Swedish indie studio Frictional Games have been making horror games on the PC for six years, so they know what makes us tick, and their newest game, Soma, will exploit that.
It is, naturally, a first-person horror adventure, but the foggy, turn-of-the-century Lovecraftian setting of the studio's previous games, Penumbra and Amnesia, has given way to a dark, hard-edged science fiction straight from the prescient pages of Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov. Like those writers – and all the best sci-fi – Soma will ask some important questions about existence, consciousness and the most effective way to hide from scary monsters in the dark.
“When a game takes place in the past or some fantasy world, you're not personally connected. It takes place in a reality separate from the one you inhabit,” says Frictional Games co-founder Thomas Grip. “But when you deal with a futuristic setting, it's a about things to come. This makes it easier for players to accept the scenarios they're put into, and it's harder to outright dismiss things. So even if there are some fantastic elements to the story, it becomes much more rooted in reality.”
Set in a stricken research facility called PATHOS-2, Soma pits you against strange machines who are beginning to become self-aware and take on human traits. “You'll go on a journey that asks deep philosophical questions about the self and free will. When immersed in a game like this, the boundary between yourself and the protagonist gets slightly blurred – something we'll take advantage of. This, combined with the ominous horror atmosphere, will make the game really creepy and disturbing.”
Like Amnesia before it, Soma won't feature any direct combat. You'll be able to die, and there are enemies, but you'll have to evade rather than attack them. The difference is that, unlike Amnesia's flappymouthed monsters, Soma's mechanical foes will behave unpredictably. This is to create a constant sense of uncertainty, so you never feel comfortable.
“In Amnesia we had a global sanity system that lasted throughout the game. Soma will have something similar, but on a more local basis,” says Grip. “For example, there'll be creatures that mess with your head in various ways, but this will only happen in the areas they're present in. We never really want you to figure out the underlying systems, though, to keep the experience feeling fresh.”
Storytelling is important too, and Frictional have learned a lot since Penumbra with regards to player agency. “You'll actively take part in every important moment, experiencing all the plot's major moments first-hand. You should be doing things instead of being told things. We want you to say 'I did this' or 'I did that', and not just describe what happened in cutscenes,” says Grip.
“We'll have things like audio logs too, but what I think sets us apart from most other games is that we go to great lengths to make sure that everything is consistent. So if the player listens to a log or reads a note, they should be able to ponder why it was placed there. You can pull a lot of narrative from the game simply by considering the physical placement of this kind of story material.
“Whether it's voices from the creatures RELEASE 2015 The research facility contains strange alien constructions. Afraid of the dark? You should be… you encounter, posters or objects scattered in the environment, 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 be constantly distracted by elements that remind you it's just a game.”
Frictional have only shown us a few tantalising glimpses of the game. So far we've seen a corpse being reanimated by the protagonist sticking a macabre machine into a hole where their brain used to be, and a bizarre environment that looks part organic, part mechanical – like something out of an HR Giger book. It has a very different ambiance to the gloomy halls of Brennenburg Castle, but it still feels like an Amnesia game. You'll actively take part – you should be doing things instead of being told things
“The basic controls are the same. You can pick objects up, physically interact with doors. Anyone who has played any of our previous games should feel right at home,” says Grip.
I finish by asking him what makes a great horror game. “The key to good horror is that as much as possible happens in the player's head. If you encounter a dark hole with some mysterious sounds coming from it, we want you to use your imagination to anticipate what may lie ahead. We want you to act as if what's in your imagination is real, and to let this guide the experience as much as possible.”
Soma is asking some very big questions, and it remains to be seen whether a first person horror game is capable of tackling themes like this. Expectation is high, based on Frictional's back catalogue. A heavy focus on story over traditional game mechanics is a step in the right direction, and the idea of machines thinking they're human is wonderfully evocative.