When SOMA launches on Xbox One later this week, it’ll have a surprising new option for players: Safe Mode. Though SOMA’s underwater nightmare sports unimaginable horrors, they cannot kill you. Lots of games include difficulty settings, but it usually means the player is given more rope before the game over screen—lots of health, for example. Here, the fundamental design principles of SOMA have been upended in favor of trying to get more people to play an underrated thriller.
“I am a bit wary of changing the original vision for a game after launch,” said SOMA designer Thomas Grip in an email with me recently, as we chatted about Safe Mode.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, one of the scariest horror games of the last 10 years, helped popularize a polarizing trend in horror games: removing the ability to fight back. You could run and hide, but that was about it. Weapons couldn’t save you because they weren't in the game. It wasn’t surprising to see the game’s sci-fi follow-up, SOMA, follow a similar path, but for a variety of reasons—a lot of games had copied Amnesia, SOMA’s sci-fi trappings had a broader appeal— SOMA didn’t land in the same way, and lots of players were frustrated about trying to dodge the game's creatures.
“We realized it quite early on when there was a substantial amount of players being intrigued by the game, but that couldn't play it properly because of the horror/stealth bits,” he said. “However we never acted upon it.”
That so many folks wanted to but couldn’t play SOMA was considered a “failure," but Grip didn't want to overreact. Making the Xbox One version proved to be the moment Grip needed for an experiment. One employee at SOMA developer Frictional Games was assigned to developing Safe Mode over two months, as they tried to make sure it wouldn’t “break the illusion” of the game world.
Here’s how Safe Mode works. The monsters haven’t been removed, they just act differently. Now, instead of being attacked when you get close, they run away. It’s still possible to get knocked around by what’s lurking in the dark, but you won’t die from it. The world stays “dangerous,” according to Grip, without dipping into frustration.
A modder created a pseudo-Safe Mode weeks after SOMA came out, dubbed Wuss Mode. The official Safe Mode is a cleaner, more elegant take on the idea, albeit one with a less aggressive name. Frictional previously called it Exploration Mode, but ditched the branding because it could imply the puzzles were gone, too.
The notion of modifying a game’s difficulty to make it more palatable to different audiences has, like seemingly everything these days, produced volatile reactions in the past. You’ve seen this come up when a new Dark Souls game is released, and there’s a new round of questions over why the game doesn’t include an “easy mode” to curb the series’ infamous difficulty so players could appreciate other parts, like the mythology.
What is ultimately "core" to what makes a game that game? It depends on who you ask. In the past, games used to include all sorts of cheat codes, which allowed subversion of the tuning made by game designers, but that’s been lost in the modern era.
“A few months before the release of SOMA we actually considered adding an option similar to safe mode,” said Grip. “But we went against it as we argued it make the game lose focus. I honestly still think this choice was correct, and I am quite wary about adding too many artificial helpers to players. I am quite fine with letting players adjust visuals, some level of difficulty and so forth, but I think it can be quite devastating if a game doesn't properly communicate what the core experience is supposed to be.”
In other words, does a game need to be for everybody, and where do you draw the line?
Part of Grip’s anxiety over Safe Mode, or something like it, came from wanting players to have a certain type experience playing SOMA. It was designed to provoke a certain reaction, and he wasn’t willing to compromise that core part of the game.
“The reason for this is that we humans are quite good making life worse for ourselves,” he said. “If there is some way to optimize our experience we tend to do that instead of trying to find the most rewarding and engaging route.”
"I think it can be quite devastating if a game doesn't properly communicate what the core experience is supposed to be."
He pointed towards hint systems in adventure games, which can quickly become a crutch for players who are too persuaded into cheating, rather than solving it themselves. (I ran into a version of this while playing Thimbleweed Park earlier this year.) Yes, the player is making the choice to use a hint, but the game allowed the chance.
“Whenever you add options to expand the group of people who want to play your game,” he said, “you risk ruining the experience for a large chunk of your main player base.”
Grip doesn’t consider this censorship, nor is Safe Mode a proper solution. It’s a “patch” that works within the framework of SOMA, while he mulls how it might be possible to address his own concerns with those of players, as Frictional makes new games.
“I am still very much for removing combat as core mechanic in horror games,” he said. “The main reason for this is that once you add combat there is a huge shift in the game's focus, both from a player and design point of view. But the problem I am currently having with it is that it often makes the core play loop so quite boring. [..] You run, you hide and you do some sneaking. This means that you limit the type of experiences quite a bit. It also means that your gameplay is not very active as stealth in horror games is a lot of about simply waiting.”
Frictional hasn’t announced its next game, though it’s said to be working on multiple, and might ditch horror. Right now, Grip is curious to see the response to Safe Mode.
“How players react to the mode will be quite interesting to see,” he said, “and that might change how we tackle some future design approaches.”
If you haven't played SOMA, or bounced off it because of the very thing Safe Mode is trying to address, consider giving it a try. It's tremendous sci-fi storytelling.
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