SOMAntics: The design philosophy of Frictional’s SOMA

Designing SOMA

Frictional Games’ science-fiction horror adventure has already started to scare me – to be fair, that isn’t all that challenging – with a simple video showcasing some of the in-game environments. Lights blink, metal groans, Fraser soils himself. I’m not even embarassed. 

Not content with just revealing some of the ominous rooms in the PATHOS-2 research facility, the developer also details the design philosophy behind its horrible creation, where story is king.

“For SOMA our intention is to craft an experience where players become deeply connected and affected by the game’s world and themes,” begins the list of Frictional’s design pillars, broken up into five key concerns. Frictional’s goal is to design a game where player’s participate in a flowing narrative, where there is no distinction between gameplay and story and where the themes of the game emerge through play, not through cutscenes or drawn out dialogue.

“It is so common that a game is distinctly split into story and puzzle/action moments. We want to blur the boundaries here and make it impossible to distinguish between the two. Whatever the player does it should feel as if it is part of the story. We do not want to have sections that simply feel like blockers to the next narrative moment. From start to finish the player should be drenched in a living, breathing world of storytelling.”

The scenarios in SOMA are considered in regards to how someone might react in that situation, and how they might use the tools at hand. “We constantly think about what each character would have done in a situation, and shape the environment accordingly. For instance, in one level, we started out with scratches on the walls but later realized the character had access to a whiteboard pen and changed the graphics accordingly.”

While suspense of disbelief is something we’re used to from years of games making leaps in logic or ignoring it entirely just because the mechanics are designed that way, Frictional is attempting to design SOMA with one eye always on how everything ties into the narrative. “It’s so easy to justify design ‘because the game needs it’ even if it doesn’t make sense to the story. But for each such thing you do, the less seriously the player will approach the environment.”

Check out the blog post for the full list of Frictional’s design philosophy.

Cheers, Eurogamer