Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
A lot of modern games—Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter—revolve around exploring an abandoned place and piecing together what happened to the people who once lived there. Personally, though, I find them all pretty dry. Though I’m supposed to be learning about people, I never speak to another human, so their experiences, communicated vicariously through diaries and artifacts, feel lifeless and second-hand. Without wanting to sound petulant, I find myself bored.
There’s a purity to Gone Home, in which you play as a young woman who arrives home to find her family gone. I admire its dedication to the act of finding an object, examining it and using it to mentally construct the game’s story. But the motivation to proceed, and the sense of who I am and what I’m really doing in this place, is thin. These games make me feel like a ghost, idly hovering between journal pages and scattered curios, observing rather than really experiencing.
I was heartened when I played SOMA, the horror/sci-fi adventure by Frictional Games. It never degenerates into outright action or excess, nor does it meander through prosaic, ultimately empty exploration. SOMA has meat on its bones. It’s bloody, dramatic and very tightly structured. At the same time, it encourages interpretation and investigation—it combines, I think, two game-making sensibilities that until now have been at odds.
“I was tired of that kind of storytelling, the kind we had in Amnesia [another well-received Frictional game], where everything has already happened,” explains SOMA’s creative director Thomas Grip. “You read about things but you can’t be part of them. I didn’t want that in SOMA. We actually made this early version of the game where it was just objects lying around and you could do what you wanted with them for as long as you wanted, and then there was an exit to the next area. It was one idea we had for the storytelling, but after a very short amount of time it just felt meaningless. It became sort of like a toy—it was gimmicky, and wore off very soon.”
THE FOUR LAYERS APPROACH
Frictional spent five years iterating on and redrafting SOMA, trying to inject it with an extra kind of energy, some additional twists and ideas that would distinguish it from exploration-based games. Instead of simply finding objects or narrative pieces, players would glean them from puzzles and action sequences. Grip explains the design process, “It’s something I came up with alongside Adrian Chmielarz, from The Astronauts, a design idea we call the four layers approach. Once you’ve created your basic puzzle, the first layer, you start adding the other layers.
“So for example, in Upsilon, the first area in SOMA, you come to a robot that has its cables connected to a power supply. In our very first variation, instead of a robot the cables just came from a wall and you just went up there and disconnected them. But I felt it wasn’t enough. Your reason for doing it was just to open a door, a very puzzle-like scenario. So the next layer in the four layers approach is making sure that instead of just solving a puzzle there’s a narrative reward for the player pulling those cables. What we do is telegraph a big computer message saying the power is drained and communications can’t get through, and that creates a narrative goal, because this is early in the game and the player wants to know what the hell is going on. “After that, the next layer is adding a narrative background, which is why we change it to a robot instead of just a wall. When you pull the cables suddenly now someone is talking to you and isn’t happy about what you’ve done, and that adds ambiguity.
“Then the final thing, perhaps not as evident in this particular puzzle in Upsilon, is something called the mental model. You need to make sure the player has a certain kind of high-level thinking throughout the game, a thinking that you reinforce. Early in SOMA we want players to become aware of the monsters and of possible danger, so the robot in this puzzle looks monstrous and you aren’t sure what it’s going to do—it might wake up if you pull the cables. So what this approach creates is a way for story to flow from activities. After Upsilon, you know that there is something wrong with the robots—you get a lot, just from solving this power puzzle.”
THE MONSTERS PROBLEM
There are, however, less certain aspects of SOMA. A lot of reviews have criticised the game’s monster encounters, even saying the game is more terrifying when there are no monsters at all. Frictional itself was, for a long time, unsure whether to include them.
“The game was less about monsters early on,” says Grip. “And I still find myself thinking ‘why do we have monsters?’ But when we didn’t have them, I felt like players didn’t pay enough attention. Players are on the lookout for the monsters, so when they’re present, the player is going to be more prone to finding nuances. It’s the thing we’ve had the most negative feedback for, but I think removing them would have been a mistake. They provide a sense of there being something at stake. You’re not just reading things for your enjoyment, you’re reading them for survival.”
It’s that extra seasoning on the act of exploration that sets SOMA apart. When action and spectacle pervade video games there’s an argument for dialing it back and, almost in protest, designing a game that’s quiet, and purely about exploration and reflection. But I feel like neither of those things are compromised by SOMA’s horror sequences—like Frictional intended, I’m more inclined to stop, look and listen when I feel like something is at stake.
In the sense of being abandoned, the underwater research base at the heart of SOMA is a dead place, but it still feels alive and full. You’re driven through it not just by the impetus to learn about other people’s stories but also by the story that is happening to you. You and your character have a purpose in SOMA. You aren’t here simply as a vector for other characters’ words.
At the same time, there’s a lot of stuff lying around that you can investigate only if you like. It’s a refreshing balance between tight narrative and choreographed set-ups, and peaceful, cerebral exploration.
“I remember an old article from [game designer] Chris Crawford,” says Grip. “He did a review of DOOM, and he felt the corpses and things lying around were pointless because they didn’t add anything to the gameplay. But SOMA is the same thing ramped up a million times—in one room at the start of the game we have over 200 unique objects, and it’s all meaningless stuff really. From a ludo [play]-concerned perspective the design is awful. But I think it’s one of the things that makes the game work.
“However, if you go to a museum and you know nothing about the stuff it gets boring fast. You’re just looking at things saying 'this is pretty.’ You need to go with someone who can explain things to you. You need a story hook. It doesn’t need to be 'you won’, but just a narrative thing that you want to achieve. There’s an old solipsist argument where a guy walks up to another guy and says 'you might just be a figment of my imagination,’ and the guy just kicks him in the leg. When you interact with an environment, and then it interacts back, I think it feels more real.”
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
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