The unique development approach behind SOMA, one of the most narratively ambitious games ever made

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Most of us have experienced the creeping tendrils of existential dread at some point. It can be triggered by the feeling of insignificance when staring into the night sky, peering out into infinite space. It can appear in the gnawing fear you feel shortly after the birth of your first child. Or perhaps reading up on quantum physics has led to your brain attempting some unattainable mental gymnastics.

Whatever caused it, you’re probably familiar with the feeling and the questions that bounce around in your head as a result: Why are we here? Who put us here? What even is here? Why am I even aware of my own existence if I’m not equipped with the tools to understand it? Why do some people like pickled eggs? It’s futile.

I’ve been trapped in this mental state before, searching for answers my mind can’t comprehend. Of all the things to initiate the fear, though, a videogame has never been the catalyst - until I played SOMA. Inspired by authors such as Greg Egan, Peter Watts, China Mieville and Philip K Dick, as well as non-fiction books on neurology and the philosophy on the mind, SOMA isn’t your standard horror game. 

The game begins relatively grounded - a messy bachelor’s apartment - but soon removes anything relatable or comfortable, transporting you to a deep sea research facility called PATHOS-II. It’s the distant future, all the humans seem to be gone and there are sentient machines in their place. To say much more would be a disservice to the story. 

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Although there are monsters to hide from, the real horror is found in the slow-building unease as you begin to question concepts like consciousness and what it means to be human, and that’s what makes it so interesting. Developed by a core team of 14 people, SOMA is one of the most narratively ambitious games I’ve played. When you dig into the design process used by Frictional Games’ creative director Thomas Grip, it soon becomes apparent why. 

“We often start with a story, but the story is often very diffuse,” says Grip “We establish some thematics and then we let it evolve as we design and produce the game. I have found that to give the best result as you make everything come together. We go for a certain emotion and experience, and then we try to shape the gameplay and story to support those.”

In fact, SOMA comes from a design philosophy that Grip himself - along with Adrian Chmielarz, creative director on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter - came up with called the ‘4-layers narrative design’. Here ‘narrative’ isn’t considered a separate entity to gameplay. Instead of being a thing that ties together a string of set-pieces, ‘narrative’ defines the overall experience of the game: the story, the player-led stuff - “the player’s subjective journey through the game”. It’s not just an attempt at putting story at the forefront of the experience, it’s a symbiosis of all the core elements of a traditional game.

To achieve this, SOMA was broken down into scenes - this could be an enemy encounter, a puzzle, a specific story beat, things like that. Laid out like this, it is easier to notice repetition or patterns that could see players reducing the game to its disparate components. We’ve all come across a big weapon stash in a game and thought “Boss fight,” or something similar. The 4-layers design philosophy is intended to defy the expectations of an audience familiar with the language of videogames. The intention is to drop the traditional ‘gameplay loop’, instead bending and adapting the gameplay to fit each scene, so the narrative provides the structure for the gameplay, rather than the other way around.

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Another trick Frictional used to keep players invested was to always give them a clear goal, and one that makes sense within the fiction and the mood of SOMA’s dilapidated, underwater facility. 

As an example, with 4-layer narrative design, even a puzzle as simple as finding a key to unlock a door can be tied into the narrative. Perhaps a note earlier on foreshadowed the key’s location, telling you that it’s kept under a file near the door. When you get there, a person could be on the other side and they’re asking to be let through. Now you have another reason to want to get through the door. Maybe the person wants something from your side and won’t tell you until you open the door. Suddenly, rather than unlocking the door to move the story on, you’re unlocking the door as part of the story. While you’re searching for the key, perhaps you could stumble upon a note that pertains to the mystery character beyond the door and their motivations. The idea is to layer on story like this in every scene. 

There are a few sequences like this in SOMA. One involves a door that needs opening, but there’s a communications device that runs off the same power source as the door. Something else is draining the power, and the solution is rather dark and tied into the fiction of the world. It’s only a small section, but it starts you thinking about things and doubting your actions. “The reason for [these sections] is to provide an experience that got the player thinking about certain subjects,” explains Grip, “so they all serve a very specific purpose: to force the player to confront really hard issues head on.” 

The same reasoning is behind adding ‘monster’ encounters to the games. Obviously Frictional have a pedigree when it comes to creating games with enemies you can only cower and hide or run away from, but they’re used much more sparsely in SOMA, to the point where I wondered if they were added because Frictional felt like they had to. Grip says otherwise: “They are an important factor in making the player take the game more seriously. Without this threat we have found players do not think about certain things deeply enough.”

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While I’m not sure I agree completely - just like I feel the script can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed in asking you to ponder philosophical concepts - I did enjoy the change of pace these encounters created. The cynic in me felt that perhaps they were added to appease the countless YouTubers who were no doubt itching to scream down their headsets while playing latest game from the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I feel like those types of Let’s Players and streamers might be in for a disappointment, as SOMA is a much more psychological, sophisticated affair than they might expect. 

