Frictional Games' SOMA was just released this week. I was intending to do a review of it, but after the deluge of professional critics and their day-early copies beat me to the punch, I won't. Instead I will talk about something that has been sitting on my soul since I finished playing not an hour ago. I won't go into spoiler territory, but I'm assuming anyone who's played the game will recognize my feelings.
Certainly SOMA does horror well. Frictional did a superb job creating a claustrophobic, eerie game. The monsters are frightening and the environments are fittingly gloomy, but that's not what's bothering me. If this had just been a well-made game about avoiding horrible things until the end of the game, I'd have been quite happy with it.
But SOMA does more than handle monsters and tension. It does something seen so rarely in video games, and even then its rarely done well. Early on in the game you come to realize several important facts about your character and the world around you. They're real gut-punches, the kind of "sorry man, there's no going back" cold hard facts that could easily be mistaken for depressing or even cynical in the wrong hands.
SOMA is about existential horror. What is human, what makes a human what they are, what do we take away from our humanity as technology grows, what value is humanity compared to the utterly cold indifference of the universe?
I have to say, I don't handle existential concepts very well. I don't like having my mind blown in weird ways, or having my generally positive outlook withered by the reminder of potential, inescapable doom. But I do admit, SOMA has left a feeling of true horror in my mind, the kind that will linger with me for days. It's the horror of loneliness, the Horror of Dread. Jump scares are jump scares, its adrenaline and endorphines. A chemical high made by the brain for your brain.
But Dread is something else. Dread is the uncomfortable knowledge that we are living on borrowed time, that it could end at any time, and we have a long way to go before we have any say in when and how we go. The only thing we can truly say about the future is that it is uncertain.
I tell you, by the end of the game I didn't even care that there were monsters lurking around. I couldn't get my mind off all that fucking dread.
Can I go back to Castle Brennenburg now? I don't feel so doomed amongst the wretches and kaernks.