This article contains plot spoilers
Just Cause 3, Assassin's Creed Syndicate and Mad Max have shown to me this year that the old model for open-world games is dead, or at least should be. They have no surprises, no heart, no vim – if the sandbox genre continues on with the usual framework of missions, side-missions and collectibles then pretty soon even rabid consumers are going to get tired.
Similarly, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the latter of which was re-released in July for the PS4, make the established tropes of the unfortunately termed "walking simulator" feel intensely worn out. To me, these are dull games with dull imagery and insipid stories. So when it comes to throwing out their stratifications, creating the next wave of walking and exploring games, developers are lucky to have SOMA, by Swedish studio Frictional and one of VICE's top games of 2015, as a benchmark.
Games like Rapture, Carter, Journey and Dear Esther arose, I think, in response to several other models of game making. The precedence developers give to action, violence, spectacle and excitement is answered by these ostensibly more sedate, introspective games – they might not be in direct protest, but they're definitely contrarian, and as such are often praised for representing what games "can be" or what else they "can offer".
SOMA unites both worlds. It's filled with violence, spectacle and excitement but still considered and cerebral. And I'm not talking about its existential investigations or humanist posturings, which I think are quite basic and rote. I'm talking about it as a narrative whole, a game where, without devolving into either sheer display or ethereal wandering, characters, plot and mechanics all serve one another, and everything you do, say and hear has a purpose.
'SOMA', creature trailer
A great example comes right at the beginning of the game when you encounter a communications system that needs to be rebooted. You're alone at this point and totally unsure of what's going on, but you know that, in order to get some answers, you need to open comms with another survivor who's elsewhere on the same underwater base. The terminal, however, is connected to a dying robot – and once you unplug its charge cable, and stop it draining the power, it starts to scream and then shuts down. You've solved a puzzle and progressed the game, but also learned that there's something wrong with the robots here, and that the machinery and the world around you isn't precisely as it may seem.
And in that small moment, SOMA deftly achieves dozens of things that games generally struggle to do. The mechanics are simple and accessible: you just walk, look around and tap a button to yank the cable. You're also solving a puzzle – in a very traditional, ludic sense, you're playing a game. But out of those basic and game-unique actions, you get a sense of place, horror and story. And it's not a gaseous, nothingy story like Rapture or Carter, which, in pandering to the player and their own interpretations, end up feeling empty. It's solid and strong and grubby. Instead of pursuing pretty balls of light to determine what once happened in an English village, you're pulling out power cables to move yourself forward.
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That's what separates SOMA from its contemporaries. The central hypocrisy in walking simulators is that although their loose mechanics and broad stories are supposed to leave room for your interpretations and input, you have basically zero agency – you always arrive after the fact, and do nothing but stare at and read the scenery and inanimate items the game-maker has left for you. It's like ambling, without a guide or much idea about why anything is important, around a museum. You're semi-certain that you're learning something and the experience is maybe partly valuable, but it's so disconnected and vaporous that whatever you felt or gleaned quickly washes away.
In contrast, SOMA gives you a narrative through line – beyond just gazing at things and making up your mind about what they could mean, you and your character have a concrete purpose in this game. And out of that comes a much more involved and long-lasting understanding. You can still amble through and simply imbibe the world of SOMA – its long underwater sections are as meditative as anything in Rapture or Journey – but you appreciate the environment and the dramatic occurrences much more because you actually have a purpose, and things to do. Where other exploration based games have you either staring through glass at scenery or solving intangible puzzles in some kind of ethereal way, in SOMA you turn levers, pull switches and regulate gauges to push yourself onward. These are simple, accessible mechanics that anyone can comprehend, but they add to the game a fundamental and much more engrossing sense of tactility.
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And it's violent and bloody and sweary. Ignoring debates about mechanics or the nature of video games, the championed crop of walking simulators disinterests me because they're all so slight and timid. Again, I think that stems from that slightly demurral air that they all have, this idea of protesting video game violence by cutting it out completely. But that makes for a pretty neutered and unadulterated experience. As a grown-up, I'm not excited by pretty scenery and faint, philosophical musing – I want writers and designers to get their hands dirty. Above other exploration-based games, SOMA understands that violence and viscera belong in drama and horror, that the way to countermand this industry's preoccupation with gratuitousness is to not to ignore mucky subject matter but handle it intelligently. As well as building on the model for exploration-based games and demonstrating what they could all do better, SOMA represents how violence and adulteration, often treated like toys and decoration by the big, boxed releases, can be gracefully written, and have an effect above mere spectacle.
Bloodshed is never disposable in SOMA – it's dramatically imperative and narratively justified, with the scene where you kill your old body in order to transfer into a new one being a great example. Because of that, and its deft marriage of simple, game-y mechanics to a driven, concrete story, it shows not just how walking simulators can improve but how two sensibilities in game-making, which until recently seemed almost wilfully at odds with one another, are in fact compatible. Independent and triple-A games, and the creative propensities behind them, are not diametrically opposed. SOMA proves they can both cross over.
SOMA is out now for Windows, Mac and PlayStation 4, and was voted VICE Gaming's tenth-best game of 2015 – read our full top 20 here.
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