SOMA interview: Frictional's creative director discusses disturbing new sci-fi horror
Frictional Games earned several slots in our round up of the best horror games on PC, and deservedly so with games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent under their belt. But what of their next venture, SOMA? This sinister sci-fi horror was teased with a series of live-action videos before being revealed to be another exploratory first-person horror game, this time set in a Giger-esque world of dark, undulating cables and exposed brains. Time for a chat with Frictional Games creative director Thomas Grip to discover the thinking behind his latest horror.
PC Gamer: What does a sci-fi setting let you do that Dark Descent's 19th Century one didn't?
Grip: I'd say that most importantly it gives a sense of believability to happenings. When a game takes place in the past or some fantasy world, you are not personally connected. It then takes place in a reality separate from the one you inhabit. But when you deal with a futuristic setting, it is about things to come. This makes it easier for players to accept the scenarios they are put in, and it's harder to outright dismiss things. Instead it raise the question of whether or not it could actually happen. So even if there are some fantastic elements to the story, it becomes much more rooted in reality. This is a gives rise to a different mindset and is one of the big strengths of sci-fi in general.
PC Gamer: What are some of the themes SOMA's story will explore?
Grip: The major underlying theme of SOMA is consciousness. The subjective nature of this topic fits perfectly with a first person game where you are are in constant control. When immersed in game like this the boundary between yourself and the protagonist gets slightly blurred, something we will take full advantage of. The player is put through journey that will give rise to all these deep philosophical questions about the self, free will and so forth simply by playing. Combined with an ominous horror atmosphere it we aim to provide a really creepy and disturbing experience.
PC Gamer: Have you drawn inspiration from certain sci-fi books or films to create that atmosphere?
The three major inspirations are Philip K Dick, China Mieville and Greg Egan. These authors start with strange ideas and then take them as far as possible, which is exactly what we want to do as well. There are also a ton of thematic overlaps too. There will also be a bunch of Lovecraft sprinkled on top.
PC Gamer: How will the story be relayed, through environmental cues?
Grip: Our storytelling is done on multiple levels, the most basic being simply to play the game. The player will actively take part in all the important events, living through all of the plot's major moments. I think it is really important that it should be possible to get a general outline of the story even if you miss all of the details. This is not to cater to players that want to run through the game, but instead I find it an important design cornerstone. Whenever possible, the player should be DOING things instead of being TOLD things. In the end the player should be able to retell the narrative as "I did this, and then I did that...", and not just describe what happened in cutscenes. When you are set on the story being possible to follow without reading all exposition material, you are much likelier to keep this "storytelling by doing" design on track.
Going down a level, we have the common things like audio logs and notes. But what I think sets us apart from most other games is that we go into great effort to make sure that everything is consistent. So if the player listens to some audio-log they should be able to ponder why it was placed there, when it was recorded, etc. You can pull a lot of narrative from the game simply by considering the placement of the story material.
And this brings us to the lowest level which is all of the details in the world. Voices from creatures you encounter, posters, objects scattered in the environment and so forth. And just like with notes and logs, we go to great lengths to make sure that everything makes sense. You will be able to think of our world as an actual place, and not constantly ignore game-specific elements like health packs and conveniently placed cover.
PC Gamer: Does SOMA share any mechanics with The Dark Descent, or are you creating new systems?
Grip: The basic control scheme is set up is just like in Amnesia. You can pick up almost any object, physically interact with doors and that sort of thing. So anyone who has played any of our previous games should feel right at home. But beyond that it gets a little bit different. For instance, In Amnesia: The Dark Descent we had a global sanity system that lasted through the game, and we will have some similar things in SOMA, but on a more local basis. Quick example: there will be creatures that mess with your head in various ways and this will only happen in the areas they are present in. We want to the players to never really figure out how the underlying systems work, and make sure we keep a fresh experience throughout.
PC Gamer: What makes a great horror game? What can you do that can't be replicated in other mediums?
Grip: As much as possible should happen inside the player's head. You want to build up this sprawling model of the game's world in the players' minds. This will result in a much richer place than what you could possibly simulate. The next, and really hard, part is to make them use this mind model when they are playing the game. For instance, upon encountering a dark hole with some vague sounds coming from it, you want players to use their entire imagination to conjure up what might lie ahead. You want them to act as if the figments in their mind are real, and to let this control as much as possible of their experience. The better you can do this, the better horror game you got.