Feature: Horror from philosophy: SOMA's director thinks games can do better than 'monster chases player'

This article has some spoilers for SOMA. So. Go and play SOMA, I suppose.

Horror, as a genre, is a bit of weird one. On the one hand people are not all horrified by the same things, but on the other there are some reliable cues that always put people on edge, because we’re still close enough to apes that we have some primal reaction buttons left to push. I went to see a play called Ghost Stories (now a movie) almost a decade ago and still remember how frightening it was because, amongst other things, the creators knew they could play a low bass tone over the speakers and make the entire audience uneasy on demand. 

Likewise a jump scare will make almost anyone jump and go ‘Ah!’ because when something unexpected appears alongside a blast of screeching violins you’re going to go ‘Ah!’. There’s even a specific name for when the thing that jumps out is something harmless and not a monstrous demon from the pit. It’s called a cat scare because it’s usually a cat, or the spring-loaded cat because it’s usually a cat that’s clearly been chucked into shot. Sometimes it’s called the Lewton Bus because this was done to great effect with a bus in the 1942 film Cat People, produced by Val Lewton. I mention this a lot because I love the demonstration that our instincts override everything else before we work out it’s just a cat. We have a lot of the animal in us still. 

SOMA was originally released by Frictional Games in 2015, but came to Xbox One with a Safe Mode, where the monsters can’t kill the player, in December last year. Thomas Grip, founding member and creative director of Frictional as well as SOMA’s director, thinks that there will always be room for jump scares in horror because they make the player fear what might be behind the next corner, and work as a sort of substitute for the standard fear of death. ‘However, if you base your whole game – or movie, for that matter – around them,’ he says, ‘It tends to get stale.’

This is why I like SOMA. In it you play a man named Simon who closes his eyes during a brain scan in 2015, and opens them again in a deep sea science facility called PATHOS-II, almost 90 years later and after a meteor wiped out all human life on the surface. The site AI, the WAU, has been interpreting its directive to preserve humanity quite… flexibly. Quite early on you discover that the Simon you’re playing as is actually the brain scan loaded into an advanced diving suit as an AI. The original Simon died only a few days after the scan was taken. So as Simon explores PATHOS-II you encounter not only monsters, but also questions about what constitutes identity, what counts as ‘human’, and what makes you the real you anyway. It scares not only the ape but, more importantly, the apparently advanced brain driving it.

To Grip, the meaning of ‘horror’ in a game is simply to convey something horrific to the player, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the fear of danger. ‘I think that video games are a bit hung up on “monster chases player” scenarios and this is one area where I think we can do better,’ he says, citing Lovecraftian horror coming from the cosmic aspect of the work, and the horror in the Exorcist being rooted in the fear of losing control of your body, and of losing your child. ‘I think the future of horror games lies in exploring these avenues more.’

Frictional’s back catalogue features experimentation in this direction. Amnesia, for example, may be said to derive its horror from the fear of losing your mind – by which I mean your memories, your self. The amnesiac isn’t an uncommon protagonist, but is a good source of horror when you begin to consider it even a little. If you woke up with no knowledge of who you are and no memories of your life up until that very moment, are you still the same person? Your body is the same, but how much does that actually provide your identity? And if you woke up in a castle full of monsters, are there evil external forces at play, or was it just a colossal dick move on the part of the person who fell asleep? In Amnesia you can see the same fascination with personal identity and consciousness that became the main theme of SOMA. It’s a fascination that Grip has had for a long, long time. ‘To me it is really one of the most profound questions that we can ask ourselves,’ he says. ‘How is it that we can have this subjective world at all?’ 

He also sees it as a fundamental question to ask ourselves about reality: there may be many other universes besides our own but if they have no observers in them, to what extent do they actually exist? It is, he says, a rabbit hole once you start to think about it, and SOMA is an attempt to convey some aspects of it in interactive form to give players a first-hand experience of it.

Grip was interviewed about SOMA for the book 10 Things Video Games Can Teach Us (about Life, Philosophy and Everything) because of the philosophical questions it asks the player, even if they’re not asked directly. At one point, for example, Simon is copied over to a new artificial body, leaving the original Simon asleep, and the player can choose to let him power down and essentially die. Grip, quoted in 10 Things Video Games Can Teach Us, says that this point prompts the player – besides making them question which Simon is the ‘real’ one, or if both are, or if neither are – to start thinking about things they’ve already seen in the game in another light. There are many things in SOMA that the player just accepts but are actually quite complex subjects. Grip identifies, for example, that if you take the premise for granted you are accepting there’s no soul in the world of SOMA, or that if you accept the Simon who wakes up in PATHOS-II has a consciousness then you’re accepting that non-flesh beings like AI can be conscious. And you do this because SOMA is a first person game, and you’re shown that these things are obviously true in the game

Having read the aforementioned book, and Grip’s ideas in it, I wondered if he thinks SOMA was more successful as a horror game, or a thought experiment, or if there was much separation between the two.

‘I think the philosophical aspects of SOMA worked really well, but how horrific they were was very much up to the eye of the beholder. Some people found them really disturbing, but others found them strangely uplifting. There were a wide range of reactions to it.’ Grip thinks these reactions would not have been as varied if SOMA had been a more straightforward horror experience.

SOMA Screenshots

This is part of why SOMA can still be frightening with the fear of death removed in Safe Mode, which doesn’t take away the monsters entirely, just changes their response to the player. But still, Grip was initially unsure that Safe mode would work. The team were aware there was an audience for it because of the ‘Wuss Mode’ mod on Steam, and Grip says it was something they considered before the game was even released, because ‘SOMA is mainly a game about exploring deep philosophical questions and we knew that some people might want to experience it without the fear of being killed by some monster.’ At the same time, they felt that the fear the monsters brought was crucial for enforcing the atmosphere in the game. After two years, enough people had raised the point for Frictional to add it officially. ‘I still thought it would make the game sub-par,’ says Grip, ‘But, when we devoted time to figure out new, non-lethal behaviors for our creatures, it all just worked really well.’

I think it works because the heart of SOMA is still frightening whether or not you can die in it, and in fact shows you a few different options for fates worse than death along the way. If you build a solid enough foundation you can get away with making a few changes to the house on top. And Frictional continues to build. Right now the studio is working on two new projects, one horror and one not. ‘The projects explore two different ways in which to evolve the previous work that we have done,’ Grip says, but isn’t saying anything more for now. Good things come to those who wait. Horrific things, too. 

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