Along with our group-selected 2015 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen another game to commend as one of the year's best.
When it’s not trying to be a horror game, Soma is an atmospheric, unusual, and oddly fascinating world to explore. I played it in stages over a series of weekends, and every time the murky loading screen booted I felt a little frisson. What would I discover today, down in the depths?
The setting is a deserted near-future undersea research base, where things have gone Horribly Wrong. Not exactly unfamiliar territory, but unlike BioShock’s fantastical art-deco confection, Pathos-II feels like a place people might actually build. A great deal of thought has gone into creating that illusion. For one thing, brilliantly, this is a distributed facility. Rather than some monolithic megastructure on 20 implausible levels, Pathos-II is haphazardly scattered across the ocean floor: a laboratory here, an admin building there. It feels like a place that was expanded over time, as new funding or technology became available. A place built by human beings, working to a budget.
It feels like human beings lived here, too. Someone has hung up their bra and socks to dry on a makeshift clothesline. Someone else has stuck up photos of their holiday in Yosemite National Park. All the holiday snaps in this cramped, man-made place seem to be of natural beauty spots and wide-open spaces. Again, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, most notably on Alien: Isolation’s Sebastopol station, but Soma takes it further. The game continues Frictional’s tradition of ‘realistic’ physics, where you have to clumsily pull at every desk drawer with the mouse to open it, but here it finally comes into its own. When everything you see can be pushed or pulled, lifted and dropped, and it makes a difference whether you lob a cardboard box or a car battery to break a window, the environment around you starts to feel solid and real.
So you poke around, literally. You open lockers and rummage in cupboards, and little by little this closed-off and closeted world starts to open up to you. You begin to get a feel for what life was like here. The same names recur in personnel lists, old emails, on the badges of discarded overalls. It’s a world haunted by the ghosts of its former inhabitants and exploring it is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that life on the surface of Earth has been annihilated in a recent mass-extinction event. You’re the last, lonely man, and you’re at the bottom of the sea, reading other people’s emails and going through their stuff.
For me, everything came together in a sequence near the end (spoilers ahead, in a way), where you’re simply trying to walk from A to B across the ocean floor. Trouble is, you’re now thousands of metres down at the bottom of an oceanic abyss—a deeper, darker, and more inhospitable place than anywhere you’ve been before. Monstrous, thunderous currents come and go, so powerful that it takes all your concentration just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But hey, there’s a convenient string of lights showing the way, so all you have to do is follow them, right?
Wrong. The lights run out, and you’re savaged by a horrific mutant fish that leaves you with no idea where you are or which way you were heading. You can’t see more than a few feet in front of you, there’s a roaring in your ears, and here comes another of those appalling currents, trying to drag you away into the endless dark. This was a boss fight with no boss. The uncaring universe was the boss. Human existence has come down to this last, desperate struggle with the mindless forces of nature, down at the lightless bottom of the world, with no one left to care if you win or lose.
When I finally made it to my destination, and the airlock door closed behind me, I felt like I’d been through a meatgrinder, and I knew that I’d been through one of the most amazing gaming experiences of the year.