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SOMA hands-on: Underwater, no one can hear you scream

Hayden Dingman | June 30, 2015
"You realize you're crouched, right?" says the SOMA developer watching me over my shoulder.

If it's the robot, then I'm sorry. I'm sorry because I electrocuted "Carl" until all he could do was whimper quietly. I needed to get through a door to the Communications Room and I noticed I could reroute the power through Carl and I did it--and I kept doing it, even when he started screaming in pain.

Frictional's games are about that sinking-gut feeling. With SOMA, I felt that familiar twinge in a hot, brightly-lit demo room in the middle of the Los Angeles Convention Center--not because of a jump-scare or a monster closet, but because of a far more cerebral type of horror--a feeling that "I'm the bad guy."

Because the truth is, I did undo the switch the first time. I stopped electrocuting Carl. I walked around, I searched for another way through, and then...I went back. If it were only this robot-called-"Carl" halting my progress? Well then I'd make up my mind--I'd decide "Carl" wasn't real, that the real Carl was dead in a hallway a few doors down. I threw the switch again. I moved on.

I am the monster, because there was another way through--one that was riskier personally (involving an actual creature) but which would've spared poor Carl. I was lazy, and I took the easy route.

It's that cerebral horror that brings me back to Frictional's games. Where so many other genre favorites rely on jump-scares, on gore, on wresting control from the player, Frictional works its way under your skin with creeping dread. In the Penumbra games that dread came from quiet isolation. In Amnesia it came from slowly losing your mind.

In SOMA, it's more existential. I didn't encounter a single real "scare" in my half hour with SOMA, but it stuck with me. It left me on edge. It was the sound of Carl's screams echoing through the hallway as I walked past his writhing robot body, all to open a single door.

I'd made choices. I didn't think they were the right choices.

That's interesting, and I'm curious to see where SOMA goes. I don't have many developers that I "trust," per se, but Frictional's somewhere on that shaky-and-very-tentative list. Frictional's put out three (main) games. All three scared me at one point or another. All three inspired dread. Two of them, I played and thought "This completely redefines the horror genre."

Quite a track record.


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