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‘SOMA’ may be among best video games ever

Frictional Games

I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical when I came across yet another game about exploring a deserted space or underwater facility. This is a well-worn gaming trope, so if that was all there was to “SOMA,” I’d probably skip it. I’m glad I didn’t: This game, with its thoughtful, unforgettable storyline, blew me away.

Released late last month by Frictional Games, a Swedish studio best known for the well-regarded “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” “SOMA” is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux PCs, as well as Playstation 4. Like “Amnesia,” “SOMA” is a first-person survival horror game.

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You play as Simon, a young Toronto resident who, at the start of the game, heads off to a doctor’s appointment for a brain scan as part of the treatment for the lingering effects of a serious head injury suffered in a car crash that killed his girlfriend. Once in the examination chair, the machine whirls up and next thing you know your character is alone in some sort of futuristic underwater station where things seem to have gone very, very wrong.

The rest of the game is spent exploring what turns out to be a sprawling underwater facility. This is an extremely smart game, but it does indulge in some common, silly video-game conceits used to move the plot along. For instance, the station is littered with audio recordings, computer records, and other scraps of backstory that help you figure out what happened and what you need to do. It never feels like a chore hunting down these tidbits, though — I found myself always wanting to read and learn more.

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There are also, of course, monsters, and as Simon is powerless against them, a ll you can do is hide and hope they pass you by without noticing you. These experiences are intensely vivid, owing to depiction of the beasts, which are some of the most memorably horrific creatures I’ve seen in my decades of gaming.

Without giving too much away, Simon’s quest to simply survive the crumbling facility and figure out what happened to its inhabitants blows up into a much, much bigger story — the stakes infinitely higher than the question of whether Simon can escape.

What’s most remarkable about Frictional’s achievement here, though, is the richness of the plot, which touches on issues like what makes life worth living, the nature of consciousness, and the dangers inherent when technology and ethics collide. These concerns are not new ones, but they are presented in fresh and provocative ways. I often complain that video-game stories are graded on a curve and often given more credit than they’re due, but I’ll be thinking about “SOMA” ’s story — and particularly its ending — for a long, long time.

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“SOMA” definitely isn’t for everyone. Unlike the many titles from which it borrows, including classics like “BioShock,” “Half-Life,” and “System Shock,” there’s no combat. Large swaths of the game are spent exploring the station, learning about the fate of the crew, and so on. Despite that, I never found “SOMA” slow, partly because a dark, threatening urgency hangs over everything. But gamers who lack the patience to gradually piece together a frequently shocking mystery may lose interest.

Trying to assess a game like “SOMA” is a dangerous thing to do when you’re still tingling from playing it for the first time. But I think that, at least among players who value story-driven games and are capable of giving their trigger fingers a rest for awhile, “SOMA” could go down as an all-time great title and an exemplar of sophisticated storytelling in gaming.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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