and storyline mesh with expert pace, atmosphere and truly engaging discoveries. With this latest effort Frictional Games have secured themselves as the current masters of the environmental storyteller. Gamertroll wishes more game narratives would investigate such profound themes and lines of thought. To quote Huxley from his futuristic utopian novel Brave New World, "My peace is my Soma." It's just a shame that when it's done, it's done.