“Actually, I still hope SOMA provides good YouTube material, but in a different way,” Grip counters. “There is so much to discuss about each area and themes that the game brings up, so a YouTuber or Twitch streamer that is really into it should be able to put on a show using that. This is obviously different from your normal scream-fest, but there are already so many games out there that do that, and we felt we wanted to explore other avenues instead.” 

I hope he’s right, because SOMA deserves to be looked at from a different angle by video-based content creators - Five Nights at Freddy’s this isn’t. The problem here isn’t the game, but there’s a chance some expectations might be skewed. This concern is mirrored in a recent blog post by Frictional Games about SOMA’s marketing: “While we've tried to be very clear that SOMA will be a different game from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we have still used the name ‘Amnesia’ as a way to grab attention. This sends a bit of a mixed message, as people might simply assume that because we say ‘from the creators of Amnesia’, a similar experience will be provided. One idea would have been not to mention the studio's heritage, but that feels stupid from a PR perspective.”

That’s not to say there aren’t any similarities at all. There are still the aforementioned nasties that hunt you down, and, like Frictional’s previous games, the world is very tactile and interactive: things can be moved, thrown around, drawers can be pushed and pulled, doors need to be pushed shut and swung open, door mechanisms need to be twisted and pulled - it helps create a real sense of place. SOMA combines this physicality with environmental storytelling to great effect - most things have a hidden meaning that contributes the the larger understanding of the world. Though you learn about characters through their remnants - their belongings, the state of their living quarters, audio logs and notes - you get a real sense of who they are by rifling through their stuff. 

“The idea is that immersion comes from an interaction between the user and the game,” explains Grip. “So, if you just walk around and cannot interact, the world starts feeling stale and fake. But, if you can grab just about every object, you get a stronger feeling that the objects are really there. It is sort of like gaining another sense and it is a great help in making the locations feel like actual places.”

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And what a place PATHOS-II is. Despite being set at the bottom of the ocean, the facility feels more alien and more oppressive than any videogame spaceship I’ve ever been on. You can almost feel the pressure of the water crushing you as you ponder the questions posed by the story. The creation of PATHOS-II was iterative, using underwater photos as a basis and constantly tweaking. “We wanted to make a location that was both beautiful and creepy at the same time, and we worked hard to achieve that,” adds Grip.

That sense of foreboding isn’t all down to the visuals, of course. To portray the illusion of being on the sea bed, the sound design had to be as - if not more - convincing than the art. For the sound, Frictional’s audio director Samuel Justice and his team had to come up with two separate soundscapes: one for exploration on the ocean floor and one for when the player is inside the facility, with both of them needing to contrast. 

Because one of SOMA’s themes explores what it means to be human, the sound inside of PATHOS-II was designed to be “grounded, dirty, gritty, crumbly”. Justice wanted to make the player feel cold and lonely through the audio alone. To achieve this, the audio team created a new system that tweaked sounds based on the size of a room - there are over 2,000 sounds for the player’s footsteps, because of the slight alterations as they move from room to room. The audio team’s foley artist Tapio Liukkonen actually went out and scouted for interesting-sounding locations of varying size to walk around inside and collect data.

“So when you’re running through a large hall, you’re actually hearing the sound of a large hall - none of it faked through reverbs or other processing, which can end up taking away some of the life of the sound,” says Justice. “Instead you get the air and size of real spaces. This might sound like a minor detail, but in a game about exploration and discovery, this lends itself massively to a sense of reality when roaming the halls and corridors of Pathos-II.”

For the underwater sections it was the same, with muffled sounds recreated with hydrophones (underwater mics) and contact microphones (special microphones that only pick up vibrations in objects rather than the air).

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The team was so committed to making the sound authentic that the final SFX count for SOMA clocked in at over 18,000 SFX files, not including music and voiceovers. It’s an attention to detail that carried through the entire project and formed a convincing, cohesive whole. 

For such a small team, SOMA really is an accomplishment in videogame storytelling. The 4-layers approach to game design is an interesting idea, and if SOMA is indicative of the kinds of things it can produce, I hope more developers try their hand at the approach in the future.

Maybe more games will leave me pondering my very existence like SOMA did. Does reality even exist outside of what I’ve constructed in my mind? I mean, what if this isn’t even real? Could we all be living in some sort of simulation? “Actually it is pretty clear that we are,” answers Grips. “You and I are just a mushy meat brains simulated on the laws of physics. In one way, science is all about figuring out the program that runs our reality.” I need a lie down. 

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Silentius avatar
Silentius Avatar
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1 Year ago

I'm glad Frictional has taken a mature and considered approach to SOMA's narrative design. It might not be everybody's cup of tea, but immersive media (literature, film or video games) that pose difficult and cerebral questions often make for the most memorable experiences. In the context of a survival horror game, I imagine that existential terror provides a far more lasting sensation than the fright caused by simple 'jump scares'.

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