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Under pressure: Soma dives deep to find horror on the cold, lonely ocean floor

Horror isn’t just monsters and gore. It’s mystery. A creeping feeling that things aren’t quite… right. Horror is an eerily empty power plant. An overheard whisper in a room filled with broken machines and corpses. The vastness of the ocean floor and the flesh-hungry beings lurking just out of view. That’s not the only face of horror, mind you, but it’s the flavor of fear that Frictional Games’ Soma endeavors to leave you with.

Frictional knows a thing or two about scares, being the studio behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the publisher of The Chinese Room’s sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. With Soma, the small, Sweden-based team is stepping out in a different direction. Namely, straight down. 

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Soma‘s ocean floor setting might initially summon up memories of BioShock‘s Rapture, but we’re a long way off from the failed utopia that birthed Big Daddies and their Little Sisters. From an abandoned geothermal power plant to a sunken freighter to the sandy wastes surrounding a network of purpose-built structures teetering on the edge of a yawning abyss, there’s a strong feeling of isolation nipping at the edges of your consciousness.

“I think that there’s an interesting atmosphere and tension coming from the largeness, the vastness of the environment and the space that you’re in,” Frictional co-founder and creative director Thomas Grip tells Digital Trends of the underwater setting. “We’ve hidden dangers out there as well. It’s fun that there are these big unknowns around the player, but they don’t want to explore [because of the dangers]. So they’re only exploring a fraction of it, and I think that builds a very interesting tension that you don’t get from a corridor-based game as much.”

“You don’t know even how far it stretches, where it is safe to go. Those kinds of things are interesting to play around with.”

The hour that we spent playing a pre-alpha version of Soma explored a range of locations, but it’s the time spent on the ocean floor that stands out. It’s both a stark contrast to the tight interiors that Frictional delivered in Amnesia and a completely open space that somehow presses in with dangerous immediacy. It’s not air or ammo or pursuing monsters that you’re worried about. The fear is more primal than that. It’s a suffocating presence. You’re buried by water, but it’s not the lack of oxygen you’re choking on; it’s the tension of knowing death could be five feet in front of you, but you can’t actually see it.

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“One of the interesting things about being underwater is not just the [low] visibility, but also that you have a trillion tons of water over your head,” Grip says, adding that roughly 50-percent of the game is spent in a diving suit. “There’s this constant pressure that we really want to get the feeling of, so you hear things like creaking metal. Even as you’re just walking in water, we want you to have this sense of an otherworldly [landscape] and constant pressure building around you.”

“We want you to have this sense of an otherworldly [landscape] and constant pressure building around you.”

Soma explores more than just the alien landscape at the bottom of the ocean. There’s a story here, and while we don’t know a whole lot about it yet, we’ve pieced together a few facts from our time spent with the game. There’s been some catastrophic event at an undersea facility – devoted to manufacturing, mining, something like that – and everyone is dead. Your as-yet-unidentified protagonist is there for reasons we’re not clear on yet. Escape seems to be his (or her) primary motivation, not solving the mystery at the heart of the story.

Rogue robots appear to be involved, based on evidence we gathered from checking recorded logs and other sources. There’s some master Warden Unit, or WAU, that abandoned its programming and directed the undersea station’s automated processes to rebel. Your character – whoever he or she is – has the ability to interface with Blackbox implants (imagine a plane’s black box, only installed in a human) in corpses and certain machines. Again, it’s not entirely clear how this works or how it’s even possible. That’s just part of Soma‘s mystery, one that Grip suggests is built around exploring the philosophy of human condition.

“I’m totally interested in the subject of consciousness. The whole idea that you have a subjective experience; you can never explain what it’s like to be you, and you can never be sure that anyone else has that experience too. You can just assume it,” he says.

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“I wanted to get this across in a game fashion. If you’re writing a book, the normal thing to do is you can have these long data dump sections where you just speak about these arguments. What it would mean to have a soul and that sort of thing. We could have done in a game too, but… I wanted to do something that feels more substantial and really takes advantage of it being an interactive experience.”

It’s a vague explanation, but it’s all the detail Grip is willing to give at this point. He’s got nothing to say about who our protagonist is, or why the facility’s robots went rogue. Could it have to do with reports of a black, oily substance that we discovered as we explored? And what about Jiangshi, undead humanoids that prowl through the corridors of the demo’s sunken ship? Are they a product of whatever’s at the heart of this mystery or are they the source of it?

Horror isn’t strictly a monster, or a creepy setting, or a story with a dark twist. It’s the answer to a question you don’t want to ask. And Frictional’s got all the answers. Soma is meant to be an experience that washes over you, not a puzzle to be solved. The more you learn, the less you want to know.