Frictional on designing SOMA's new monster-free Safe Mode

A year ago I wrote about Wuss Mode, a popular fan-made mod for SOMA that makes its monsters harmless. It’s currently the game’s most subscribed Steam Workshop mod, which suggests a lot of people want to experience its dark, twisted story without the frustration of having to play hide-and-seek with biomechanical monstrosities. But come December 1st when the game is released for Xbox One, you won’t need a mod at all. The PC version will be updated at the same time with an official Safe Mode designed to let players enjoy the game without the constant, looming threat of death.

“I’m all for users modding the experience to suit their needs,” says Thomas Grip, Frictional Games founder and director of SOMA. “The monsters in the game are quite divisive and you could argue that Wuss Mode intends to fix a design flaw. If you think of it that way, I guess you could see the mod as a critique directed at me. But I have a hard time getting upset about that. I just really like it when people take things into their own hands like this."

When SOMA was first released on PC back in September 2015, Frictional received a lot of feedback from players saying the monsters made the game too stressful or frustrating to endure. “The fear and tension that comes from those encounters are there in order to deliver a certain mood,” says Grip. “The intention was to make sure players felt that this was a really unpleasant world to be in, and a lot of the game’s themes relied on evoking this.”

I’m actually surprised by how well it all turned out. It fits the game far better than I thought it would when we started working on it.

Even so, a couple of months before release Frictional briefly considered adding a mode where the player couldn’t die. This was ultimately dropped, but the fact the studio was thinking about it at all suggests it anticipated some of the feedback that was to come. “We skipped it because we wanted to focus on delivering a certain kind of experience,” says Grip. “And we wanted to have a clear message on how exactly the game was supposed to work.”

“In hindsight, that might have been a bad decision,” he continues. “But I’m not so sure. Releasing Safe Mode this late after release feels better, because we’ve had time to ponder various aspects of the game’s design to make it clear what kind of experience it is. If we did this at the time, it might have muddied the waters. But now it’s quite clear to me that we can’t keep thinking about monsters as we did in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and I’m not sure that realisation would have been as strong if we shipped SOMA with two modes.”

Wuss Mode works great as it is, but sometimes it's obvious that it’s a retrofit. There are a few sections where you can still die, namely the tense underwater chase in the sunken ship. And the monsters don’t react to you at all, not even inquisitively. “There were a lot of tweaks needed in order to make sure the monsters behaved the way we wanted them to in Safe Mode,” says Grip, adding that it took 1-2 months to get it right. “It was quite interesting, because it forced us to think about these encounters differently.”

The monsters in Safe Mode aren’t out to kill you, but they will react to your presence. “We have to think of them as inhabitants of the environment and make their interactions with the player fit the game’s atmosphere and story. I’m actually surprised by how well it all turned out. It fits the game far better than I thought it would when we started working on it. To be honest, it even made me question if this was the way the game should have been released in the first place. But I haven’t made my mind up about that yet.”

The monsters won’t just stand around doing nothing either, and might even attack if you annoy them enough. “So while you can’t die, the monsters may still be dangerous if you push your luck too much,” says Grip. “This means there’s still a sense of hostility in these creatures, which preserves the original intention of making the world feel inhospitable and oppressive. It’s details like this that should make Frictional’s Safe Mode more compelling, and more naturally integrated, than the Wuss Mode mod. Although it’ll be interesting to see how it gets around that fraught moment in the wrecked ship.

I’ve finished SOMA twice now, once as the developer intended and once with Wuss Mode installed. But I’ll be playing it again when Safe Mode is added to experience Frictional’s official take on a monster-free game. The story in SOMA is, for my money, one of the best ever told by a videogame. I think about the ending often, and giving more people a chance to experience that for themselves is something I think should be celebrated.

I ask Grip if designing Safe Mode has changed the way he’ll think about horror game design in the future. “It depends on the game, but we’ll think about encounters differently,” he says. “I think the biggest problem with SOMA is that the experience of meeting the creatures doesn’t really add anything to the themes. They help build the atmosphere, but the stories they generate don’t have a lot to do with the game’s larger themes of identity and consciousness. Gameplay has to give rise to personal stories that mirror the narrative, and we’re making sure this is the case in both our upcoming games.”