When you gaze long into the abyss, Ed Harris gazes back
When I see the name SOMA, all capitalized as Amnesia developer Frictional is wont to stylize, I think of my dentist. Because that's its name. And it's not a scary thought. I never had frightening associations with dentistry, even when it was around the corner from where I lived in a dingy office above a fruit stand (before it relocated to the nicer SOMA area).
But I have little explanation or forethought for that anecdote. SOMA's underwater origin -- it was previously assumed to be set in an abandoned space station -- was also, "decided [on a] whim during a meet-up," between Frictional's co-founders.
It was a good whim. The ocean is a terrifying, unexplored place, particularly in games. It's not all Ecco the Dolphin down there. There are goblin sharks, damn it. And James Cameron putting around in his deep sea submersible. And the creepy, bioluminescent things that doomed SOMA's world like belief in laughable Randian philosophy doomed Andrew Ryan's.
SOMA (PC [previewed], PS4)
SOMA tries to build tension, true to Frictional's strength in the survival-horror sphere. I started in a weird, sprawling series of pipes or vents of some kind. It was a little like being lost as a kid in a McDonald's PlayPlace. A blend of sensory deprivation and sensory overload (loud ass colors) coupled with twists and turns could get you proper lost when your birthday cake was still marked with individual candles.
Except this was darker and every step I made was loud and obnoxious, which was terrifying. Sound design is so important to horror and with A Machine for Pigs' sound designer in tow, SOMA has some good sounds. Dropped into this dark world without context -- sitting, in real life, in a dark room illuminated only by a television -- each clumsy step felt like I was ringing a dinner bell for potential monsters to gobble me up.
So I had already psyched myself out. I fumbled my way in the dark over what appeared to be -- but couldn't be (?) -- encroaching roots (tentacles?) that erupted from the ground and forced themselves into computer consoles. I'd later learn that I was in some sort of underwater facility rather than deep space. I don't know if that makes the tendrils less or more terrifying.
Testament to the sound design, and some played upon Pavlovian training, every time I pushed a loud, scary button, I was prepared for the first. Instead, I was just treated to aggressive buzzing and failing mechanics like I was trying to start a Ford Taurus.
After some questionable interaction with possibly benevolent people and more broken machinery, I ended up out in the open ocean itself, doomed to hoof it to my next location. The build I played didn't have any aesthetic indicator I was trudging around in a deep sea suit. The team apparently tried to overlay a helmet in the foreground, but it didn't work quite right, so they're retooling. SOMA's not out until 2015, anyway.
But I definitely think that will be the way to go for any underwater portions. One of my favorite things about Metro is how it uses the first-person perspective to emphasize point of view rather than act as a camera on wheels. Putting on your gas mask grounded it. Seeing cracks in a damaged mask was cool.
Walking the sea floor was relaxing, but ominous. There was still that tension, even though I still hadn't encountered anything that tried to kill me. There was even some levity when I spent a couple minutes following a scuttling crab.
I trudged my way into another abandoned underwater station, this one opened like a sieve and fully flooded, leaving bits of algae or some such water plant pollen clouding up the place while I touched weird things and hallucinated a bit.
By the end of my time with SOMA, I was treated to its monsters and more traditional, stealth-based gameplay. Running, walking, and crawling emit different volumes of sound. There is a nifty lean function for peering around corners. Also for inadvertently frightening yourself as you position yourself just right and begin your slow lean only to get a face full of scary light up monster. They look a bit like old dive suits with creepy, lit up faces, and I look forward to cowering in fear of them more thoroughly next year.